Ferrari Formula 1 team boss Mattia Binotto says the COVID-19 pandemic swayed the team’s decision not to offer Sebastian Vettel a new contract.

Speaking ahead of this weekend’s Austrian Grand Prix, Vettel, who will be replaced by McLaren’s Carlos Sainz in 2021, revealed “there was never an offer on the table” from Ferrari for next year.

Binotto reiterated his stance from earlier this year by saying that Vettel was always Ferrari’s “first choice” to partner Charles Leclerc next year, but explained how the COVID-19 pandemic influenced the final call, with a number of cost-cutting measures - including a lowered budget cap - implemented as a direct result of the crisis.

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“Certainly we have always said during the winter, privately to him, and publicly, that he would have been our first choice, which I confirmed,” Binotto said during Friday’s FIA press conference.

“It is normal that during the winter many drivers have asked us if there was any opportunity to drive for Ferrari. We have certainly been contacted, but that didn’t change our position. Seb was our first choice.

“What happened since then, with the virus and pandemic situation which changed the entire world, not only motorsport in F1.

“The budget cap has been changed, it is a lot more strict, the regulations have been postponed from 2021 to 2022, which is important to us.

“Cars have been frozen or almost frozen for 2020 and 2021 so the entire situation has changed, and on top of that the season had not even started.

“So there had been no opportunity, not even for Seb on track, to prove how much he was motivated to drive for Ferrari, which has been unfortunate for him.

“During the shutdown we had to consider our position and we took a decision, that is our decision and our responsibility and we communicated it to him.”

McLaren CEO Zak Brown previously suggested that talks between Ferrari and Sainz had begun during the winter prior to the coronavirus outbreak, and Vettel admitted he was “surprised” by the decision.

Binotto says he sympathises with Vettel and understands why the German, whose future in F1 remains uncertain with no seat secured for 2021, is still “not fully happy” with the outcome.

“I heard that he was surprised, do I remember that he was surprised? I would say yes certainly, I understand it,” Binotto explained.

“It is pretty normal to be surprised. I think that is why he accepted our decision but I think even today he is not fully happy with it which again I think is normal and obvious.”

Four-times world champion Vettel has one final opportunity in 2020 to achieve the world title that has so far eluded him at Ferrari, but either way, Binotto says his efforts have been greatly appreciated.

“I think it has been a great period, these five or six years,” he added.

“He’s a great champion and as well he’s a great person. And I think everybody in Ferrari, our fans, the people working internally really loved the time with him.

“That is something which we fully respect. I personally appreciate him a lot as a professional and as a person and I think that is fully unchanged compared to our decision.”