Why Aston Martin is no longer a gamble for Vettel
They say a week in politics is a long time, but in Formula 1 it can be an eternity in the way it can completely change the grand prix landscape.
Perceptions change very quickly in the sport, and perhaps the biggest shift from the Austrian Grand Prix to the Styrian Grand Prix last weekend was the reality of just how quick Racing Point can be.
A hesitant first weekend out with its ‘Pink Mercedes’ left rivals convinced it had made a good step, but it was really only in the second Red Bull Ring race that the reality of its pace bit.
Red Bull admitted that all teams should now be ‘worried’, Renault lodged its protest and Racing Point itself, which will be rebranded as Aston Martin F1 team in 2021, warned of even better things to come.
But the impact of that performance could extend wider, with it potentially being the catalyst for perhaps the biggest shock of F1’s surprising 2020 driver market: Sebastian Vettel to join Aston Martin.
Where once such a prospect seemed extremely fanciful, with Vettel clear about the qualities he wanted from any team he would consider joining, now it suddenly makes a lot of sense.
In fact, what is key here is that this is not Racing Point trying to convince Vettel about how good its car might be in the next few years.
Instead, the way F1’s rules have been impacted by the coronavirus pandemic, means that it can already show what next year’s car will be like.
With minimal changes allowed for development into 2021, the chances of there being a huge shuffle in the order over the next 18 months are pretty remote. What’s quick now should still be quick next year.
Furthermore, the overhaul for 2022 – with the budget cap biting the top teams as they work out how to trim back spending – could prove a distraction for the top boys, and allow some of the flush midfield outfits a chance to make some headway.
Speaking last week about his thought process on a potential deal with Racing Point, Vettel was certainly leaving the door wide open. “I don’t know yet what is going to happen. The race is now extremely important for myself, and then we will see in the next couple of weeks, months what is happening, what opportunities there might be, etc.
“Independent from that, I think Racing Point made a very strong impression, and are certainly in a good place for this year.
“I know part of the team, I know some members of the team quite well from my past and for a long time. It’s obviously a good opportunity for them this year to have a good car to fight with and try and improve from there.”
Vettel’s mood in his public statements over recent weeks has been one of making clear that the decision not to extend his contract with Ferrari was not anything to do with him not wishing to carry on.
His comments emphasising that it was Ferrari who unilaterally pulled the plug on their time together was all about positioning himself as someone hungry to stay racing.
Were he resigned to it all, miserable about F1, and tired of the travel and commitment, then he would likely have kept things quiet and accepted a year off.
That he made clear his unhappiness about it all was a clear message of his motivation and how much he wants to carry on.
Vette was emphatic before the first Austria race on that point, and that the ‘right package’ for him would convince him to stay.
“I think I have a very competitive nature,” he said. “I've achieved a lot in the sport and I'm motivated and willing to achieve more. To do so, I think, I need the right package, and the right people around me. So that's what I'm looking out for at the moment.
“If the right opportunity should arise, then I think it is quite clear. If that's not the case, then I probably have to look out for something else.”
Could Aston Martin be the right package?
The car itself certainly seems quick enough – faster than the current Ferrari right now – and knowing that there is the carry over into 2021, will be encouraging.
However, it is inevitable that Vettel will be keeping one eye on the outcome of the Renault protest – for if the FIA rule that the team has broken the rules in copying the Mercedes brake ducts then it could have wider implications for the rest of the car.
Another important factor is its engine, with a move to the team a chance for Vettel to enter the Mercedes family.
Sure, the connection won’t be as strong as if he raced for the works team, but the ties are there – and it puts him inside a pool that could be considered for the world champion team if Bottas or Lewis Hamilton left.
The ambitious plan for Aston Martin’s future, with Lawrence Stroll clearly pushing on hard with the project, is also one that could give Vettel the platform he needs: of leading a car company’s venture and of having around him a team that is happy to focus on him. They can build something together.
Vettel has never been stronger than when he has felt loved and appreciated; and in Aston Martin he could rediscover that feeling he had in his early Red Bull and Ferrari days.
Perhaps most intriguing about the entire scenario though is what Racing Point’s thoughts process is in terms of who they would push aside if Vettel decides to wants to join.
The most obvious candidate is Sergio Perez, who is understood to have a break clause in his contract that would allow Racing Point to slot in Vettel instead.
That may seem pretty harsh considering how loyal Perez has been to the team, and the role he played in helping keep it alive back in 2018 when Force India was close to collapse, but F1 can be a ruthless game at times.
Let’s not forget also the pretty hefty sponsorship backing that Perez brings with him, something that will not be so easy to replace.
But equally Racing Point’s management must be aware that a line-up of Vettel and Perez is a stronger combination than Vettel and Stroll; and one that could be the difference between fighting for top three in the constructors’ and ending up in the top five.
Could the unthinkable happen and the team actually stand Stroll down into a different role? It’s hard to believe that it would, but in F1, not much is impossible.
The ball is now very much in Vettel’s court, with a decision effectively needed before F1 reconvenes at Silverstone for the British Grand Prix.
And where just a few week ago signing for Racing Point would have appeared to be the gamble of his life, right now it could well be one of the smartest moves he has ever made.
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