RED BULL dropped a bombshell on the Formula One paddock yesterday with the news that four-times world champion Sebastian Vettel is leaving at the end of the season and heading for Ferrari.
With the sport already braced for a typhoon at the Japanese Grand Prix, Red Bull’s announcement sent a tremor through the sport as the implications of the move sank in.
“Sebastian Vettel has advised us that he will be leaving Red Bull at the end of the 2014 season,” the champions said in a statement. “We want to warmly thank Sebastian for the incredible role he has played at Red Bull for the last six years.”
Team principal Christian Horner said the 27-year-old German was joining Ferrari, although there was no immediate confirmation from the Italian team, whose principal Marco Mattiacci remained tight-lipped.
At the same time, Red Bull moved swiftly to fill the vacancy by appointing 20-year-old Russian rookie Daniil Kvyat from Toro Rosso to take Vettel’s place next year alongside Australian Daniel Ricciardo.
Vettel, who has been part of Red Bull for 15 years, said it had been “a tough day and a tough decision” and it was not because he was unhappy at the team.
“We had an incredible run, the last five or six years. Obviously, this year was not the way we were hoping for but it’s part of racing, part of life,” he said. “I’m leaving a very happy place... but at some point in your life you feel you want to do something new. That voice kept growing and led me to decide to leave Red Bull and start a new chapter.
“It has nothing to do with the results we had this year. It’s more the fact that I felt ready and I thought the time is right. I’m full of hope and full of faith that, anywhere I go, I will succeed.”
Former Ferrari driver Niki Lauda, who is now non-executive chairman of the Mercedes team, said Vettel had told Horner only on Friday night.
“Last night at 9.30pm Sebastian walked up to Christian and said ‘I’m leaving’. Honestly, it was that way,” said the Austrian. “He surprised everybody because, in his contract, he could do that.”
The moves left an open question mark over the future of Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso, who could now return to McLaren in a remarkable turnaround for a driver who fell out with that team’s principal Ron Dennis in 2007.
They could also signal the end of the road for 2009 champion Jenson Button, who is out of contract with McLaren at the end of the year.
Alonso’s contract runs until the end of the 2016 season but Ferrari is going through major change, with long-standing chairman Luca di Montezemolo leaving this month.
“The news, as far as I know, is Sebastian is leaving Red Bull. The other thing is just a guess of everybody,” said Spaniard Alonso, 33. “I am still not decided completely.”
However, Di Montezemolo sounded resigned to losing Alonso when he spoke last week at the Paris Motor Show.
“Whether he stays or doesn’t stay, he has done a lot for Ferrari,” said Di Montezemolo, still Ferrari’s president until Sergio Marchionne takes over later this month. “We have a contract and, in the next few days, we are going to take a final decision with a lot of respect for one another.
“If he says he will stay, we will be happy. If we decide together to end our collaboration, it will be in the best manner possible.”
Ferrari, who dominated the sport with Michael Schumacher in the early years of the century, have not won a race in more than a year and face the prospect of recording their first winless season since 1993.
Horner had left no doubt about where Vettel was headed, even if the confirmation from Maranello might be slow in coming.
“He informed us last night and obviously had his reasoning behind that. I don’t think he’d taken the decision lightly and was obviously very emotional about it,” he said.
“But if it’s his desire to be somewhere else, then it’s not right for us to stand in his path. As of 1 January, he’ll be a competitor. He’ll be a Ferrari driver.”
Vettel has struggled to recapture championship form this year following the implementation of new technical regulations, and, before this morning, had yet to win a race after dominating 2013 with 11 victories.