Sebastian Vettel believes that he has three options next year after being replaced at Ferrari and is prepared to leave the sport for good if he has to, and has revealed that he phoned Red Bull chief Helmut Marko immediately after being informed he would not be handed a new contract.
Vettel will leave Ferrari at the end of the year, with his final-season swansong getting off to a disastrous start last weekend after qualifying 11th for the Austrian Grand Prix and finishing down in 10th due to yet another self-imposed error.
With Carlos Sainz set to move from McLaren in 2021 to replace Vettel at Ferrari, the four-time world champion is on the lookout for a new drive to remain on the grid, but his options are quickly drying up.
One of those appeared to be at reigning world champions Mercedes, with the German team currently without a driver for 2021 as both Hamilton and Bottas have not yet signed new contracts beyond the end of the year. However, Vettel believes it is unlikely that they will come calling for his services, which leaves him twitch three clear avenues: find a seat elsewhere, take a year out or call time on his F1 career altogether.
"I think that (Mercedes), as it is currently driving, is very happy and is doing very well,” Vettel told Austrian broadcasters ServusTV.
“The last few years prove that right. I can understand that they want to stick with it. No decision has been made in this respect yet. In theory, both places are still free. But is clear that Lewis can stay if he wants to. And the same goes, after (Sunday), for Valtteri.
"I think you have to - at least that's how my head works - I think if you make the decision to close the door, you shouldn't make it in such a way that you have the hope to open it again. Unless it is clear from the outset.
"I believe that you must then be ready for yourself to be ready to keep the door closed. In other words: if it does not open, for whatever reason, then one should not regret the decision."
Vettel learned of his release over a phone call from Ferrari team principal Mattia Binotto, who has claimed that the surprise U-turn stemmed from the budget restrictions that will be imposed next season as well as the delay of the new regulations until 2022. After receiving the call, Vettel spoke to his former boss Marko, who was part of the Red Bull hierarchy that not only gave him his first chance in F1 but took him to his four world title between 2010 and 2013, though Vettel was quick to stress that it was not about trying to force himself back into the team.
"I called him right after the decision, but not to ask, 'Helmut, do you have a place?', but because I get along very well with him and he has been a confidant for years,” he said.
"I asked him for advice. I described the situation to him as it is. He's known for putting his heart on his sleeve. And then I spoke to him. What will come out in the end remains to be seen. The talks in this regard are of my own making."
Mercedes gave the biggest indication yet on Sunday that they will stick with their current driver line-up in 2021, with Daimler chief executive Ola Kallenius expressing his happiness with their current set-up.
“We're staying with our two boys,” Kallenius told Sky. “I can understand that this (signing Vettel) is a very exciting thought for the German fans.
“But with Lewis and Valtteri we already have two top drivers who perform at the highest level.
“We saw it on Sunday with Valtteri taking pole with a fantastic lap. We stand by the two drivers that we have now.”
Vettel’s sudden availability - which came as a surprise given talks were underway between him and Ferrari over a contract extension until the coronavirus pandemic struck - has caused an overflow of available drivers at the front of the grid, with Daniel Riciarrdo taking Sainz’s seat as McLaren and Fernando Alonso strongly linked with a return to take his place at Renault.
Should Mercedes sign up Hamilton and Bottas as expected, and Alonso returns for 2021 to join the already-contracted Esteban Ocon at Renault, Vettel would be faced with the prospect of having just one seat available among the leading teams in Red Bull, who have fully backed Max Verstappen with a long-term contract. Recently, team principal Christian Horner suggested that Red Bull have moved on from Vettel, and they are also pleased with how Alex Albon has settled within the team.
It leaves Vettel with few, if any, options, with line-ups remaining unconfirmed at Alpha-Tauri, Haas and Alfa Romeo.
"Honestly, I haven't made a decision yet, and I don't know yet for myself either,” Vettel added. “What's important, of course, is to find an environment that fits. I have enjoyed the last five years very much in many respects, but the last five years have also taken a lot of energy.
"The goal at that time was to rebuild the team. And certainly both sides have tried everything. But at the end of the day we failed on both sides, because the title didn't come. That was the big goal. Now this is a new situation for me. It will be important for me to find something that is good for me and fun. I think that is a very important thing.
"As I mentioned earlier, the financial aspect is not at all in the foreground. And of course I am still very ambitious, motorsport is my life. I don't know any other way, except the last three months it's been a little different.
"But I wouldn't really want to miss it. With the right job and the right place I would still feel very much at home in a Formula One car. I think the next few weeks, months, will shed light – also for myself – on what is possible, and what I want to do."