How Sebastian Vettel's Red Bull contract extension affects the F1 driver market
Examining the implications of the World Champion's one-year extension and why all eyes are now on Kimi Raikkonen
By James Galloway. Last Updated: 13/06/13 9:07am
The news that Sebastian Vettel has committed his future to Red Bull until the end of 2015 was, by F1 standards, delivered with both the minimum of fuss and without the kind of long-term trailing and speculation that accompanies many headline driver-market announcements.
The World Champions' three-paragraph-long press release, two thirds of which were simply a plotted history of Vettel's extraordinary F1 career thus far, effectively said all you, and any rival suitor, needed to know: the sport's current pre-eminent driver is going nowhere for at least the next two seasons.
But while the first part of the statement made reference to the fact that Vettel had "extended his multi-year contract", the unspecified small print was that the 'extension' only actually amounted to an additional 12-month term. That's because back in May 2011 the then single World Champion extended his contract by two more years all the way up to the end of 2014.
So, while it's undoubted good news for Red Bull to have tied down their home-grown star for the first two seasons of F1's new regulation era, it's not quite as emphatic a commitment from the triple World Champion as it could have been. "Really what we're seeing is Vettel being happy with the team and prepared to sign-up again, but let's not put it too strong, it's only a year's extension," observed Sky Sports F1's Ted Kravitz. "So while it is a vote of confidence, it's not a massive vote of confidence for the long-term."
Indeed, while the extension will certainly put speculation of a future switch to Ferrari - or even similar long-term admirers Mercedes - to bed for a good while, such is the nature of the F1 rumour mill that talk about where the German, by then in his late 20s, is headed in 2016 will lurch into full swing before you know it.
What Vettel's one-year extension has already certainly achieved, however, is to tie the trio who many consider to be F1's fastest drivers to their respective teams for the medium-term future.
Fernando Alonso signed his latest contract back in mid-2011, but unlike Vettel even with the new extension taken into account, the Spaniard's deal with Ferrari runs for longer - all the way to the end of 2016, by which time the two-times World Champion will be 35 and with 15 seasons of F1 racing under his belt. Lewis Hamilton, meanwhile, is in the first of what is a three-year deal at Mercedes, thus meaning his contract tantalisingly now runs for the same length of time as Vettel's.
The similar durations of those three key deals raise all sorts of mouth-watering prospective scenarios for the 2016-2017 merry-go-rounds but the more immediate focus is now firmly centred - if it wasn't already - on one of the grid's other World Champions. With Jenson Button thought to be contracted to McLaren to the end of next season, it's therefore Kimi Raikkonen whose short-term future is the most uncertain given his Lotus contract runs out in December.
The Finn has made no secret of the fact when quizzed about his future plans at recent races that, as things stand, he is a free agent next year, while he also apparently suggested that he probably has "two" options for 2014. The first of those is certainly a third season at Enstone and while that is an attractive proposition in its own right, it's the speculation that the 2007 title winner could replace the seemingly departing Mark Webber at Red Bull that has set excited tongues wagging in the sport.
However, while the merits of signing the 20-time grand prix winner are obvious, Sky F1 expert Mark Hughes, writing in his latest website column, suggested Red Bull's hierarchy had yet to decide whether a Vettel/Raikkonen dynamic would actually be good for the team. "The word in the paddock is that Team Principal Christian Horner and Red Bull owner Dietrich Mateschitz cannot agree whether that would be a good idea or whether it would risk de-stabilising a team that has won the last three Drivers' and Constructors' world titles," Hughes wrote. "Even if that gets resolved in favour of the idea, there's still the matter of whether Raikkonen would want to come."
While neither the team nor driver have publicly ruled out the prospect of Webber ultimately staying on for 2014, the idea has appeared implausible ever since the spectacular fallout from this year's Malaysian GP - although given Horner has admitted that his drivers hadn't much trusted each other anyway since their famous coming together in Turkey 2010, Sepang may not have actually changed all that much after all.
Indeed, what could be considered even more of a gamble for 2014 would be propelling one of Toro Rosso's two young chargers, Jean-Eric Vergne or Daniel Ricciardo, into the senior Red Bull team after just two full seasons in F1 respectively - and with no front-running experience at that.
Both drivers are nonetheless showing signs of increasing maturity and speed in 2013, with Ricciardo finishing seventh in China and Vergne sixth in Canada, and asked about the pair last weekend Horner made clear he was monitoring their respective progress closely, even if he admitted it was still too early to make a final decision on their suitability for promotion.
"The two of them are both very capable young drivers and they're feeding off each other. They almost alternate over different weekends and it's great to see young talent starting to flourish. It's still too early to make a call on that [if they are ready to step up to Red Bull] but we have all the information through working with those guys and following them quite closely and it's great to see the progress they're making."
So, reading between the lines, it appears Red Bull have quite the quandary as to who to choose for the second seat in 2014 - thus making Vettel's extension, however short, quite the timely comfort.