It's all over between Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari
McLaren's Sainz and Renault's Ricciardo the leading candidates to replace him
When he joined Ferrari in 2015, Sebastian Vettel was seen as the heir to seven-time world champion Michael Schumacher.
But what seemed such a promising partnership ended on a sour note yesterday when Vettel declared that he is splitting with the Scuderia at the end of the season, citing that there was no "common desire" to work together any more.
No replacement was named for Vettel, who won four world titles with Red Bull before switching to the Italian marque five years ago. He said his departure was a "joint decision".
"My relationship with Scuderia Ferrari will finish at the end of 2020," the German, 32, said in a statement from Ferrari.
"In order to get the best possible results in this sport, it's vital for all parties to work in perfect harmony.
"The team and I have realised that there is no longer a common desire to stay together beyond the end of this season."
The German media, who flagged up the departure on Monday night, reported Vettel had rejected the terms being offered by Ferrari.
Italy's Gazetta dello Sport newspaper recently reported that Vettel had been offered a one-year extension with a salary reduction.
But Vettel, who racked up 14 race victories with Ferrari, insisted that money was not the reason for his departure.
"Financial matters have played no part in this joint decision," he said. "That's not the way I think when it comes to making certain choices and it never will be.
"What's been happening in these past few months has led many of us to reflect on what are our real priorities in life."
He added that he would "reflect on what really matters when it comes to my future".
Ferrari team principal Mattia Binotto said there was no specific reason that led to this joint decision, adding that both parties eventually felt it was best to part ways.
Said Binotto: "It was not an easy decision to reach, given Sebastian's worth as a driver and as a person.
"There was no specific reason that led to this decision, apart from the common and amicable belief that the time had come to go our separate ways in order to reach our respective objectives."
Renault's Australian driver Daniel Ricciardo and McLaren's Spaniard Carlos Sainz have been installed as the leading candidates to replace Vettel and be Charles Leclerc's partner.
Ricciardo's lucrative two-year contract with Renault is ending this year.
Asked about the possibility of replacing Vettel, the Italian-speaking, Perth-born Ricciardo told AFP in February: "To be honest, I'm obviously answering all calls."
The Italian media reported that Renault has already made Vettel a concrete offer, because Ricciardo, 30, has also lost the desire to stay with them.
Six-time world champion Lewis Hamilton has also been linked to Ferrari, but has repeatedly indicated he intends to stay with Mercedes.
Meanwhile, Mercedes principal Toto Wolff insisted that they must "consider" Vettel when deciding next year's line-up. (See story below).
Vettel, like his predecessor Fernando Alonso, has been unable to bring home the drivers' title for Ferrari, with Kimi Raikkonen the team's last champion in 2007.
Former Red Bull driver Robert Doornbos believes Vettel has shown once again that one cannot simply emulate the "Schumacher effect".
Doornbos told Dutch news outlet NU: "He came in as world champion, but just like Fernando Alonso, he couldn't do it.
"It has become quite painful for Vettel, especially when he was defeated last year by Charles Leclerc."
Ferrari had said the German was their first choice to partner Leclerc, whom he had several clashes with last season.
The Monegasque, who is only 22, has a contract until 2024 and is seen as Ferrari's next world champion.
Leclerc won more races (2-1), scored more points (264-240), started from more poles (7-2), stood on more podiums (10-9), had more fastest laps (4-2) than Vettel, whose only victory last year came at the Singapore Grand Prix.
Leclerc told Vettel: "It's been a huge honour for me to be your teammate. We've had some tense moments on tracks.
"Some very good ones and some others that didn't end as we both wanted, but there was always respect, even though it wasn't perceived this way from the outside.
"I've never learnt so much as I did with you as my teammate. Thank you for everything Seb."
Where Vettel will go now, and indeed whether he will remain in a sport whose delayed season has yet to start due to the Covid-19 pandemic, are the big questions.
Doornbos believes this won't be the end for Vettel, telling NU: "I don't see him disappear just like that. A swop with Lewis Hamilton would be sensational or a return to Red Bull next to Max Verstappen...
"He has to be careful that his career does not go out like a nightcap, as with Alonso who drove around frustrated at McLaren." - AFP, REUTERS