SUZUKA: Four-time defending Formula One champion Sebastian Vettel will leave Red Bull at the end of the season and is expected to soon announce a deal with Ferrari.
Vettel told Red Bull chief Christian Horner on Friday night that he intended to leave, and the team made the formal announcement on Saturday ahead of qualifying at the Japanese Grand Prix.
“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.”
Red Bull immediately named a replacement, promoting Daniil Kvyat from its associated team Toro Rosso to join Daniel Ricciardo in a youthful 2015 lineup.
It was an announcement that stunned the paddock, coming just two days after the under-performing Vettel laughed off speculation about his future.
“After 15 very enjoyable and successful years with Red Bull, I have decided to leave Red Bull at the end of this year,” Vettel said on his personal website. “Of course it is a big step and hard to make such a decision.”
While Vettel said that “there will be an announcement very soon” about his future, Horner was in no doubt as to where the German driver was headed.
“As of January 1st he’ll be a competitor,” Horner said. “He’ll be a Ferrari driver.
“Obviously Ferrari have made him a very attractive offer. The lure of Ferrari — a window has opened there with whatever is going on and he has decided the timing is right for him.”
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 after key departures earlier in the year.
“The news as far as I know is Sebastian is leaving Red Bull. The other thing is just a guess of everybody,” said Alonso, keeping his cards close to his chest. “I am still not decided completely.”
Vettel joined Red Bull from Toro Rosso in 2009 and won four straight championships between 2010 and 2013. He has yet to win a race in 2014 when the Mercedes team has been dominant and he has been outperformed by young Australian teammate Ricciardo.
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.