REGGIO EMILIA, Italy (Reuters) - Sebastian Vettel is Ferrari’s first choice to partner Charles Leclerc next year, team boss Mattia Binotto said on Tuesday, despite speculation that they want six times world champion Lewis Hamilton.
The 32-year-old German had a difficult and disappointing 2019 season, outperformed by Leclerc in the young Monegasque’s first year at Ferrari, and is out of contract at the end of 2020.
Hamilton is in a similar position with Formula One champions Mercedes, although the Briton is expected to stay, and met Ferrari chairman John Elkann last year.
Binotto told reporters at the launch of the Italian team’s new SF1000 car, however, that Vettel remained very much part of future planning even if he no longer retained clear number one status.
“Seb is our first choice at the moment,” he said.
“Obviously it is something we are discussing with him and we will continue discussing, but he is certainly our first option, our preference.”
Asked whether he could therefore rule out Hamilton, who can expect to become the highest paid Formula One driver of all time if he stays at Mercedes, Binotto refused to be drawn.
“We are focused on our drivers,” he said. “And we are considering Seb as our option at the moment.”
Pressed on whether Hamilton might still be a ‘fallback option’, Binotto said that was not under consideration.
Vettel, asked if he wanted to stay at Ferrari for what would be a seventh successive season, said age was certainly not a factor.
“I feel young enough. You spoke about Lewis, he’s even older,” he said of the 35-year-old who can equal Ferrari great Michael Schumacher’s record seven championships this year and also beat the German’s unprecedented 91 wins.
“So that’s not a limitation. So yeah, happy to keep going.”
Vettel started last season as the clear number one at Ferrari, the sport’s most successful team but without a title in 12 years, only for Leclerc to take more wins, poles, podiums and points.
In December, Ferrari extended 22-year-old Leclerc’s contract to the end of 2024 -- a huge vote of confidence from a team that has rarely committed itself to even the greatest of drivers for so long.
The pair clashed on track, most famously with a collision in Brazil when they were warned about their behaviour, but Binotto said they would be free to race on equal terms from the start of this season.
“Last year we said Seb would have been first driver, and Charles second,” he said.
“I think that after a year both have shown they can fight for the best result so they will be on the same level. Let’s say they can both fight for being ahead and that’s it. So let them race.”
Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by Ken Ferris
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