Sebastian Vettel, F1 team principal. Has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it?
F1 has welcomed a swathe of new team principals over the last 12 months with James Vowles and Andrea Stella making immediate impacts at Williams and McLaren respectively in 2023. Two more newcomers have arrived for 2024 as Ayao Komatsu and Laurent Mekies seek to alter the trajectories of Haas and Red Bull’s junior team.
But who is best placed to become F1’s next rookie team boss? Vettel and F1 hopeful Michael Andretti head our list of the top contenders…
Most seem to agree that Vettel has unfinished business in F1 but, already a faded force come the close of his Ferrari career in 2020, a return to the cockpit would be most unwise.
Could a seat on the pit wall be his next calling instead?
A fiercely intelligent individual with a strong work ethic and a keen eye for detail – some at Aston Martin credit Vettel’s work behind the scenes across 2021/22 for the team’s great leap forward on track in 2023 – Seb ticks all the boxes required to become a successful team principal.
Remember how Maurizio Arrivabene felt the need to remind Vettel to focus on driving as long ago as 2016, utterly bemused by his determination to make a difference across all areas at Ferrari?
This has seemed like Vettel’s destiny for quite some time now.
And rest assured his would not be a glamour appointment – there is a huge amount of knowledge to tap into here.
An obvious contender given Andretti’s absolute determination to secure a spot on the grid, whether Formula 1 itself and the existing team bosses like it or not.
Andretti’s entry was formally approved by the governing body the FIA last October, but commercial rights holders Liberty Media remain unwilling to listen.
Despite his family’s glorious F1 past, severe reservations remain over whether the team owner knows exactly what he’s getting (or trying to get) into.
If this is a battle he eventually wins, Andretti will surely take it upon himself to run the show.
The sight of Jerome d’Ambrosio, the former Marussia F1 driver, on Toto Wolff’s shoulder in the Mercedes garage, came as quite a shock during the early weeks of last season.
What exactly was going on here then?
Wolff soon explained that D’Ambrosio had joined Mercedes as the team’s driver development director, with the one-time Lotus driver stepping up to team principal duties when Toto underwent knee surgery towards the end of the season.
D’Ambrosio, of course, already has experience of being a team principal himself having spent a year working under Wolff’s wife Susie in Formula E in 2021/22.
His sudden rise to a position of prominence at Merc suggests there is no shortage of ambition here.
Might there have been a little pang of jealousy in 2023 when Andrew Shovlin glanced across at Williams and witnessed how brilliantly Vowles had taken to team boss life?
In a parallel universe, it could so easily have been him, the long-serving Mercedes man and trusty Toto Wolff lieutenant – with no previous experience of running a team – plucked to lead the Williams revival.
Vowles’ instant impact will surely cast the likes of Shovlin in a warm glow, leading executives across the paddock to wonder just how many hidden gems there are at Mercedes just waiting to be given an opportunity.
And having watched his former colleague grow wings in 2023, Shovlin would surely be tempted to take the plunge too.
Ah, the great Mattia Binotto conundrum: when an engineer is so good at what they do, why weigh them down with all the hassle that comes with being an F1 team principal?
That’s ultimately what did for Binotto, who had to carry so much responsibility and pressure at Ferrari that he eventually snapped – like a sort of F1 Buckaroo – and the whole thing fell apart.
Ideally, his energies would have been far better spent on just building the best, most powerful and reliable engine he possibly could and leaving the complicated stuff to someone else.
There is a risk that the same would happen with James Allison, that his true gifts – as the most impressive technical brain behind Adrian Newey – would be compromised by a broader role.
Yet listen to Allison speak for any length of time and it soon becomes clear that he would excel as a team principal – actually, anything at all he put his mind to – too…
When Pirelli saw off the threat of Bridgestone last October to remain as F1’s tyre supplier until 2027, there was much speculation that the deal marked the first stage of a strategic withdrawal by the Italian manufacturer.
If Pirelli are to leave the sport, it would be a shame if Mario Isola, the charismatic motorsport director who famously balances his role by volunteering as an ambulance driver and paramedic, did not stick around.
Pirelli remain difficult to love, but the manufacturer’s efficient and transparent response to the kerbing issue at Qatar 2023 was a reminder that Isola is both highly respected and implicitly trusted.
And the job of running Pirelli’s F1 activities isn’t all that different to being in charge of a team.
He would fit in well.
There remains a lingering suspicion that Jock Clear is going criminally underused by Ferrari.
He balances his role as senior performance director as the newly appointed head of the Ferrari Driver Academy when he really should be front and centre, by Fred Vasseur’s side in shaping the Scuderia’s future.
With Clear held in high esteem by Charles Leclerc in particular, it seems a waste of his expertise having won the 1997 World Championship as Jacques Villeneuve’s Williams race engineer and worked closely with Nico Rosberg, Michael Schumacher and Lewis Hamilton in the early years of Mercedes’ F1 return.
Still only 60, he has much more to offer.
As preparations continue ahead of Audi’s F1 entry with Sauber, thoughts will soon turn to who will lead the team in 2026.
Assuming Sauber Motorsport chief executive Andreas Seidl will not be tempted to return to the front line, having impressively led the first stage of McLaren’s F1 resurgence between 2019 and 2022, Allan McNish is almost certain to be a leading candidate.
An Audi man to the core having raced the Four Rings to success at Le Mans, McNish had a spell as Audi’s Formula E team principal and currently works as director of co-ordination for Audi Group Motorsport.
He would be a very popular appointment.
Let’s say that Christian Horner, by far F1’s longest-serving team principal, does a Jurgen Klopp and suddenly decides to step down after two decades in charge, citing the strain of life on the road and a desire to leave on a high…
Where next would Red Bull turn?
The temptation to promote from within – to keep everything good about Horner’s reign and ensure almost total stability – would be irresistible.
As the team’s long-serving sporting director and the man behind F1’s standard-setting pit crew, Jonathan Wheatley would be the outstanding in-house candidate to take over.
Who could have foreseen the likes of Vowles, Stella, Mekies and Komatsu becoming team bosses just a few short years ago?
The rise of all four acts as a reminder of the sheer of depth of talent, experience and expertise in the pit lane.
If you’re looking for another senior engineer who could emerge almost from nowhere to become a household name, look no further than Aston Martin performance director Tom McCullough.
Highly regarded by Nico Hulkenberg, having followed him from Sauber to Force India having first encountered him at Williams, McCullough is yet another one of those logical, diligent, switched-on F1 people in the same mould as the latest newcomers.
If Aston Martin do not offer him an opportunity at some point, it is likely that someone else will.