Opinion: Ferrari, forget Hamilton, Ricciardo is the man to replace Vettel

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The start of the 2020 Formula 1 season is still two months away and already, in the driver market, all eyes are fixated on 2021.

Last week, Max Verstappen aligned himself at Red Bull until 2023 in a surprisingly early announcement, taking the number of secure seats to four with Charles Leclerc at Ferrari, Sergio Perez at Racing Point and Esteban Ocon at Renault the other three.

The seat everyone is talking about, however, is the one alongside Leclerc at the Italian team where Sebastian Vettel is out of contract and the likelihood of him staying appears low.

That's not because Ferrari is about to throw the four-time world champion out the door, but rather because Vettel himself is expected to put himself through it.

In 2015, when he made the move from Red Bull, it was the moment he had always dreamt of, following in the footsteps of Michael Schumacher to lead the Scuderia back to the top.

At times, that goal appeared attainable, notably in 2017 and 2018 when he held the championship lead at the summer break. But when that final push was needed, Vettel cracked with collisions and spins that threw it all away.

Despite that, his status at Ferrari remained unchallenged as Kimi Raikkonen played the team game and perhaps himself was no longer consistently at his peak.

But that changed when the hierarchy at Maranello did what they never do and put faith in youth by promoting Leclerc to a race seat in 2019.

It didn't take long for predictions of the apprentice beating the master to emerge and sure enough the hungry, motivated Monegasque eager to shake up the establishment did exactly that, putting down a marker with a dominant display in Bahrain.

As we know fate intervened with engine issues denying him his first F1 win, but for the rest of the year, the 22-year-old dominated in qualifying, won twice, notably earning the admiration of the Tifosi at Monza, and proved without a doubt why he is the future of Ferrari.

Meanwhile, having seen Leclerc not simply fall into line and instead openly challenge why he was being asked to play second fiddle, Vettel wilted, with his only successes coming at circuits where experience counts, like in Monaco and Montreal, and through a big slice of luck in the case of his win in Singapore.

At one of those races mentioned, in Canada, the other reason why Vettel's future is so uncertain emerged: frustration with the current state of F1.

Having superbly held off Lewis Hamilton for an entire race, another small error was all it took within the tight confines of the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve for the stewards to deny him victory with a five-second penalty.

Feeling robbed, he visibly showed what he thought of the controversial decision by switching the parc ferme boards and that started a greater willingness to voice unhappiness with other aspects, notably the "bring back V12's" jab in Sochi.

So, defeated by his apprentice and disenchanted with F1, it begs the question why, with nothing left to prove, would Seb want to continue if his dream of becoming champion at Ferrari is no longer possible.

Of course, a much better 2020 could change that as might the appeal of the 2021 regulations but for the sake of this, let's assume he will call it a day, then what?

Ferrari might have taken the gamble by promoting Leclerc, but they are seemingly not prepared to give him clear No.1 status, meaning Vettel's replacement needs to be a driver who could lead the team or at least match the Monegasque.

The prospect that has the mainstream motorsport media licking their chops is Lewis Hamilton making the move from Mercedes.

Indeed, simple rumours that the six-time world champion was in contact with Ferrari chairman John Elkann last year sent them into meltdown, but if we take a step back, it would be a move that really doesn't make much sense.

Why, for example, having committed to Leclerc until 2024, would they risk the Monegasque by putting him up against Hamilton - even though he would likely more than hold his own.

Then there's the baggage Lewis would bring to Maranello which isn't really compatible to what Ferrari expects from there drivers and even if it was, at a time when Ferrari is trying to build up with Mattia Binotto at the helm, all that would be an unnecessary distraction.

Given Leclerc is already signed for the next five years, what would be the point in taking on Hamilton for a couple of years other than to give the now 35-year-old his swansong?

And would the Tifosi actually accept Hamilton after all these years of beating Ferrari? Particularly having also warmed so much to Charles so quickly.

They are just the immediate thoughts and variables that spring to mind and for exactly what gain? Would Lewis be any better equipped to help Ferrari win a championship than Leclerc would?

Given the very different environments between Brackley and Maranello, the answer is probably not, particularly as Leclerc keeps developing and Lewis himself would have to adapt to life in Italy.

No, if Ferrari needs to replace Vettel, what they need is a driver who'll create zero-conflict while also having the ability to push Leclerc and potentially becoming world champion in his own right.

Step forward, Daniel Ricciardo. The Australian is out of contract at Renault after 2020 and doesn't exactly appear to be in the long-term planning of the French manufacturer, who have signed Esteban Ocon and have eyes on promoting academy drivers in the future.

The former Red Bull driver also has no immediate chance of championship success at Renault and would likely snap Ferrari's hand off for the opportunity at a front-running car.

He would be a cheaper option than Hamilton, has a strong friendship with Leclerc and regardless, Ricciardo is not the type of character to stir up any issues within the team.

He also brings a wealth of experience that Charles can learn from and would hang with the man from Monte Carlo because while his results the past few years were disappointing, make no mistake the 30-year-old is still in the top-six racers on the grid.

As for whether Ferrari wants Ricciardo could be a different story, given they chose to promote Leclerc instead of push for him in 2018.

But as he noted himself recently to Sunday Times Australia: "They always linked me to that [a move to Ferrari], with my Italian roots, I guess it's probably always going to be there

"But it's nice to be talked about and still relevant and kind of in the mix as far as names getting thrown around."