It’s late August 2020, and the Formula 1 circus is at Spa Francorchamps for the Belgium Grand Prix held in an eerie atmosphere of no fans, limited media presence and masked-up personnel.
In the pit lane, two old friends, Christian Horner and Sebastian Vettel, discuss the future.
Horner: “Take control of it yourself should be your decision, and you are still young enough. Just take a moment to pause.’’
Vettel: “Then come home.”
The Red Bull team principal’s advice to his former charge comes at a time when both men are enduring frustrating seasons. Vettel is searching around for drives after being dumped by Ferrari during the pandemic, whilst Horner is looking at drivers to partner Max Verstappen as Alex Albon continues to fail to cut the mustard.
Speculation of a reunion ended a fortnight later at the Tuscan GP weekend when Vettel signed for Aston Martin, with Red Bull eventually deciding to replace Albon with the man who had been dismissed from the team he helped save Sergio Perez.
We all know now what happened next, Vettel had smatterings of success in 2021 and 2022 but couldn’t return to winning ways; meanwhile, Perez, after enduring a challenging start, came into his own in the latter stages of 2021 and 2022, helping Verstappen and Red Bull win the drivers’ and constructors’ championships.
But what would have happened if Vettel had waited and returned home to start chapter two of his adventure for Red Bull, and how different would the F1 landscape look?
A successful reunion with the Bulls for Vettel
With 2020 well behind him, Vettel could return to familiar surroundings with nothing to lose and all to gain. Moreover, with the RB16B being a substantial improvement on its predecessor, it gives Verstappen and Vettel a chance to challenge Mercedes for victories.
Like in reality, Verstappen wins Imola and Monaco; Lewis Hamilton takes victory in Bahrain, Portimao and Spain, with Vettel picking up a trio of podiums and frequently qualifying on the second row of the grid.
When both Hamilton and Verstappen suffer a nightmarish Azerbaijan GP, Vettel swoops in to take his first win for under two years, with Red Bull following up Baku with a trio of double podiums, including a pair of 1-2s at the Austrian doubleheader.
Vettel keeps his foot in the title hunt with wins in Silverstone, and Monza as well as a trio of third places in Russia, Turkey, and Austin, with Mexico seeing another Red Bull 1-2 before the team loses ground as Hamilton enjoys a remarkable late surge of form in Brazil and Qatar.
Jeddah is when the title fight takes an unexpected twist as a game of chicken between Hamilton, and Verstappen sees Vettel take a surprise win, ensuring that the decider in Abu Dhabi is a three-way fight. It ends with Verstappen taking the title whilst Red Bull wraps up the constructors’ championship.
2022 sees Red Bull enjoy a dominant year after a sluggish start, but trouble begins to brew in Baku as Vettel, fresh from his third win in the principality and a two-year contract extension, refuses to yield to Verstappen taking his second consecutive win and straining the relationship between the pair.
Momentum continues to shift towards Vettel with victory in Silverstone, but Verstappen fights back, trading wins before getting into his stride and dominating the second half of the season, clinching the title at Mexico.
What happens to Perez?
With his contract ending in 2022, Perez goes into 2021 full of confidence that Aston Martin could build on the success of 2020 and challenge for the title. But, sadly, that optimism is quickly dashed as Aston Martin falls behind in the development race.
One podium over two years encourages Perez to start talking with other teams, and when Fernando Alonso decides to leave Alpine, the pair switch seats, keeping Pierre Gasly at Alpha Tauri and rerouting Nyck de Vries to Williams instead of American Logan Sargeant.
Perez himself does manage to extract a few top fives there and then but the limitations of the AMR22 mean that he has to fight it out for best of the rest honours with Lando Norris, a battle that the Brit wins.
Although Alpine had a strong 2022, Perez goes into 2023 alongside his former sparring partner at Force India, Esteban Ocon. With the pair not exactly being the best of friends, Otmar Szafnauer would be going into this year with his hands full.
So after analysing what would have happened if Vettel chose to redon Red Bull blue rather than Aston Martin green, it seems that very little would have changed in the context of F1 history except for Red Bull ending Mercedes‘ eight-year run as constructors champions one year earlier.
Vettel would likely have reached 60 race wins by now and would be entering his 15th full season of Grand Prix racing as a real threat to Verstappen’s authority at Red Bull as well as being in the ascendency for title number five.
The picture would have looked less rosy for Perez, who would be wondering if he was destined never to reach the middle step of the rostrum or whether he could work with Ocon again after his previous relationship with Alonso had broken down.
As for Gasly and Sargeant, their F1 futures would be much less clear clear-cut. Gasly would likely have to hope that drivers around him left the sport in order to secure his long-term future, whilst Sargeant would be preparing for his second year of Formula 2 with a point to prove.