Sebastian Vettel was Ferrari's first choice to stay and partner Charles Leclerc in Formula One next year until the COVID-19 pandemic changed everything, team principal Mattia Binotto said on Friday.

The four-times world champion, who won his titles with Red Bull, will now be replaced by Spaniard Carlos Sainz who joins from McLaren at the end of the season in a decision announced in May.

Vettel, who celebrated his 33rd birthday at the Austrian Grand Prix on Friday, had expected to remain and said on Thursday he was surprised by Ferrari's decision.

The German revealed also that there had never been an offer on the table.

“Certainly we have always said during the winter time privately and publicly that he would have been our first choice, which I confirm,” Binotto told reporters in a video conference at the Red Bull Ring.

“It's normal that during winter time many drivers have asked us if there were any opportunities to drive for Ferrari, so we have certainly been contacted. That didn't change our position, so Seb was our first choice.

“What happened since then? I think virus and pandemic situation, which changed the entire world not only our motorsport, our F1.”

Vettel could walk away from Formula One for good  

Binotto pointed also to the consequent decision to postpone sweeping new regulations from 2021 to 2022, meaning the same cars will be raced next year, as well as the introduction next year of a budget cap.

“Let's say that the entire situation has changed,” said the Ferrari boss.

“And on top of that the season has not started, so there have been no opportunities even for Seb to be back on track to prove how much he was really motivated somehow to drive for Ferrari, which has been somehow unfortunate for him.”

Binotto accepted that “even today he (Vettel) is not fully happy with it, which is again something which is normal and obvious.”