Lewis Hamilton has been dealt a major blow when it comes to any hopes he had of signing for Ferrari after the Italian team claimed they want to keep Sebastian Vettel.
As it stands, Hamilton, 35, is a free agent at the end of the year, and both the six-time world champion and Ferrari ended last season openly flirting with one another.
But, just moments after the Scuderia unveiled the machine they hope will end Hamilton’s stranglehold on the sport here in Italy, team principal Mattia Binotto virtually ruled out a move for the Mercedes star.
“Sebastian is our first choice at the moment,” said Binotto. “It is something we are discussing with him and we will continue to discuss. He is certainly our first option, and our preference.”
Binotto was then asked if Britain’s Hamilton might be considered a fall-back option if Ferrari fail to agree terms with Vettel.
He replied: “We are not considering that at the moment. We are focused only on our drivers.”
Binotto’s surprising comments leave Mercedes as the only option for Hamilton, whose £40million-a-season contract expires at the end of the season.
Vettel’s time at Ferrari appeared to be coming to an end after failing to deliver the Scuderia’s first drivers’ championship since Kimi Raikkonen won the title 13 years ago.
The four-time world champion, who moved to Ferrari from Red Bull in 2015, has underperformed in recent seasons, losing his number one status to Charles Leclerc, the 22-year-old Monegasque who signed a five-year contract extension in December.
Yet, Ferrari have handed the German, who is paid somewhere in the region of £36m-a-year, a lifeline.
“For sure, I feel young enough to continue,” said Vettel, 32. “You spoke about Lewis – he is even older than me, so age is not a limitation and I am happy to keep going.
“I am not stressed but certainly ambitious to prove (Ferrari’s faith) to myself. Three years ago, I didn’t have a contract until August, so strictly speaking I was out of business half a year before the season finished.
“At some point you have to determine what is going on in the future, but we will have enough time to do so.
“I feel good, I feel confident. There are things I can do better and I am sure I will do better this year.”
Ferrari kicked off the sport’s launch season in the spectacular surroundings of the Teatro Municipale Valli in Reggio Emilia on Tuesday.
The Prancing Horse revealed their new machine will be called the SF1000 ahead of the season in which they will become the sport’s first team to celebrate their 1,000th race.
“We are more demanding on ourselves than anyone could ever be,” said the team’s no-nonsense chief executive Louis Camilleri. “With responsibility comes pressure and we view that pressure in a positive manner because it unites us and inspires us to do better.”
The opening winter test gets under way in Barcelona next week ahead of the season-opening Australian Grand Prix on March 15.