LONDON — Four-time Formula One champion Sebastian Vettel was close to retiring from the sport before deciding to race for Racing Point next season.
The team, which will be renamed Aston Martin, announced Thursday that Vettel will be replacing Sergio Perez, who had said a day earlier that he was leaving. The team said Vettel has signed for the 2021 season "and beyond" but did not reveal the length of the contract.
For Vettel, it ends months of speculation about his future after Ferrari made it clear it would renew his contract. The German said thoughts of retirement had crept in before Racing Point made its offer.
"It was close in terms of having a lot of thoughts and deciding," Vettel said Thursday at the Tuscan Grand Prix when asked how close he came to retiring. "It wasn't an easy call. The last weeks and months have been quite intense for me, a different and new situation to be in."
Vettel's form has dipped considerably since he last launched a credible title challenge in 2017 and 2018, losing both times to Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton. Vettel won only one race last year when he was outperformed by his junior teammate Charles Leclerc, who was in his first season with Ferrari.
This year it's been even worse for Vettel, who has not even finished in the top five in eight races so far as Ferrari continues to struggle for speed and is dogged by reliability issues. Last week his race at the Italian Grand Prix lasted only a few laps before he had to retire in Monza.
But Racing Point is hoping the German's experience will help it take a step forward.
"The signing of Sebastian is a clear statement of the team's ambition to establish itself as one of the most competitive names in the sport," the team said in a statement. "As a four-time world champion, Sebastian brings a fresh mindset to the team."
Vettel has won 53 grand prix races, a tally only surpassed by Michael Schumacher and Lewis Hamilton. He won four consecutive titles with Red Bull from 2010-13 and joined Ferrari in 2015 with the aim to win another.
But he never had a car really capable of challenging Mercedes during his stint with the Scuderia, where he lost his No. 1 status as Leclerc came to prominence.
"It's a new adventure for me with a truly legendary car company," Vettel said. "I have been impressed with the results the team has achieved this year and I believe the future looks even brighter. I still have so much love for Formula 1 and my only motivation is to race at the front of the grid."
Perez only found out on Wednesday that he was no longer wanted.
"Nobody told me anything, but I already knew and figured out a couple of things. Final confirmation came yesterday," he said. "It's fine. Seven years with the team, I know everything has a beginning and also an end. We still have nine races to make each other proud."
The 30-year-old Mexican, who has eight career podiums, is in his prime and among the quickest drivers on his day. He has been linked with a move to either Alfa Romeo — with 40-year-old Kimi Raikkonen tipped to finally retire next year — or Haas.
Both those cars run on the flagging Ferrari engine, however, and may not be competitive in 2021.
"I think everything is an option right now. My main target is to remain in F1. I feel that I'm still very young and hungry, and want to carry on," Perez said. "But it has to be the right package, a package that really gives me the maximum motivation to give my 100% every single lap."
Currently fourth in the constructors' standings, Racing Point was handed a 400,000 euro ($470,000) fine and docked 15 points last month for copying a Mercedes design for its brake ducts. The team, however, was allowed to continue to use the offending components this season.
Racing Point's other driver is Lance Stroll, the son of co-owner Lawrence Stroll.