SUZUKA Japan - Red Bull dropped a bombshell on the Formula One paddock on Saturday with the news that four times world champion Sebastian Vettel is leaving at the end of the season and heading for Ferrari.
With the sport already braced for a typhoon at the Japanese Grand Prix, Red Bull's announcement sent a tremor through the sport as the implications of the move sank in.
"Sebastian Vettel has advised us that he will be leaving Red Bull at the end of the 2014 season," the champions said in a statement.
"We want to warmly thank Sebastian for the incredible role he has played at Red Bull for the last six years."
Team principal Christian Horner said the 27-year-old was joining Ferrari, although there was no immediate confirmation from the Italian team whose principal Marco Mattiacci remained tight-lipped.
At the same time, Red Bull moved swiftly to fill the vacancy by appointing 20-year-old Russian rookie Daniil Kvyat from Toro Rossso to take Vettel's place next year alongside Australian Daniel Ricciardo.
Vettel, who has been part of the Red Bull 'family' for 15 years, said it had been "a tough day and a tough decision' and it was not because he was unhappy at the team.
"We had an incredible run, the last five or six years. Obviously this year was not the way we were hoping for but it's part of racing, part of life," he told Sky television.
"I'm leaving a very happy place... but at some point in your life you feel you want to do something new. That voice kept growing and led me to decide to leave Red Bull and start a new chapter.
"It has nothing to do with the results we had this year. It's more the fact that I felt ready and I thought the time is right," said Vettel. "I'm full of hope and full of faith that anywhere I go I will succeed."
Former Ferrari driver Niki Lauda, who is now non-executive chairman of the Mercedes team, said Vettel had told Horner only on Friday night.
"Last night at 9.30 Sebastian walked up to Christian and said 'I'm leaving'. Honestly, it was that way," said the Austrian. "He surprised everybody because in his contract he could do that."
The moves left an open question mark over the future of Ferrari's Fernando Alonso, who could now return to McLaren in a remarkable turnaround for a driver who fell out with that team's principal Ron Dennis in 2007.
They could also signal the end of the road for 2009 champion Jenson Button, who is out of contract with McLaren at the end of the year.
Alonso's contract runs until the end of the 2016 season but Ferrari is going through major change, with long-standing chairman Luca di Montezemolo leaving this month after key departures earlier in the year.
"The news as far as I know is Sebastian is leaving Red Bull. The other thing is just a guess of everybody," said Alonso, keeping his cards close to his chest.
"I am still not decided completely," smiled the 33-year-old Spaniard, who has grown increasingly disillusioned with the lack of success for the sport's glamour team.
Ferrari, who dominated the sport with Michael Schumacher in the early years of the century, have not won a race in more than a year and face the prospect of recording their first winless season since 1993.
"I have a plan in my head, I have my mindset for the last two or three months," said Alonso.
"I have a privileged position because more or less I can choose wherever I want to go in the moment I want to go. I gained that respect in so many years."
Horner had left no doubt about where Vettel was headed, even if the confirmation from Maranello might be slow in coming.
"He informed us last night and obviously had his reasoning behind that. I don't think he'd taken the decision lightly and was obviously very emotional about it," he said.
"But if it's his desire to be somewhere else, then it's not right for us to stand in his path. As of January 1, he'll be a competitor. He'll be a Ferrari driver."
Vettel has struggled to recapture championship form this year following the implementation of new technical regulations for the sport, and has yet to win a race after dominating 2013 with 11 victories.
He is fifth in the championship standings, with Ricciardo third behind the Mercedes pair of Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg.
Vettel's frustrating season continued on Saturday when engine problems forced him out of final free practice at Suzuka and he qualified only ninth for the race.
Kvyat, who became the sport's youngest ever points scorer at the age of 19 in Melbourne in March, is very much a face of the future and has scored eight points this season.
"I was very honoured, very surprised," the BBC quoted the Toro Rosso driver as saying at Suzuka. "The people around me know I like to work hard and do my best."