Charles Leclerc; Ferrari’s Next World Champion?

It was not long after the announcement of Charles Leclerc’s 2019 drive with Ferrari that some Tifosi, embittered by a perceived lack of performance by Sebastian Vettel during 2018, were already pronouncing that it would be Leclerc not Vettel that would lead Ferrari to their first Formula 1 World Championship in over a decade. Whilst it is probably unrealistic to expect the novice Leclerc to beat the four-time world champion Vettel what can we expect from the Ferrari apprentice this season?

Past performance is normally a good indication of future results and Charles Leclerc has certainly lived up to the hype. He landed in F1 in 2018 following Drivers’ Championship victories in both F2 and GP3 and arrived at Sauber newly invigorated by Alfa Romeo money and more than delivered on the potential of the car. Sauber, who finished last in the 2017 season, finished eighth in 2018 with the addition of Leclerc to its driver line up, but it is Leclerc’s performance against his team mate that is the fairest assessment of his performance.

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Whilst Marcus Ericsson is not a driver who has set the grid on fire, he did go into the 2018 season with four more years’ experience in F1 than Leclerc. The 2018 season saw Leclerc roundly best Ericsson, outqualifying him 17 to 4 and scoring 39 World Championship points to Ericsson’s 9. What truly impressed though was his ability to get his car routinely into Q2, raising the bar for the whole team, and that when offered an opportunity he had that all too rare ability to capitalise on it as witnessed by his 6th place finish in Azerbaijan. During 2018 Leclerc demonstrated that he can deliver in the big leagues and has the trait, that some great drivers have, of routinely out-driving their car. Having achieved most drivers’ dream of securing a Scuderia Ferrari drive for the 2019 F1 season; what now?

The big difference between driving for Ferrari rather than Sauber is that Ferrari expect to win the championship. Teams like Ferrari, Mercedes and Red Bull have a zero defects culture where you are expected to deliver victories consistently throughout the season. This is a very different environment than Sauber where a few costly mistakes are easily compensated for by unexpectedly good results. It is likely that Leclerc will be exposed to a much higher-pressure working environment than at Sauber even with Ferrari’s new team principle Mattia Binotto’s reforms to make it a friendlier culture. There is good reason though to suspect that Leclerc may well quickly adapt to this environment. He was not phased by the significant step up to Formula 1 and he has won each of his previous championships in lower formulas with new teams; this suggests that he is a driver who finds it easy to adapt to a new culture and understand the politics of a new workplace.

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Ferrari are already suggesting that Leclerc may be expected to support Sebastian Vettel even in the early races indicating that there will be no change to Ferrari’s tradition of having a lead driver. What has changed is the selection of a young talented rookie who is on his way up, rather than the experienced and stoic Kimi Räikkönen. Ferrari will let Leclerc win races; his selection is a look to the future for the team especially with drivers like George Russell and Lando Norris joining the sport. It might be unlikely that we will see Leclerc outdrive Vettel over the course of the season, but it is entirely possible he will, on occasion, best him. It is well within Leclerc’s grasp to win races this season and I would expect him to become a routine fixture on the podium; he is more than capable of finishing 4th in the 2019 World Championship.

Charles Leclerc 2019 Formula 1 World Champion? Strangers things have happened, but Vettel still has a vote.

Words by Mike Whitmarsh

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