Ferrari’s decision to elevate Charles Leclerc to the senior team is the riskiest driver signing it has made in recent memory.
It’s a move which is likely to have several implications: at Ferrari, in the championship and even possibly at main title rivals Mercedes. Below we look at three key areas which may be impacted by Leclerc’s rise to the top table.
A better wingman for Vettel?
Ferrari has been criticised for its tactics at the Italian Grand Prix, where Raikkonen beat Vettel to pole position. Kimi Raikkonen held the lead into Turn 1 but then the race fell apart for the Italian team: a vulnerable Vettel was passed by his main championship rival Lewis Hamilton at the next chicane. Hamilton went on to win, aided by his Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas holding up Raikkonen at a decisive moment later in the race, opening up a 30-point lead over Vettel in the process.
There was a feeling in the Monza paddock that Raikkonen had not played the team game at the team’s home race. The Finn had also dithered when given a team order during the German Grand Prix — something he put down to the ambiguity of the message. Those incidents led to the suspicion that Raikkonen had become less willing to play the team game after discovering Ferrari’s decision not to retain him into 2019. Whatever the true story, the way Mercedes used team orders or team strategy at both races helped the German manufacturer secure its two biggest upset wins of the season.
The arrival of Leclerc should, in theory, give Ferrari a clearer hierarchy. Leclerc is highly rated but is not a former world champion like or as popular as Raikkonen — the last man to win a title in Ferrari colours. Given the support the Italian team has given to his career at this point, and the knowledge that he likely has better years ahead of him, it would not be a surprise if the Monaco native was more willing to play a Bottas-style role to Vettel in 2019. Bottas has played an important role in consolidating Hamilton’s lead in this year’s championship and that is a tactic Ferrari has to consider going forward, especially considering it was once a hallmark of the team from Maranello.
After five years of having an all-star driver line-up featuring two world champions — Alonso and Raikkonen in 2014, Vettel and Raikkonen since — the arrival of Leclerc feels a bit more like the Ferrari of old. Michael Schumacher always had reliable wingmen in Eddie Irvine, Rubens Barrichello and Massa and, as former Ferrari president Luca di Montezemolo pointed out after Monza, the presence of those teammates helped him secure five straight world championships.
But of course, that all assumes Leclerc comes in and is unable to immediately match his new teammate….
Déjà vu for Vettel?
The last time Vettel faced a highly rated young teammate who had been promoted from a junior team, it didn’t go well. When Daniel Ricciardo made the step up from Toro Rosso to be Vettel’s Red Bull teammate in 2014, he blew his more experienced teammate out of the water. Vettel was a reigning four-time world champion but beat the Australian on track just three times over the course of the season, something which played a role in his decision to move to Ferrari at the end of that campaign.
There is also the famous case of McLaren and 2007: a young Lewis Hamilton, a driver with similar hype around him then to Leclerc now, ruffling the feathers of reigning two-time world champion Fernando Alonso. The environment at McLaren turned toxic later that year and Hamilton and Alonso’s desire to beat each other to the title ultimately helped Raikkonen and Ferrari claim the championship from under their noses.
There are two very real dangers for Ferrari. One is that the promotion is too much, too soon for Leclerc, and the pressure of competing with Vettel every week is too much to handle — see the example of Stoffel Vandoorne alongside Alonso at McLaren — and its rising star is equally damaged in a handful of seasons. The other is the opposite scenario, that Leclerc is as good right now as some say he is and he comes in and starts beating the man the other side of the garage.
Vettel went to Ferrari to win multiple world championships and has played a crucial role in the resurgence it has enjoyed over the past few years. It’s hard to imagine Vettel being comfortable in the latter situation and, given the tone of some of his irritated radio messages to Ferrari over the past two seasons, that might well be a recipe for a disaster.
Ferrari shows Mercedes how to treat a junior driver
Mercedes might want to take a leaf out of Ferrari’s book next season. In the hour after Leclerc’s move was confirmed, Mercedes junior driver Esteban Ocon was posting a message to Twitter vowing that he would not give up his F1 career without a fight. That a talent like Ocon is actually in a situation where he might not be on the grid in 2019 is ridiculous and down to a number of factors, but at least some of the blame must be placed at the feet of Mercedes boss Toto Wolff.
It is now known Wolff spent the weeks leading up to August’s summer break trying to get Ocon in to Renault, only to be scuppered by the team’s signing of Ricciardo. Subsequent approaches to the likes of McLaren were also knocked back, with non-Mercedes teams reluctant to take on the man Wolff believes will be the team’s next big star. The situation was complicated by Lawrence Stroll’s takeover of Force India and the fact his son Lance is likely to take Ocon’s place at the team next year. A source within the paddock recently told me that he believes Wolff’s biggest problem is that he is constantly trying to spin as many plates as possible at any given moment: the sequence of events outlined here exposed that very clearly.
But there was a simple solution in front of Wolff all along. The team signed Valtteri Bottas to a one-year extension earlier this year but it is understood there remains an element of doubt within Mercedes about the Finn’s ability to ever genuinely compete at Hamilton’s level. With Ocon and George Russell in the wings, Bottas has always seemed like a stop-gap, a short-term solution. Wolff may have acted differently had the events of the last few months unfolded before his decision was made to retain Bottas, of course, but Ferrari has avoided similar headaches by trusting its instincts and putting its hottest commodity at the sharp end of the grid.
To prevent Ocon finding himself in a similar position going into 2020, Wolff surely has to consider lining the Frenchman up alongside Hamilton sooner rather than later.