Cast your mind back to 2017. Rosberg has retired. Until Singapore in September, Ferrari looked like they could actually challenge Mercedes for the championship. And now and again, you would hear about the phenomenal performance of a Ferrari junior driver, named Charles Leclerc, in the Formula Two feeder series.
A year later, this Monegasque driver was sitting in the seat of an Alfa Romeo in Formula One. By only the fourth race in his rookie season, Leclerc had finished in sixth position; two places higher than his teammate, Ericsson, had ever achieved in eighty Grand Prix. This youngster was living up to every plaudit attributed to him.
We were gifted more screen time of Charles following his promotion to Ferrari in 2019. The Scuderia doesn’t ordinarily opt for youth. Historically, they relied on experienced hands to drive them forward. Ferrari, being Ferrari, will always have the spotlight on them. As such, we were able to view a dynamic change in the 21-year old almost every race weekend.
Ferrari could be forgiven for believing they would have the clear driver structure as they are used to. A four-time world champion and a young protege should, on paper, result in a distinct team lead and number two driver, especially when the latter looks to be as polite and timid as Leclerc.
Vettel has been chasing his dream to emulate Michael Schumacher and become a German title winner in Ferrari-red. He had been supported by Raikkonen, who’d returned to Ferrari in 2014, but never showed the pace of his first tenure wearing the prancing horse.
Thus Vettel was the favored one. When news broke of a young driver climbing the ranks year-by-year, Vettel no doubt thought he’d continue to rule the roost. But it was evident in the first race that this was not to be.
Vettel was the victor of the two at the opening bout, by virtue of Melbourne being particularly challenging to overtake at. His new teammate finished just one second behind him. Two weeks later, at Bahrain, Charles Leclerc showed a clear sign of intent by ignoring team orders and overtaking Vettel.
Leclerc had qualified on pole position in only his second race at a top team but lost the lead after a poor start. He quickly made amends by overtaking Bottas for second place after a single lap. Great news for the Tifosi, a Ferrari one-two on track. But he rapidly gained ground on Vettel, who was now leading.
For a team, it doesn’t matter which order their two cars finish in if the haul of points doesn’t change. The engineers passed the message down to Leclerc to hold his position for two laps. Half a lap later, he took the lead. Here was an early warning sign Ferrari didn’t have a Barichello, Massa, or Raikkonen-type number two driver supporting their teammate.
Meanwhile, an antagonist for Leclerc emerged in the form of the Dutch lion, Max Verstappen. At first glance, it would be simple to label Max the demon to Leclerc’s angel. The Red Bull driver was also young but had established a “bad boy” image in the paddock in his four seasons racing.
Consider Max’s backstory. His dad with assault charges, playing politics to get a seat at Red Bull, demotions from the podium, and physically pushing another driver after a race.
Compare this to Leclerc. The tragedy of his father and godfather’s deaths, rising through the junior categories like drivers are ‘supposed’ to, a polite and well-mannered persona, and getting to the top through merit and no political ultimatums. The Hollywood script practically writes itself.
Cue Austria 2019. Leclerc secured his second ever pole position. The race was under his control. The only change in the lead came through the usual pit stop window, where other teams tried to go longer on their tires. After commanding the race for 69 of 71 laps, Verstappen closed up and characteristically overtook Leclerc in an ambitious, and not particularly clean move.
When no penalty was issued, the man from Monaco changed. Rather than play the victim, Leclerc instead learned to play by this new rulebook. At the next race in Silverstone, an epic battle played out between the two with no quarter given by either. The clean and fair racing from Charles didn’t end per se, but it evolved to be unforgiving and without compromise.
The change was perhaps best exemplified at Monza. In the shambolic qualifying where nearly every driver ‘timed out’, Vettel gave Leclerc a vital slipstream that elevated his younger teammate to the fastest time. Leclerc didn’t drive fast enough to return the favor to Seb.
In the race, he was the sole Ferrari at the front due to Vettel’s early spin. Mercedes threw everything at him for nearly the entire race. Like a toddler pushing limits to see what they can get away with, Leclerc received a rare black and white flag for dangerous driving when defending from Hamilton. Yet, he won the race penalty-free. A Ferrari driver winning at Monza; a feat Vettel has yet to achieve.
Leclerc was galvanized. Five pole positions in six races, thanks to the mysterious newfound pace in the Ferrari cars. He showed he was no flash in the pan. His attitude was changing too. The 2018 Leclerc apologized for swearing on the radio in a midfield team. In 2019 he publically told the most prestigious name in the sport that he didn’t understand their decision making, finding it unfair; that he would be talking to them after the race. What a difference a year makes.
Disappointed as fans are to have no racing in the immediate future, I’m craving the absence of off-track drama too. How will Ferrari control two top drivers in their ranks? Part of me hopes to see them put all their chips in the future. Leclerc has five more years there, due to his contract extension. I imagine family-man Vettel will retire during that time.
Favoring Leclerc could allow them a real shot at the World Drivers Championship next season, whenever it might be. And if they don’t, the more ruthless Leclerc we watched grow over 2019, might force the issue by continuing to show his teammate and other drivers that he’s no pushover.
With the youth of Verstappen and Leclerc on entering F1 and the long shelf-life drivers now have, this could be a rivalry that dwarfs all others. Is Charles still the lovable young rookie deep inside that we saw in 2018, or is his late 2019 primadonna attitude the real him? Forthcoming years of entertainment will give us the answer.
Ultimately it doesn’t matter for Formula One how Leclerc is perceived. The sport relies on personalities to be the global show that it is. Rivalries are what people remember: Hunt and Lauda, Prost and Senna, Hakkinen and Schumacher, and to a lesser extent, Hamilton and Vettel.
Originally published at https://www.fortloc.com.