Lewis Hamilton has sympathized with Charles Leclerc’s plight at Ferrari this season, where a growing team orders imbroglio has reminded him of his debut year at McLaren in 2007.
Leclerc was promoted to Ferrari to partner Sebastian Vettel after an impressive rookie season with Sauber last year, and though the Italian team had hoped the young Monegasque driver would help its German stalwart reach a higher level of performance, Leclerc has delivered more than the squad bargained for.
The 21-year-old has been at least as quick as Vettel at all three races so far, and the Ferrari pit wall has responded on each occasion by issuing a team order to hold him behind his teammate.
Team principal Mattia Binotto had foreshadowed during winter that the more experienced Vettel would be favored in any 50-50 situations to spearhead the team’s 2019 championship campaign, but it was clear from the mood of the Ferrari post-race debrief in China, after Leclerc had had his race sacrificed to benefit Vettel, that the situation was becoming uncomfortable.
Reflecting on Ferrari’s dilemma, Lewis Hamilton remarked that the tension was reminiscent of his experience at McLaren during his infamous 2007 debut alongside reigning champion Fernando Alonso.
“I think he’s a little bit younger than I was, a year or so, but when you’re young, I remember wanting to get to Formula 1 as soon as possible, and then when I got there I wanted to win as soon as possible and beat the champion I was racing against,” he said. “So it’s very, very similar.
“I see much of myself in Charles, and he’s doing a great job already so far with really high expectations at a huge team like Ferrari.”
McLaren’s 2007 season was one of the sport’s most acrimonious. New signing Alonso and rookie Hamilton engaged in an enormous power struggle for the heart of the team, with the Spaniard believing team boss Ron Dennis had reneged on an agreement to make him the number one driver to benefit the Briton.
Both drivers ended the season tied on points and a single point shy of eventual champion Kimi Raikkonen, and Alonso returned to Renault the following season after falling out with management.
“My philosophy as a racing driver has always been I just want it always to be equal opportunity,” Hamilton said. “Perhaps these teams, how they’re always set up, there are a couple of scenarios where you have a multiple world champion who demands the number one position and therefore you become the number two in a supporting role.
“While it’s a privileged position to be in, it goes against your core value because you’re a racing driver at heart. That’s why I’m saying I understand how Charles feels, because in his heart he believes he’s the best or has got the potential to be the best, and it’s almost like having your light dimmed then as a racer, as a fierce competitor.”
Leclerc, typically calm under questioning ahead of the Azerbaijan Grand Prix, said he understood why the team orders were given in Vettel’s favor, but he reiterated his intention to change the minds of Ferrari management.
“I have got a lot of things to prove, and now it is up to me to do the best job in the car to prove what I am capable of,” he said. “I just need to continue doing what I am doing, to improve myself and hopefully it will change soon.”
But the Monegasque was less decisive when asked whether he could — and would be allowed to — beat his teammate.
“I don’t know, it’s very early in the season still,” he hedged. “It’s a tricky question.
“I believe there is the potential to do so, but then from the potential to actually doing it, I need to do a lot of work and put all the things together. But, yeah, we’ll see.”