It’s not all that often that Ferrari gets praised for making the right decisions, but it deserves credit for a brave call it made. Not this weekend, but 12 months ago.
It is a year and one day since Charles Leclerc was announced as a Scuderia Ferrari driver, replacing Kimi Raikkonen who in turn headed back to Alfa Romeo (then Sauber). It was a brave decision, and Ferrari has been vindicated since.
The safe option at the time was to stick with Raikkonen; someone who would pick up results every now and then – including a win in Austin later in the season – and who worked well with Sebastian Vettel. Raikkonen was a known quantity and had kept the lead driver happy, but that lead driver had not been performing to the level expected of a four-time world champion.
The Austin win could have been seen as a signal that Ferrari had made the wrong choice; that it had promoted Leclerc too soon ahead of a driver still capable of performing at the highest level. But it was what Vettel was doing at that exact same race that highlighted the team’s need to look to the future.
Vettel spun while going wheel-to-wheel early on for the third time in five races, following similar incidents in Japan and, of all places, Monza. He’d thrown away victory when leading his home race at Hockenheim, and his title challenge had rapidly faded.
Concern within the team that Vettel was just going through a dip in form will have snowballed into a stronger doubt about whether he was every going to produce his best at Ferrari over the remaining two years of his contract. At the same point, Leclerc’s performances had been strong, and he had quickly rebounded from early season struggles into a consistent performer.
Prior to being announced as a Ferrari driver, Leclerc had picked up 13 points, eight of which came in the chaotic Azerbaijan Grand Prix. In the remaining seven races after the move was confirmed, he failed to finish twice, yet still added a further 26 points from the other five rounds.
So Leclerc could deliver with a brightening spotlight on him at Alfa Romeo, but could he do it in the pressure cooker of Ferrari? Undoubtedly, the answer is yes.
Let’s be fair, Leclerc has had more leeway than most Ferrari drivers are lucky enough to receive. Usually, Ferrari opts for proven, experienced drivers who have to deliver instantly. The team’s three new arrivals prior to Leclerc were Fernando Alonso, Raikkonen and Vettel.
But given Leclerc’s age and lack of experience, team principal Mattia Binotto immediately outlined the expectations on the Monegasque, and similarly put the pressure on Vettel. It was the four-time world champion who would be team leader while Leclerc found his feet, because he was more likely to spearhead any title challenge.
Leclerc was often asked about that statement in the early part of the season, and dealt with it diplomatically. He didn’t want to be number two, but he wasn’t in a position to rattle any cages at Ferrari. That’s certainly not the case now.
Leclerc’s ability to learn quickly has been astonishing. Bahrain aside, he struggled in Q3 at times earlier this season, but has found ways to improve and now boasts four pole positions to Vettel’s one. Right now, nobody on the grid has more poles this season than Leclerc.
His racecraft was good, but he was too accommodating when going wheel-to-wheel with Max Verstappen in Austria. Once the stewards ruled it was a legal overtaking move, and Leclerc understood what would be allowed, he instantly adapted. An improved, more aggressive approach was immediately evident at Silverstone, and has retained it when required.
With that all-round improvement has come a growing confidence, and the impact of that was seen over the past two races – and not just in the victories he secured.
At Spa-Francorchamps, Leclerc had the measure of Vettel throughout. His pole position margin was massive, and his race was faultless. More than that though, one of Vettel’s advantages over his team-mate this season had been tire management, exemplified by his passing Leclerc for the final podium position in the closing laps in Hungary. At Spa, Leclerc held the upper hand.
As his first Formula 1 win, Belgium was clearly a significant result for Leclerc. But Italy is the one that will really resonate.
It started in qualifying. Leclerc knew it would be touch and go between himself and Vettel, and he was somewhat fortunate to sit on provisional pole after the first Q3 runs because Raikkonen’s crash compromised Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas to a degree. Then came the comedy of the final attempts, which provided Leclerc with the perfect excuse to not help his team-mate try and beat him.
Vettel was supposed to benefit from a tow on the final lap, and Leclerc was sent out of the garage as the lead Ferrari in order to provide a slipstream. But with Nico Hulkenberg skipping Turn 1 to try and allow other cars to overtake him, and then with Carlos Sainz and Lance Stroll slowing in order to prevent Hulkenberg pulling off such a move, the whole field was at risk of not making the checkered flag.
Leclerc knew it, and so did Vettel. The latter then tried to speed up enough to make sure he could get a lap in, but he needed the tow from his team-mate. It wasn’t until after Ascari, when it was too late, that Leclerc moved ahead of Vettel. It was a token effort at best.
Vettel was clearly unhappy afterwards and voiced his discontent, and it was only after the race when team principal Mattia Binotto told Leclerc over team radio he was forgiven that the team’s feelings became apparent.
But Leclerc was showing the sort of ruthlessness a future team leader is going to need at Ferrari, and after do so against his team-mate, he then flexed his muscles against Hamilton.
His defensive moves were borderline, but again, Leclerc is a quick learner. From Belgium onwards it was made clear the black and white flag would be used as a warning to drivers, and Leclerc knew that he could push right to the limit of what is allowed and more than likely get away with it once.
Despite Hamilton’s protestations, all the drivers are playing by those same rules. Leclerc used them to defend his position, but at the same time was able to send a message to the current dominant driver of this era that he will have a fight on his hands any time they meet on track.
Hamilton has already noted that Verstappen can be aggressive and leaves him a wide berth, and Leclerc has now likely earned himself similar treatment. It’s something he will have learned not only from Verstappen, but from Vettel too; his team-mate having often come off second best in battles with Hamilton over the past few seasons.
Overall, Vettel had a terrible race and failed to score. A year ago, that sort of performance raised doubts about whether the German was the right man to lead Ferrari’s charge in the future. But the atmosphere around Ferrari is different now. That’s not to write Vettel off completely, but the past two weekends have proven the Scuderia has already found the driver to pick up the mantle, and promoted him at just the right time.