Ferrari gave Charles Leclerc a very special Christmas present on Monday, announcing a contract extension that will take him through to the end of the 2024 season.
A five-year deal after just one season with the team – and two total in Formula 1 – is, on the face of it, a huge show of faith that cements one of the vacant seats ahead of what is expected to be an engrossing 2021 driver market.
In reality though, it is a big statement that changes very little.
Leclerc was one of Ferrari’s success stories in 2019. True, he caused the team a few headaches during the year. But he more than proved the team right for opting to promote youth over retaining Kimi Raikkonen, as he got the better of Sebastian Vettel in the final points and picked up more pole positions than any other driver this season.
So it was clear that Ferrari was going to retain Leclerc. A proven race-winner at the tender age of 22, he is as safe a long-term bet for the team as one could find. Five years seems like a remarkably long time, but Ferrari handed an extension of similar length to Fernando Alonso in 2011, also after the Spaniard had just completed his first season with the Scuderia.
Alonso will have been much more expensive than Leclerc, but he didn’t see out his contract. If a relationship breaks down or a driver stops performing, there are always escape routes…
Therefore you might expect the announcement to be less about Leclerc and more about Vettel, who has done little over the past few seasons to convince Ferrari that he is the driver to deliver a championship to Maranello. But the way the past year panned out, Leclerc is the only young prospect Ferrari could ever commit to. Max Verstappen burned bridges by accusing the Italian team of cheating, and a handful of other possible candidates are all solidly under contract.
With Leclerc confirmed, Vettel now knows what the future looks like at Ferrari. Either he raises his game to beat Leclerc next year and earn a new contract, or, at the very least, he plays his part in ensuring a more harmonious partnership than the one that ignited on a couple of occasions this season. The latter would also strengthen his chances of staying with the team, so on that front, Ferrari has put the ball in Vettel’s court.
Recent weeks have also brought rumors linking Lewis Hamilton with a move to Maranello, and if anything, Leclerc’s new deal makes such a switch even more likely. Hamilton would know who his teammate would be, and Ferrari would have stability on one side as well as a long-term prospect to go far beyond what would likely be the final few years of Hamilton’s F1 career.
It was never a case of Hamilton and Vettel being a future Ferrari partnership, but Leclerc and Vettel or Leclerc and Hamilton are the top two options.
By locking in Leclerc for the next five years, Ferrari has tied up a loose end that now allows the team to focus on who he should be paired with. It also ensures Leclerc’s commitment through a transitional period in F1.
It’s a bit like musical chairs. The music has stopped; the first – obvious – seat has been taken away; and now the fun can really start.