Formula 1’s oldest and statistically greatest team has had a reputation of playing it safe with its driver line-up in recent history. As a matter of fact, except for a replacement driver in the early-1990s, Ferrari has not signed a driver under the age of 23 to race for its factory team in over 45 years. There’s a reason in favour of Ferrari’s 2018 line-up diverting from what many generations have known, by taking a massive risk.
Ferrari has only really taken one major gamble on a driver in the past 40 years. Towards the end of the 1977 season, a driver was needed to replace Niki Lauda, who had left the team (taking the number one with him) and the services of 27-year-old Gilles Villeneuve was called upon. Villeneuve at that point had a single start under his belt at McLaren, where he outpaced the regular driver Jochen Mass.
Lauda was 25 when he made his Ferrari debut back in 1974. Chris Amon, the Rodriguez brothers and Jacky Ickx are other examples of Ferrari signing young drivers but this happened many years ago.
Villeneuve is the exception to the rule here. Otherwise Ferrari always goes for experience (in F1 terms and in life experience) over excitement. But there is a very good reason why that should change.
We have been asking for a few years now what Ferrari’s answer to Lewis Hamilton, Sebastian Vettel or Max Verstappen is, who all found themselves in a winning car in a season and a half or less and all well before the age of 23.
While axing Raikkonen given his strong performances in 2017 would be harsh, Ferrari has a potential opportunity they should not waste. This opportunity would be their answer to Red Bull’s Max Verstappen, McLaren’s Stoffel Vandoorne or Williams’ Lance Stroll.
Charles Leclerc is making mincemeat of the newly-rebranded Formula 2 championship this year. Such dominance in F2 or the predecessor GP2 has only really been seen once before (by Vandoorne) and no rookie has ever started a championship campaign with such authority. Only Hamilton and Nico Hulkenberg has secured a GP2 championship in a rookie campaign, and 2016 GP3 champion Leclerc is set to become the first to do it in the Pirelli-shod era. He would also become the first driver to secure back-to-back GP3 and GP2/F2 championships (both at the first attempt), as opposed to other GP3 champions in GP2 who have tended to struggle.
In his first two seasons in cars, Leclerc was also very impressive. He finished second in his first season in Formula Renault in 2014, taking 10 podiums and two wins across the Alps and Eurocup seasons. He then progressed to Formula 3 for 2015, where he was in a championship battle with veteran Felix Rosenqvist before the Swede found some significant momentum. Leclerc would take four wins and nine further podiums from 33 starts that year, before concluding the year by finishing runner-up to Rosenqvist at the fearsome Macau Grand Prix in his first (and only) attempt.
While judging how strong a field in a junior category as a season progresses should be taken with a lot of caution, Leclerc is up against fellow Ferrari Academy driver Antonio Fuoco at the Prema team and is annihilating the opposition on the other side of the garage. Leclerc is a staggering 67 points ahead of Russian driver (and the ever-improving) Artem Markelov, who is second in the championship, despite losing a near-certain win at Monaco due to a mechanical problem. Regardless of the eventual legacy of this field, Leclerc’s sheer dominance as a rookie in very fast machinery is magical.
There is absolutely no question that Leclerc should be in F1 next year. In fact, it would be an absolute disgrace if he was not racing in the highest category in 2018. There has been just one instance of inexperience so far in his maiden F2 season, and that was running into the back of Fuoco at Austria.
Ferrari has two drivers in its wings who are certainly ready for a full-time seat in F1. As well as Leclerc, third driver Antonio Giovinazzi (who finished runner-up in GP2 last year) has also shown in the two grands prix he has participated in that he deserves a shot. Giovinazzi is older and has more experience in and out of F1, but Leclerc is certainly already above the level that Giovinazzi is at. It would be harsh on Giovinazzi, but if Ferrari was to promote one of these drivers to its main team it should be Leclerc. That would not rule out a deserved move for Giovinazzi to the likes of Haas or Sauber, should a seat become available there too.
Ultimately Ferrari has a choice to make. It can continue to take experience over excitement, or it can try to beat Red Bull (and to a degree McLaren) at its own game. There is no question that an experienced driver may help car development, but Ferrari already has a crucial asset in that area with Vettel. Instead of taking on somebody such as Romain Grosjean or trying to buy Carlos Sainz from Red Bull for a substantial amount of money if they really want to replace Raikkonen, they should make an explosive statement by introducing one of the most thrilling talents into F1 and watch him develop into a potential great of the sport.