Monday , 27 May 2024

The victorious and tragic rise to the top for Ferrari’s newest star

Ever since 2015, the question has been raised – what Ferrari’s answer to Red Bull’s rapid ascension of Max Verstappen in Formula 1 is. Verstappen leaped from Toro Rosso to one of the coveted seats within motorsports within a year and a bit. Ferrari’s answer? Verstappen’s great karting rival, and possibly the most exciting raw talent for the Scuderia since Gilles Villeneuve.

The comparison with the legendary Canadian is fair – even if the two characters vary in many ways. However, two things are consistent with both – Leclerc drives with the same flair as Villeneuve once did, and both are sensationally quick. It seems fitting that the Scuderia’s most recent world champion (assuming Sebastian Vettel does not win the championship this year) is replaced by a man with the qualities required to become a champion in his own right in the future – potentially many times.

Kimi Raikkonen’s second stint at Ferrari has been met with criticism from the moment he re-signed for the team in 2014. He had an appalling season alongside Fernando Alonso that year in a car that simply did not work for him and has soundly been beaten by Vettel on a consistent basis since. Vettel is one of the most successful drivers in F1 history and is one of the out-right fastest drivers ever to sit in a grand prix car. Alonso is regarded by many of his peers as one of, if not the, best on any given Sunday afternoon. An ageing Raikkonen has struggled to beat these two greats of F1, when the weight of the team has often been behind its star driver – a system which harks back to its glory days of Michael Schumacher.

All in all, the results do not read well for Raikkonen in his second Ferrari career, but he has been a loyal servant to the team in which he enjoyed the greatest success with at the first time of asking in his first stint there. In his second stint, Raikkonen has been a crucial aspect in the team’s return to serious championship contention. As 2018 has shown, the ‘Iceman’ still has it. But the time is right for the great Finn to pass the baton on, and for one of the most exciting team-mate battles imaginable to take place. Raikkonen will replace Leclerc at Sauber, and will aim to guide the team further forwards than has already been the case in 2018 with his immense experience and feedback.

Monte Carlo-born Leclerc is set to become Ferrari’s second-youngest world championship driver in history. At just 21, just Ricardo Rodriguez was younger when he debuted for the Scuderia in 1961. The Prancing Horse traditionally also shies away from taking on inexperienced drivers – with Villeneuve and Jean Alesi being the only real exceptions in what can be considered the modern era. At such a young age, he will be trusted with seat which oozes passion, history and success. Will he cope? Absolutely.

Leclerc’s rise has been rapid. Not Verstappen-levels of rapid, but still an ascension which caught the eyes of many through the junior ranks. The two duelled it out in the World KZ Championship in 2013, with Verstappen coming out on top. Verstappen’s path to F1 is well documented from there on, but Leclerc took a more conventional route to the top.

Formula Renault 2.0 was the first port of call for a young Leclerc. He finished second in the Alps series behind the vastly more experienced Nyck de Vries, taking two wins, and finishing ahead of Mercedes starlet George Russell.

From there, he replaced Verstappen at Van Amersfoort Racing in the FIA Formula 3 European championship for 2015. He won on his first weekend at that level at Silverstone and looked to be making a championship challenge by the middle of the season. However, the dominant Prema Powerteam and the vastly more experienced Felix Rosenqvist found their way later in the year. Leclerc finished fourth in the championship – a solid effort, taking a dominant rookies’ championship along the way, beating Russell, current F1 driver Lance Stroll, fellow Ferrari Driver Academy member Calum Ilott and current the highly-rated Alexander Albon. That’s some field.

Jules Bianchi was Leclerc’s godfather, and tragically the youngster had to deal with a significant loss during that year. The two were very close through their parents, and Bianchi helped Leclerc early in his career. Bianchi was also a Ferrari junior driver, and a man tipped to replace Raikkonen at one point by then-chairman Luca di Montezemolo himself. There is this painful irony that Leclerc is the one who has taken the seat which may have already been occupied by Bianchi.

Another impressive feat was second in the prestigious Macau Grand Prix where he finished behind Rosenqvist, in his one and only attempt at the event.

For 2016, Leclerc joined top team ART Grand Prix in GP3. In a highly-competitive series and against several drivers linked to F1 teams (including Ferrari stablemate Antonio Fuoco), Leclerc took three races victories and the championship at the first time of asking – beating team-mate Albon by 25 points. The next logical step was the newly-rebranded Formula 2 series.

It took just one race weekend for Leclerc to put in one of the greatest overtaking masterclasses in recent motorsport memory. He was assisted by fresher tyres, yes, but every overtake made in the dying laps of the 2017 F2 Bahrain sprint race was beautifully executed. It was an absolutely exquisite way for Leclerc to take his first win at that incredibly high level.

After three race weekends, Leclerc had to deal with the loss of his father, Herve. Also on the back of a home weekend which amassed a mere four points following a mechanical problem, Leclerc’s response was incredible – a near-perfect score at the Azerbaijan round. It was a superb display of how strong a character the young Monegasque is, at such a young age.

He clinched the championship in his first attempt with three races to spare – joining rookie champions in GP2/F2 Nico Rosberg, Lewis Hamilton and Nico Hulkenberg. The final gap was 72 points to the experienced Artem Markelov, but points lost through technical problems and team-related disqualifications meant that the title could have been secured even sooner.

Leclerc’s exceptional drives with Sauber this season have been well-documented, so it is clear to see why Ferrari has decided to replace its most recent champion with the future. He’s not the finished article yet, but he has the right attitude to be brilliant. He is going to give future team-mate Vettel a real headache, if not next year – then eventually. This will keep Vettel on his toes and might help bring the very best out of the four-time champion – something we have not seen consistently this season nor last.

I, for one, am unbelievably excited about the prospect of Verstappen and Leclerc duelling it out in equal machinery should Honda gets its act together. Now if only Ocon was there as well. The future stars of Formula 1 are here now.

About Craig Woollard

Motorsport historian and journalist Craig Woollard has had an unusual path to a career in motorsport. After graduating from the University of Essex with a degree in mathematics in 2013, he changed his career path immediately after discovering a talent for writing. After occasional freelance work in 2015 and 2016, he joined the Autosport Academy for 2017. In the same year, he became an archive digitiser at Motorsport Images - which is his full-time job to this date.

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