Commentary

F1: 20-year-old Charles Leclerc not a gamble, he’s Ferrari’s best bet

LONDON • Throwing young talent into the heat of the battle at the very front of the Formula One grid is a bold move.

For Ferrari, who have chosen to do just that by promoting 20-year-old rookie Charles Leclerc to the team for next season, it is also out of character, given their usually more conservative approach to appointing drivers.

Yet the Scuderia are far from taking a chance with Leclerc, one of the most exciting talents in the sport, and who has proved he has the attributes to partner Sebastian Vettel in the most prestigious team in motor racing.

Last season, on his way to a dominant title win in Formula Two for Prema, Leclerc told me at the Hungaroring circuit that it was still "a dream" to make it to F1. He now drives for Sauber. Before this year's Monaco Grand Prix, his home race, he said it was "a dream" to one day drive in the red of Ferrari.

Next year, his almost unprecedented fulfilment of all these aspirations will be complete as he joins Ferrari, replacing Kimi Raikkonen.

This was sooner than expected, despite his talent. He is the youngest driver to have been appointed by Ferrari since Ricardo Rodriguez entered the Italian Grand Prix for the Scuderia in 1961.

More noticeably, he is the least experienced driver they have taken on board since Gilles Villeneuve at the Canadian Grand Prix in 1977.

Although Leclerc will take his seat with just one season under his belt, there is no sense that this unusual shift in policy is anything but calculated on his obvious talent.

The Sauber is the second-slowest car on the grid, yet Leclerc has put it into Q3 three times and out-qualified his vastly more experienced team-mate, Marcus Ericsson, 11 times to three.

It would have been easy to maintain Raikkonen for one more season and for Leclerc to remain at Sauber. Ferrari have made a bold move, but it is one the Monegasque driver deserves.

He is calm, assured and mature beyond his years, handling the talk of him moving to Ferrari with aplomb. Leclerc also dealt with the deaths of his godfather, Jules Bianchi, in 2015, and his father last year with remarkable composure.

Ferrari brought him into their young driver academy in 2016 and were clearly aware then of his potential. At the Hungaroring last year, a Scuderia representative had to be present when he was interviewed, so protective were they of their protege.

Their nurturing has worked well, if coming to fruition possibly sooner than expected. Crucially, Leclerc had put in the performances this season to impress Ferrari's former chairman, the late Sergio Marchionne.

When the season opened, however, this was far from a foregone conclusion. A rookie year is tough enough in a tried-and-tested ride, let alone in a Sauber car, and a spin in China was chastening for Leclerc. What followed caught Marchionne's attention, showing his ability to learn with alacrity.

At the next round in Baku, he was sixth. Four more points finishes from the following five races ensued. The Sauber is the second-slowest car on the grid, yet Leclerc has put it into Q3 three times and out-qualified his vastly more experienced team-mate, Marcus Ericsson, 11 times to three.

Mere numbers do not tell the full story quite as clearly as his racecraft does. In Baku, he took places at the start, making Pierre Gasly and Lance Stroll look sluggish while defending his place against Fernando Alonso.

Leclerc's ability to exercise self-analysis will stand him in good stead when he steps into the spotlight next season. Ferrari believe he is ready to do so and F1 will be all the better for their faith in him.

THE GUARDIAN

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 14, 2018, with the headline 'Charles not a gamble, he's Ferrari's best bet'. Print Edition | Subscribe