It is not often a young driver comes into the balmy parametres of Formula One and sparks into life so early into their rookie season. Max Verstappen showed signs of his class with Toro Rosso in 2015, but a young Monaco resident named Charles Leclerc has emerged as the real jewel of the sport this season.
The former GP2 and GP3 champion has demonstrated maturity beyond his years in his first three months in F1 and has gone on to score four top-10 finishes in eight races, including a stunning sixth place in Baku.
Although he may struggle at times with a Sauber team who finished last in the drivers’ standings in 2017, the 20-year-old has to start from somewhere and this season is the perfect building block to his future development.
But before the season has reached its midway point, Leclerc is already being tipped to replace Kimi Raikkonen at the Italian marque in 2019 – after just eight races into his maiden campaign.
It would make sense for Ferrari to sign the youngster as he would require a low salary while also offering a long-term plan in the team’s quest to win a first world title since 2008.
Although Raikkonen has been on the podium four times this season, he has not won a race since the Australian Grand Prix in 2013. And for a driver on the third highest annual salary ($40m), the 38-year-old does not justify his position as an elite driver with the second best team in the sport.
And with his inconsistent form not close to the level of Sebastian Vettel, he has only been rewarded with single year contract extensions in each of the last three seasons.
In his 16th season, the Finn’s time may be up as the Prancing Horse lean towards promoting Leclerc to a race seat.
Ferrari have considered replacing Raikkonen with Daniel Ricciardo but the cost of hiring the in-form Australian would be too high when added to Vettel’s wages ($60m), thus leaving the team with a choice of Raikkonen or Leclerc – who currently earns a misely $150,000 per annum – in stark contrast.
Raikkonen is still Ferrari’s most recent world champion, but his dip in his form has coincided with Leclerc’s season sprouting into life, with promising performances in Baku, Barcelona and Canada.
In Baku, Leclerc sealed a career-best sixth place, showing great race-craft and composure to fend off two-time world champion Fernando Alonso towards the end of the race.
But for all the hype about his rise, is it too early to promote a rookie 20-year-old to the second biggest team in the sport? If Raikkonen does stay for another season it would allow Leclerc more time to learn at Sauber. The Swiss outfit may not be as quick as their competitors but the experience, confidence and general driver intelligence he would gain is only going to help his future development.
If a deal does go through for Leclerc in 2019, it would shift away from Ferrari’s policy of recruiting well-known names and swap a driver with 281 grand prix starts and 95 podiums – the third most of any man behind the wheel in history – for a youngster who is preparing for his ninth GP this weekend in Austria. It would also be the first time a Ferrari Academy Driver makes it into an F1 race seat with the Scuderia.
A final decision is far from made, but Leclerc is one of a kind, is fearless and has the full repertoire of skills to see him win multiple races in the future.
With such hope around his ability, he needs to continue to showcase his talents with Sauber and not allow outside talk to affect his overall displays for the rest of the season.
It may be too early to say, but in a red Ferrari, Leclerc would be a potent force.
As Lewis Hamilton drove around Paul Ricard Circuit celebrating his third win of the season, there was no doubt that under his helmet he took a great deal of satisfaction knowing that this was the most complete performance of his championship defence thus far.
Fastest out of the blocks in practice on Friday, he took pole position and then led all but one lap of Sunday’s race. In a year where his form has been mixed so far, his win in France could prove crucial ahead of a gruelling run of five races in six weeks.
The momentum has slowly swung from Mercedes to Ferrari in Bahrain, back to Mercedes and then to Ferrari again in Canada, but on the basis of Hamilton’s scintillating display in France, it is advantage for the Silver Arrow once more.
And central to their advantage has been the inconsistent performances of title rival Sebastian Vettel. The German was hit with a five-second penalty for his crash with Valtteri Bottas on the first turn, turning his strong third-place start into a fifth-place finish.
Although it can be argued that the penalty was too lenient, with a drive-through penalty potentially costing a driver 20 seconds and a stop-to-go penalty being closer to half a minute, he now trails Hamilton by 14 points in the title race.
It bodes another question about his consistency and ability to lose his composure in the heat of battle, with the first-lap crash in France his fifth big error in 14 months – and second this season. Last season he touched wheels with Hamilton in Baku, crashed out at the start in Singapore and clashed with Max Verstappen and Hamilton in Mexico. This year in Baku, he lost two valuable positions following a failed move on Bottas and subsequently finished fourth, adding further to the woes to his quest for a first world title since 2013.
In the same period, Hamilton crashed in qualifying in Brazil, when he already had the title won, and has yet to make a driving error in the eight races so far this year.
Small errors are bound to happen for every driver, but the reality is the team who makes least mistakes, and has the best strategy and best development on the engines, will prevail this season.
Both drivers are locked on three race wins each, with Vettel starting on pole once more than the Briton, but at the end of the day it all comes down to race wins and championship points.
And what makes this year so intriguing is the battle between Vettel and Hamilton to join the legendary Juan Manuel Fangio as five-time world title holders.
It’s clear both drivers have absolute faith in their cars, but Ferrari look to have upped the intensity, with pace, strong balance on the corners and a serious reliability in their engine. All they are missing is consistency from their maestro.
Hamilton may be in control of the title race at present, but in a 21-race season, the form guide will change on a race-to-race basis.
With four more races until the summer break, when the chequered flag is waved at the finish line of the Hungarian GP, neither driver will want to be heading home with plenty to do in the second half of the season.
Last year, Vettel and Hamilton won four races each in the first half of the season, leaving the title race wide open but once they came from the summer break, the Briton was in scintillating form as the German faded.
The 33-year-old won five races, with back-to-back triumphs in Belgium, Italy and Singapore as well as Japan and the US.
Vettel will not want a repeat of 2017 when he lost his firm grip on the title, but he needs to be more composed and confident behind the wheel and minimise his errors. Sunday’s crash with Bottas should have earned him a stern penalty, but now he must move on, and redeem himself in Austria this weekend.
It’s a long season full of inches, but the Ferrari star needs to step up and show why he is considered one of the greatest drivers of the era.
Lewis Hamilton defended Sebastian Vettel’s error-prone record despite taking advantage of his rival’s crash at the French Grand Prix.
Hamilton ruled from start to finish on Formula One’s return to France after a decade away to claim his third victory of the season and move 14 points clear of Vettel in their race for a fifth world championship.
Vettel started third but smashed into Valtteri Bottas’s Mercedes on the 210mph opening-bend charge here at the Paul Ricard Circuit. The Ferrari driver fell to the back of the pack after he pitted for a new front wing, and was then punished with a five-second penalty.
He recovered to finish fifth, but after costly collisions in Baku, Singapore and Mexico last year, as well as running off the road at April’s Azerbaijan Grand Prix, the German’s latest faux pas was his fifth high-profile mistake in only 12 months.
“It is really a racing incident in Turn One and those things can happen,” a diplomatic Hamilton said.
“We’re all going into that first corner at great speeds.
“I don’t feel that he’s particularly making more mistakes. We’re all on the edge, we’re fighting for the world championship, and we’re not pootling around. We’re out there putting our lives on the line.
“We’re out there putting the cars as far beyond the edge as we can in the safest manner. It’s not like a train track, you don’t just stay on the rails. Sometimes you can go off. We’re only human.”
Magnifique !! 🇫🇷 It’s an amazing feeling winning here. I feel very grateful for a solid weekend. Huge thanks to every single person at the Team for always pushing the boundaries and never giving up. I want to thank each and every one of them 🙏🏾⚡️ #FrenchGP #F1 @mercedesamgf1 @f1 ・・・ The turning point in the title race? @lewishamilton leads by 14pts from Seb after a supreme win in France . #FrenchGP #F1 #Formula1 #LewisHamilton #Mercedes
Hamilton, however, believed the stewards were too lenient on Vettel for the collision. Bottas, who raced on with a wounded Mercedes, could manage only seventh.
Hamilton shook his head as he watched a television replay in the green room before the podium celebrations.
“Jeez, he took him right out,” Hamilton said. “Oh, man, that’s crazy.”
He later added: “For me, it is definitely disappointing because the team had a chance for a one-two finish.
“When someone destroys your race through their error, and they get a tap on the hand, and are allowed to come back and finish ahead of the person they took out, it does not
“Ultimately, Seb should not have not been able to finish ahead of Valtteri because he took him out of the race.”
Niki Lauda, Mercedes’ non-executive chairman, added: “Why did Vettel only get five seconds for this enormous mistake?
“I don’t understand. It’s too little. Five seconds is nothing. He really destroyed the whole race for himself and for Bottas.”