It was a long time coming. Ferrari’s first race win this season was destined to be sealed by Charles Leclerc and it was a matter of time before it all came together naturally.
On September 11th 2018 Ferrari made it official: Leclerc would replace Raikkonen in 2019, racing alongside Vettel. Since that very moment, two different schools of thought over the future of the Ferrari pairing were theorized through the media. I would define the first as the ‘Underestimation of the Novice’, since Leclerc was regarded as too young and too inexperienced to withstand the pressure of having Sebastian Vettel as his teammate. He needed to be supported in his first year at Ferrari, as he was going to be in the water with sharks before reaching his ‘maturity’ as a driver. Ferrari hired him to build a long-term project for the post-Vettel era, therefore Leclerc was just embodying a million-dollar investment for the team. The opposition will be addressed as the ‘Overthrowing of the Ensign’, as Leclerc was considered competitive enough to be giving Vettel a hard time or even beating him.
Hype surrounded the 2019 Ferrari line-up, which soon became the main attraction of the season. Evidence of Leclerc’s rampant talent did not come late, as he claimed his first pole position in Bahrain and was on the verge of conquering his maiden victory. Furthermore, there are countless team radio messages containing his loud complaints about Vettel being too slow, and interview bites where Leclerc does not relish the idea of accepting all the team orders he was eventually going to be given. The truth is that he was not expected to outdo his teammate at that early stage of the season, although Vettel closed the first half of the season ahead of the Monegasque in the standings. The four-time world champion did also better than the 21-year-old on 8 occasions before Spa, and scored 6 podiums against Leclerc’s 5.
The notable matter in this is that Leclerc holds 2 DNFs so far, whereas Vettel always managed to finish all races from Melbourne to Spa. Therefore, Leclerc would have hypothetically outscored his teammate in the drivers’ championship at this point. Perhaps the team was not ready for Leclerc being such a strong figure from day one and feeble but meaningful hints of hesitation and insecurity from the pit wall were reflected on track. Especially in the first races of the season when the two teammates would inevitably come toe-to-toe during the races. Either a team order or diversified strategies would create some more space between the two once again, in order to ‘postpone’ their real on-track duel.
However, Ferrari drivers cannot remain on good terms while forcing to establish an equal-power relation between the two of them. Leclerc was expected to take a longer time before settling and feeling comfortable at Ferrari’s wheel. Despite fearing to ask for tweaks on the SF90 at the beginning, Leclerc let his competitiveness speak volumes since the very beginning, which destabilized the whole outfit.
Leclerc obviously committed a number of errors in this first part of the season, from Baku’s qualifying incident to his Turn 16 crash at Hockenheim. His faults were never condemned by the press, in the process of the construction of his powerful character. On the contrary, every single mistake by Vettel now carries an indelible stigma, following his ruinous decline throughout the second half of 2018.
The Belgian GP was the consacration of Leclerc, as it was the perfect occasion for him to seal his maiden victory following Hubert’s tragical passing. Seeing Leclerc go up in the blaze of glory corroborated the press’s desire to keep depicting Leclerc as a predestined talent who has the right to overthrow the man who has been living and carrying Ferrari’s troubles firsthand for the past five years.
So cruel, yet so natural it feels, as Leclerc is the new face of Ferrari, with his young age exuding reliability and sheer, genuine passion. His age will always be key for the next two or three years, as it will play as an extenuating factor when it comes to judging his mistakes. Perhaps trusting on a young driver while at the same time gambling what Ferrari (always?) needed to have its spirit back.