Formula One history is replete with promising rookies who failed to deliver. Charles Leclerc isn’t one of them.
Much-hyped rookies are of one of two varieties. The first is those whose on-track style or approach is immediately eye-catching — think Max Verstappen, who started his F1 career with a single season of car racing under his belt and without any junior championships to his name.
The second is those whose achievements in the junior categories are impossible to ignore — those who have dispatched rival after rival, series after series, in pursuit of Formula One. This is the category from which Leclerc was pulled to debut this season.
The Ferrari-backed Sauber rookie’s performances in GP3 and Formula Two in 2016 and 2017 respectively were incontrovertible. With impunity he smacked down his opposition, storming to championships in both series on his first attempts. In the process he leapfrogged Antonio Giovinazzi for a full-time F1 drive despite the Italian, the senior of the two in the Ferrari Driver Academy and having already having raced twice for Sauber in 2017, being next in line.
For a time it seemed the hype around Leclerc’s abilities had gotten the better of Sauber and Ferrari. The Monegasque driver underwhelmed in his opening three races. He was roundly beaten by teammate Marcus Ericsson, who even scored two points with an impressive eighth-place finish in Bahrain.
Conventional wisdom suggested Ericsson had been forced to raise his game against a teammate who not only came to the sport highly credentialed but who also had the backing of the team’s new title sponsor, Alfa Romeo, a potential hazard in extending his F1 tenure into a sixth season.
That all changed after Azerbaijan, however, where a change to the way he and the team approached setting up his car helped him click into gear. He qualified a then career-best 13th on Saturday, and on Sunday he kept cool in a chaotic race to finish sixth, keeping at bay Fernando Alonso to get there.
Since then Leclerc has been an unstoppable force, scoring four times in the last five races, with the only non-score coming in Monaco, where he crashed out of the race with brake failure.
Without discounting Giovinazzi’s credentials, it seems Ferrari and Sauber’s gamble is paying off — indeed Leclerc has been so impressive that talk about his future has proved irresistible after just four months of competitive Formula One, his early wobbles written off as merely the rookie finding his feet.
It surely wouldn’t have escaped the attention of Ferrari management that Leclerc’s deeply impressive qualifying performance at last weekend’s French Grand Prix — where he qualified for the top-10 shootout courtesy of a lap all of 0.8 seconds quicker than Ericsson’s best — put him just two grid places behind 2007 champion Kimi Raikkonen in the works Ferrari after another lacklustre weekend for the Finn.
Raikkonen is on a rolling one-year contract with Ferrari and his prospects beyond 2018 have swung between his likely retention after a solid enough start to the season and latterly his replacement at the hands of Daniel Ricciardo, but at the Austrian Grand Prix a third option presented itself: removal by Leclerc.
Already in recent weeks there have been murmurings that Raikkonen was to be forced to look for work next season, and those rumours were only reinforced when Press Association reported this week that McLaren had the Finn on a short list to replace Fernando Alonso in the increasingly likely event the Spaniard walks out on the struggling team.
But at the Red Bull Ring questions were being asked about whether Raikkonen could hold onto his seat for as long as the Belgian Grand Prix at the end of August.
“I am really just focusing and trying to take that off my mind,” Leclerc said in Austria. “I need to focus on this year, it’s not good for me to focus on what could possibly happen.
“For now I am just trying to do the best job possible in the car. Luckily for now it is all going well for me and I hope it will continue like that.”
It would be a bold move for the Scuderia, a team historically conservative in all of its driver line-up decisions, but if 20-year-old Leclerc, who was fast tracked into Formula One as Ferrari’s future, continues performing as strongly as he is, he’ll continue whittling away reasons to keep Raikkonen in his plum Ferrari seat.
The only real question is whether he’d be ready for the pressures associated with racing for motorsport’s most famous team.
“It’s always a difficult question,” he said. “But the thing that is for sure is that I’m pushing myself every race to learn as quickly as possible and to grow as quickly as possible and to be as ready as possible if one day I have the opportunity.”
It’s a mature answer from a driver considered by many to be mature beyond his years, and it seems increasingly likely that sooner or later — and quite possibly sooner — we’ll have a definitive answer.