The driver market has hit top gear in Spielberg, where rumours grew only stronger that rookie Sauber driver Charles Leclerc is poised to sign a deal to join Ferrari, perhaps as early as this season.
Leclerc’s increasingly impressive performances in his debut campaign have correlated inversely with Kimi Raikkonen’s decreasingly competitive drives in his seventh season since his 2012 return to the sport.
Paddock talk in Austria suggests that Ferrari has now prepared a deal for Leclerc, and there have been rumours that Ferrari president Sergio Marchionne is looking to manufacture a midseason switch between Raikkonen and Leclerc beginning with the Belgian Grand Prix in August.
Sauber team principal Frederic Vasseur refused to buy into the rumours, however.
“Honestly we have a contract until the end of the season and we didn’t speak so far about the future,” he said. “I can understand that we have some rumours in the press, but it’s nothing to do with the reality.
“We are focused on our job. Charles is focused on the Sauber project. And then the future we will discuss later.”
Speaking specifically about any moved to snatch his young driver from him ahead of time, Vasseur added, “it did not come on the table so far.
“I think it’s better to finish the season and to have a normal approach and not to speed up the process.”
The BBC later reported that a two-year contract starting from 2019 has been readied for Leclerc to sign imminently, bringing to an end Raikkonen’s time with the Scuderia.
Raikkonen has been on a one-year rolling deal with Ferrari since 2016, but his second tenure with the team beginning in 2014 has yielded a solitary pole position and now wins.
Leclerc, on the other hand, was inducted into the Ferrari Driver Academy in 2016 and has gone from strength to strength, dominating that year’s GP3 season and winning the following year’s Formula Two series before being promoted to Sauber, in part thanks to its Ferrari connection via Alfa Romeo, this season.
Ferrari, typically conservative with its driver line-up decisions, has long been considered unlikely to take in Leclerc as early as in his second full-time F1 season, but the 20-year-old is forcing the issue with his run of impressive performance that have exceeded expectations.
“I didn’t expect to get these kinds of results [from him],” he said. “He is doing a good job for sure.
“He is improving, but he is not a world champion — you have to do step by step.
“He has a very good learning progress and learning curve, and he’s ramping up. I’m very happy and I’m very proud of the job done.”
Vasseur praised Leclerc’s mental toughness in particular in the face of persistent rumours about his future.
“It’s not easy,” he said. “Six months ago he was on the Formula Two paddock and more or less nobody knew him. For sure there is a huge difference between the end of November in Abu Dhabi and today. He is in the middle of every single discussion.
“But I am sure he is able to manage the situation. I am impressed by the calm he has. He is able to stay calm and to be focused on the session. He is solid.”