The latest chapter in a summer of remarkable driver market bombshells has confirmed that Charles Leclerc will join Ferrari after only one season in Formula 1, swapping seats with Kimi Raikkonen for 2019.
The news has generally been met with excitement – Leclerc will be the second youngest Ferrari driver in F1 history when he rolls off the grid as a 21-year-old in Melbourne next season and as one of the most promising talents of his generation, it’s a golden opportunity that has been merited.
But it’s not just Leclerc who emerges from the news as a winner – in fact, nearly every party involved in this particular story can look upon the news positively.
At the centre of this story are two drivers at opposite ends of their respective careers. As much as Raikkonen’s experience is of value to a team hoping to wrestle a constructors’ championship away from Mercedes, Leclerc is the team’s future and has proven this season that he is already an extremely fast racing driver in F1 machinery.
Career momentum is also a factor here – Leclerc has stormed through junior categories, most recently winning the GP3 and Formula 2 titles in consecutive seasons. There is little compelling evidence that he would benefit from a second year at Sauber, given how quickly he has adapted to new environments in the past.
Of course, there is the argument that moving to Ferrari from Sauber is a far greater leap than any he has previously made while climbing the junior formula ladder. The pressure of driving for Ferrari will be huge and is surely why the Scuderia has previously been inclined to opt for experience over youth.
However, having guided Leclerc through the junior categories, Ferrari’s bigwigs are the best people to judge whether his character can cope with the demands of donning the red overalls and clearly, they think he is up to the task.
His on-track performances this season have certainly warranted promotion. He has made mistakes – as would be expected of a rookie embroiled in a close-quarters midfield fight – but he has also bagged 13 points, outscoring his team-mate Marcus Ericsson more than two-fold.
Couple this with his domination of the 2017 F2 series, Leclerc is clearly a very gifted driver – one which could take the fight to Vettel in a manner not seen since Daniel Ricciardo made his bold entrance at Red Bull in 2014.
It is impossible to know how the intra-team politics would work in the event that Leclerc matches or even begins to edge Vettel next year. If we are to assume that Leclerc will be provided equal treatment at the team, Ferrari enters 2019 with the most exciting driver line-up on the grid – closely followed by Red Bull’s pairing of Max Verstappen and new recruit Pierre Gasly.
With Gasly’s promotion from Toro Rosso, Lando Norris introduction at McLaren and talk of a potential F1 seat for Mercedes protege George Russell, Ferrari has rather joined the bandwagon of making 2019 the year where the baton is being passed to the next generation of drivers. If it didn’t promote Leclerc, it would fail to stay ahead of its rivals in this regard.
And make no mistake, this is a case of Ferrari promoting Leclerc rather than firing Raikkonen. The Finn has delivered some of his strongest performances in the V6 Hybrid era this season and if it was not for Ferrari’s wonder-kid, he would have unquestionably been rehired.
As such, it is great to see that he has been able to secure a seat in which to continue his F1 career. Some fans have questioned why Raikkonen would want to move into the midfield rather than retire from the top.
What Sauber offers him is an opportunity to carry on racing. Raikkonen has constantly reiterated his continued enjoyment for the driving – careful to point out that he is far less enthused by “all the other stuff” that goes with it, which includes media duties.
At Sauber, Raikkonen will be able to avoid the intense media spotlight and scrutiny that comes with being at the front of the field and that might mean that he is free to enjoy the racing to a greater extent – particularly given that a two-year contract will allow him to dodge questions about his future next summer, for the first time since 2012.
What is crystal clear is that he is still highly motivated. His ‘Iceman’ demeanour may occasionally be confused for apathy, but in signing a two-year deal, Raikkonen is underlining both his commitment to the decision he is making and that the motives behind it are well-founded.
Before the end of the 2020 season, Raikkonen will now overtake Rubens Barrichello as the most experienced F1 driver ever.
It’s a milestone snubbed by Fernando Alonso, who leaves F1 at the end of the season but would have broken Barrichello’s record had he competed in 2019. Losing Alonso and Raikkonen from the series in the same season would have left a rather large hole on the grid and as such, F1 benefits from Raikkonen sticking around to provide some familiarity as the category moves into an era of fresh faces.
It’s rare that this sort of news story delivers positives for all parties. Raikkonen losing his Ferrari seat will be disappointing for him, but he has found a very credible plan ‘B’ at a Sauber team on the rise. Leclerc has an opportunity at the top of the game and will be able to benchmark his abilities against one of the best in Vettel. Fans will be entertained by one of the most exciting driver pairings in recent times and at a team seemingly undergoing a change in philosophy.
Galvanising the battle at the front as well as the midfield scrap, F1 in 2019 continues to grow into a mouthwatering prospect.