When Kimi Raikkonen signed for a second time, he was 34 years of age while Sebastian Vettel was 27 and an established name when snapped up from Red Bull.
But in Charles Leclerc, they have broken the mould, the youngest driver in Ferrari colours since a teenage Ricardo Rodriguez, like Leclerc marked out as a future superstar of the sport. The Mexican parked his car on the front row of the grid and it is not inconceivable that the 21-year-old Leclerc could do the same at Sunday’s Australian Grand Prix.
Three-time world champion Sir Jackie Stewart would enter Formula 1 after Rodriguez’s tragic death just six grands prix into his career but, in Leclerc, believes Ferrari have unearth a potential champion in the making.
“If he’s good enough, Leclerc will dethrone Sebastian Vettel,” Stewart told CNN on the eve of the season start in Melbourne. “But to do that, he needs Ferrari to produce the right car. So much of it is about timing, Lewis Hamilton’s the best driver but his move from McLaren to Mercedes was very well timed and, without that, it would have been a very different story. Leclerc needs something similar.”
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Leclerc was, in some ways, born for F1. His birthplace is Monaco, home to the sport’s jewel in the crown, and the godson of Jules Bianchi, who tragically was the last F1 driver to lose his life after succumbing to his injuries nine months on from his crash at the Japanese Grand Prix in October 2014.
Visit CNN.com/Sport for more News, features and videosSuch tragedy has not deterred him climbing up the junior ranks, although he admitted in an interview with The Grid: “I miss him as a person, he was an amazing person. And I was trying to do the best I could so that Jules would be proud.”
‘Not the right moment for Leclerc’
Leclerc knows he has to prove himself amid the latest tragedy to have befallen the team when Sergio Marchionne, Ferrari’s CEO, died following complications from surgery. It had been Marchionne’s idea to take the gamble and promote him to a race drive.It is a decision that has been questioned by some. Former Ferrari driver Mario Andretti told Sky Italia: “I don’t know if this is the right moment for Leclerc.”
The turning point for the Monagesque in the eyes of the hierarchy came at the Azerbaijan Grand Prix — like his home race Monaco a street circuit — where he finished sixth in a Sauber that should not realistically have been so competitive.
Of the 15 races he finished last season, he was in the points in 10 of them, and ended up 30 points clear of teammate Marcus Ericsson in the end-of-season standings.
To Esteban Ocon, a place higher up in the drivers’ standings in 12th at the season end, there was little surprise to the impression he made.
Ocon, who finds himself driverless despite his own on-track promise, said: “Charles will fight for the title next year for sure, at least it won’t be a surprise to me.”
The pair have raced together for 14 years, their first track outing in karts having them vying for the lead at the race end only for a coming together to force them to spin out, a crash Leclerc could not recover his kart from.
And Ocon added: “I knew we had a very good talent from day one. He’s one of the quickest guys out there. I know he will show that next year.”
Quite how that speed manifests itself is another matter. Ferrari have had a history of having a No1 with both Michael Schumacher and, more recently, Sebastian Vettel.
Kimi Raikkonen, with whom Leclerc has switched seats, was happy to play the role of No2 mostly to his close friend. Leclerc will not be, which makes for a potentially mouth-watering inter-team tussle.
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Quite what that does to Vettel and an already unsettled Ferrari in the wake of Marchionne’s death and the sudden departure of team boss Maurizio Arrivabene in the off-season is another matter.
‘A super champion of the future’
Nicolas Todt manages Leclerc and, as the son of long-time Ferrari boss Jean Todt, now the FIA president, he is well versed in the politics at play at the Prancing Horse.
Todt Jr has simply advised his charge to be patient and be capable of handling any disappointment of defeat.
The youngest driver to join Ferrari prior to Leclerc was Felipe Massa as a 25-year-old, once again after being tried and tested at Sauber first. Then, Massa had three seasons experience, Leclerc has just one but the Brazilian predicts that Ferrari’s latest incumbent can be “a super champion in the future”.
Raikkonen may have a reputation of being occasionally wild but is sagacious to understand how Leclerc, long part of the Ferrari driver academy, needs to handle his new team.
The Finn talked about “hassle” at Ferrari, merely advising his replacement simply to “not let it disturb you”.
With the jury out among some whether Vettel is the man to bring the glory days back, Leclerc at the very least brings an exciting plan B.
Twenty one years — aptly Leclerc’s age — previously Ferrari took a similar gamble on Gilles Villeneuve. Two years later, he was world champion. What chance a repeat with Leclerc?