Ferraris meltdown at the Russian Grand Prix was just the latest tough lesson for Charles Leclerc in his debut season, but he shows every sign of becoming a formidable force in F1
Had Charles Leclerc not pursued a career in motor racing, it would be reasonable to assume that this thoughtful and intelligent 21-year-old might instead have recently completed a degree. Racing rather than academia always beckoned for Leclerc but right now, in the pressure-cooker environment of driving for Ferrari, this young driver is learning an awful lot of lessons. Every indication is that they are being taken to heart, forging a formidable character.
At last weekends Russian Grand Prix, Ferraris plan to govern their drivers through the opening corners fell apart publicly and with lasting ramifications. With Leclerc on pole and his teammate Sebastian Vettel in third, the team were focused on keeping Lewis Hamiltons Mercedes, starting in second, away from the lead. To do so their arrangement was that Leclerc would give Vettel a slipstream into turn two, and if the German gained an advantage in doing so and took the lead, they would then swap positions.
Vettel enjoyed a great start, passed Hamilton and then took the slipstream and the lead. What followed was classic Ferrari and classic Vettel. The team ordered the swap, Vettel refused as an aggrieved Leclerc questioned why the deal was being ignored. Ultimately Ferrari got their place change through the pit stops, giving Leclerc a strong undercut, although the principal, Mattia Binotto, argued somewhat unconvincingly that it was not deliberate. In a way Ferrari were fortunate that further friction between the two on track was avoided when Vettel retired with a mechanical failure and Leclerc finished in third behind both Mercedes.
That left Binotto and Ferrari with considerable damage-control to deal with. There was Vettel, blatantly ignoring team orders. Then the use of such complex and unnecessary diktats in a season where the championship is gone, allied to their clumsy implementation and lack of planing for the not-unlikely scenario that Vettel was quicker. Finally there was Leclerc, unhappy but still playing the team game afterwards, expressing publicly that he still trusted Vettel. Binotto suggested the solution lay in defining plans with greater complexity. Maybe we have to be more precise before the races, he said.
Leclerc will likely draw a simpler conclusion. He was witness to the ruthless, victory-driven Vettel of the Multi21 incident. In Malaysia in 2013, when Vettel overtook Mark Webber against his Red Bull teams hold station Multi21 order for the win, this hard edge was clear. My intention if you look at it as a racing driver is to win the race, Vettel said afterwards. So I dont apologise for winning the race.
On Sunday evening in Sochi, sat beside Binotto and Vettel, Leclercs response surely reflected his new understanding of where he stands with Vettel. In the car there was an agreement, he said. Thats all I can say.
When Max Verstappen pushed Leclerc wide at Austria this year, the Monegasque insisted it was a lesson learned. I think I will just conclude that we can go a bit further in our aggressiveness on track, he said. When he went toe to toe with Verstappen at Silverstone, he was unforgiving about getting his elbows in. At Monza Hamilton discovered Leclerc had still not forgotten Austria when he squeezed the world champion wide with calculated control on his way to victory.
He will have taken similar lessons from Russia. Ferrari may wish to make ever more intricate arrangements for their drivers, but Leclerc will now have no qualms about pursuing his own ends with the same ruthlessness Vettel displayed.
Ross Brawn, F1s sporting director and technical director at Ferrari during Michael Schumachers successful years at the team, described Leclerc as an incredible talent after Russia. In Brawns time at Ferrari the Scuderia were no strangers to using team orders and he recognised the difficulty of now maintaining harmony at Ferrari. Its a potentially explosive combination and needs careful handling, he said, stressing that the pressure was now really on Binotto to manage his drivers. After today we will be even more aggressive, Binotto said on Sunday. Third place hurts us, because this result is the result of our mistakes.
Yet he must consider that one of his drivers will now need no encouragement to be similarly combative toward his teammate. This year Leclerc has suffered bad luck the mechanical problem at Bahrain that cost him a win and made mistakes, such as his crash in qualifying at Baku. But he has delivered some brilliant performances: qualifying in Singapore and the wins at Spa and Monza. It is worth remembering that Hamilton came through a similar crucible in his first season and followed it with his first title.
Throughout it all Leclerc has maintained that every event has been positive in his development as a driver. Given his form, the embrace of these experiences is only making him stronger. Leclerc is rapidly becoming a fearsome graduate of F1s school of hard knocks.