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Make no mistake, Charles Leclerc is befitting of his rapid ascension to Ferrari, though the cause and unknown effect of a move which gained, lost and rediscovered a decisive momentum have shifted considerably in recent months.
The Monegasque will usurp Kimi Räikkönen next season, and whilst the Finn lives to fight another day at Sauber – where it all began for him in 2001, the implication could have greater consequences for his incoming team-mate, Sebastian Vettel.
Recently late Ferrari CEO, Sergio Marchionne, had invoked his visionary clout across the team in his ultimately short lived yet effective tenure, and it’s fitting that his wish for Leclerc to join Ferrari has been honoured. Yet it hasn’t entirely been realised for the reasons which existed when talk initially emerged early in the season.
Vettel has represented the Prancing Horse’s bid to recapture its success of the 2000s, though the four-time champion has stumbled spectacularly since Ferrari drew level and subsequently clear of Mercedes over the past eighteen months.
Räikkönen’s maturing age, which will soon stand at 39 years, spoke to a comfort affording Vettel the space to atone for his errors, but this won’t be the case alongside Leclerc, who will be 21 when he lines up at Albert Park in March, an entire decade younger than the German.
Vettel remains contracted to Ferrari through 2020 which would mark six years at Maranello, but if Leclerc pressures him – that is, if he’s allowed to, from the outset, his window to deliver the elusive title is certain to have passed.
Michael Schumacher claimed his first title in red in his fourth full campaign, Fernando Alonso lasted five years without success, the Spaniard electing to depart two years ahead of his contracted term, whilst Räikkönen – who remains Ferrari’s most recent champion from 2007, pulled it off at first time of asking.
Self-enforced calamities inflicted by Vettel at the German and Italian Grands Prix, in addition to other moments where he’s sacrificed points, won’t hold water if Leclerc is there to pick up the pieces, as Lewis Hamilton has masterfully accomplished this season. Facing an internal threat will force the German to modify his approach lest Ferrari’s priorities turn to the Monegasque.
At the risk of overshadowing the notion that Leclerc earned his berth on merit, there will lie an expectation from Ferrari that he justifies its faith, striking a happy medium between replicating Räikkönen’s service and providing Vettel an incentive to lift his game to another level. If he achieves this, much less overshadows his teammate, the move will be deemed a masterstroke.
Playing devil’s advocate, as an exception to Ferrari’s standard policy of blooding talent for several seasons – see Felipe Massa, the Brazilian maturing at Sauber over three seasons across two tenures and segued by twelve months as the former’s test driver, it is treading into the unknown with Leclerc, and he remains an investment for the future as the first graduate of the Driver Academy.
For Räikkönen, his return to Sauber provides an opportunity to conclude his career on his terms and with the undivided backing of the team. The Swiss outfit might not be capable of victories, but if the upswing which coincided with Leclerc’s arrival this season continues, he won’t be making up the numbers, and the paddock will be greater for his personality remaining for another two seasons.
Regardless of the effect Leclerc’s arrival has on Vettel, Ferrari has made a refreshing statement of intent that it is looking beyond the present, instead to many years ahead, and for an institution which has been wedded to its ways for generations, it’s a huge leap which promises great reward.