Informed sources in Italy suggest an agreement has already been reached between Scuderia Ferrari and Charles Leclerc – the young Ferrari Academy driver who is in the midst of an eye-catching rookie season with Sauber – for a place alongside Sebastian Vettel next year. However, recent history is littered with drivers who thought they had agreements to be replacing Kimi Raikkonen at Maranello, only for those agreements not to be signed.
Charles Leclerc’s rookie form in the Sauber has been deeply impressive, but there’s no way of knowing if he would actually be able to out-perform Vettel at all, let alone consistently. But from Charles Leclerc’s perspective, full of the fizzing confidence of the new kid creating a sensation in the Sauber, he will be straining at the leash. Just as a new kid called Raikkonen was creating a sensation in a Sauber in 2001.
In the meantime, the talented, young Monégasque racing driver is keeping his focus on the 2018 Formula 1 season, after a positive first half of the championship: “Many people are telling me it was a smooth start. But I remember that after the third race actually people were saying it was a difficult start. Which was probably true. I struggled in the first three races, there was a lot of new things to me. But I probably did not expect things to go well as quickly. From Baku onwards we really did a big step up and we kept that performance. That very sudden step, probably I did not expect.” – he said.
Understanding how to work with his engineers to extract more performance from the car has been a major part of his development, said Leclerc: “Everything is so new that you need to take a little bit the rhythm of the weekends, of how to work with your engineers, of what to ask to the car which is very important. Driving is one thing but what you ask to the car, or what you ask to the engineer to do on the car is also extremely important and I think I did a big step on that after the first three races and that has helped me also to improve the driving on an easier car to drive. I think it was a bit of a combination of everything that made a step up.” – he added.
As a Ferrari development driver, Charles Leclerc has been able to use the team’s simulator to practice tracks he hasn’t driven on yet. And of course it helps enormously that Sauber’s C37, with a current-specification Ferrari power unit which now appears to be F1’s class-leader, is a much more competitive prospect than the team’s 2017 car. However as Leclerc points out the young driver ladder does little to prepare new F1 drivers for one of the most important aspects of their job: helping the team make their car faster: “When you start in Formula Renault until Formula Two the car is completely fixed in terms of development. So you only really have to do the set-ups, and the set-up more come from the year before. So you just arrive on the track, you take the car they give you, and then you work on the set-up. In terms of developing the car and having a future vision for the car and what to add on the car to go quicker, this is something completely new to me. But we have also very good engineers that know what are the weaknesses of the car and what we need to improve.”
Another aspect of this has been learning that in F1 having a well-balanced car is not necessarily the same thing as having a quick car: “I find it quite difficult actually for the driver because in junior categories it’s about the balance of the car, because when you have the right balance, everyone has the same cars, so you are going quick. In Formula 1 you can have a really good balance but if the actual package is not good enough it’s difficult then to find the real weaknesses of the car. This is something I’ll probably learn with years.” – the Monégasque racing driver explained.
The results have been there for all to see since it ‘clicked’ for Leclerc. He’s the only Sauber driver to reach Q3, which he’s done three times. He’s scored 13 of the team’s 18 points. And he’s seldom been found wanting in wheel-to-wheel battle, even when up against the likes of Fernando Alonso. With Charles Leclerc widely expected to gain a Ferrari promotion in the future, Sauber team principal Frédéric Vasseur now gets asked very different questions about his young star: “I would like just to remind you that all of you were around the table in China and you were quite discouraged with the level of Charles.” – he jokingly reminded journalists during the Austrian Grand Prix weekend.
The Sauber team principal now has the opposite task of containing expectations about F1’s emerging talent. “I think we have to take it calm. He is doing a good job, for sure, he is improving. But he’s not world champion and you have to do step by step and I don’t want to be in a situation that if he has some issues in the next races – and he will have because you can’t have a clean sheet all the season – I don’t want to have Charles destroyed by everybody that he’s not world champion. He has to improve. He has a very good learning curve. He’s ramping up. I’m very happy and very proud of the job done but he’s not world champion.” – Frédéric Vasseur concluded.