The saga of whether Charles Leclerc will race for Ferrari next year is finally over as the Maranello team announced today that the 20-year-old F1 rookie will join them next year replacing Kimi Raikkonen who departs after five consecutive seasons (and eight in total).
In a single sentence press release this afternoon the news was confirmed: “Scuderia Ferrari announces that in the next Formula One racing season, Charles Leclerc will drive for the Team alongside Sebastian Vettel,” read the statement issued in Maranello.
At the same time Raikkonen’s departure was confirmed in a second press release: “Scuderia Ferrari announces that, at the end of the 2018 season, Kimi Raikkonen will step down from his current role,” it read. “During these years, Kimi’s contribution to the Team, both as a driver and on account of his human qualities, has been fundamental. He played a decisive role in the team’s growth and was, at the same time, always a great team player. As a World Champion for Scuderia Ferrari, he will always be part of the Team’s history and family. We thank Kimi for all of this and wish him and his family a prosperous future.”
Raikkonen’s eight years driving for Ferrari came in two spells, the first between 2007 and 2009 and then, after a period inretirement followed by a spell with the Lotus F1 team, he’s been back with the Scuderia since 2014. Those stints netted the F1 Drivers’ title in the Finn’s first year in red plus third place in 2008 and fourth place twice, in 2015 and 2017 respectively.
It’s a big gamble for Ferrari to promote Leclerc for 2019 – rather than give him a second year with the Sauber team or push in towards Haas – as the youngster has little over a dozen grands prix to his name so far and it’s been something of a mixed debut year.
However, his pedigree is very good and after making a name for himself in karting at world level, Leclerc moved to the Formula Renault single seater championship in 2014 and he picked up his first wins the same year.
He then graduated to FIA F3 Euro championship for 2015 where he collected four wins on his way to fourth place in the final classification as well as finishing in a strong second place in the high profile year closing Macau Grand Prix.
Those performances caught Maranello’s eye and for 2016 he joined the Ferrari junior driver ranks and didn’t disappoint with another step up, thsi time to GP2, where three wins and the title immediately followed. Last year he moved up another rung, to F2, and promptly won the title at his first attempt along with seven wins along the way. In the process he became the only rookie driver to win both the GP3 and F2 titles while at just 19 years of age he is the youngest ever F2 title winner.
That superb form saw Ferrari ease Leclerc into the Sauber F1 seat (the Swiss team is a Ferrari engine customer) and while notably putting the car three times this year into the Q3 qualifying session he's made quite a name for himself during his rookie season in F1.
After taking some time to find his feet (P13 in Australia, P12 in Bahrain and P19 in China were not much to write home about) he stunned everyone by finishing in sixth place in Azerbaijan. Leclerc also picked up two more points after finishing P9 in Austria and three times a point for P10, those coming in Spain, Canada and France.
Leclerc thus has 13 points so far this season – but has failed to score points in the last five races through a mix of mistakes and bad luck – although he has amassed more than double the points of his team mate Marcus Ericsson, who has collected only 6 points so far this year.
Leclerc has four DNFs to his name this year and over his fourteen grands prix he put in some fighting drivers and proved unfazed by the close attentions on track of drivers such as esteemed former double world champion Fernando Alonso. At the same time, he’s clearly also made a number of beginner mistakes.
Over the season the rumours grew and grew that he was being readied for the move to Ferrari. There was also plenty of talk that he could move to Ferrari’s other “customer” team, Haas, to give him a second year’s experience before getting into a Ferrari seat.
It is believed that former Ferrari CEO Sergio Marchionne was very keen to promote Leclerc while Team Principal Maurizio Arrivabene was thought to favour retaining Raikkonen for another season – as were other senior technical staff.
It’s also reckoned that Leclerc might have signed a pre-contract with Marchionne and the new Ferrari management have hinted that in signing him they are honouring that agreement.
It’s thought that the final decision was taken last Thursday at a board meeting but rather than afterwards, or indeed slightly earlier at Monza where a driver announcement would be expected, the news has been put off, implying that Ferrari was still hesitating as to whether to promote him. Following that meeting Lapo Elkann confirmed the signing in a website post that was subsequently deleted.
While the jury is still out on his suitability to the role, his current boss certainly believes that it’s the right decision. "It has been a great pleasure to support Charles Leclerc in his rookie year in Formula One,” said Frédéric Vasseur, CEO of Sauber Motorsport and Team Principal of the Alfa Romeo Sauber F1 Team today. “Since his arrival, he has given the team great motivation as well as satisfactions. We have constantly improved and we will work hard until the end of this season to achieve the best possible results together.
“We know well Charles' talent and we are confident that he will have a bright future,” Vasseur continued. “We will keep on following him closely and we wish him the best on his path."
Leclerc will be the youngest driver to race for the Scuderia since Ricardo Rodriguez, who in fact holds the record as the Scuderia’s youngest ever grand prix driver, achieved when the late Mexican took part in the Italian Grand Prix back in 1961 at just 19 years old. It’s a record that Leclerc won’t beat though.
He’s also goin to be the Scuderia’s least experienced singing in four decades, ever since the legendary Gilles Villeneuve was snatched away by Enzo Ferrari from McLaren in 1977, the French-Canadian having contested just one grand prix for the British team before the move to Maranello.
Photos: Scuderia Ferrari - 2018 FIA Formula 1 World Championship
Italiaspeed provides daily independent news on the Italian auto industry, we keep free from any affiliations to bring you the facts. If you read Italiaspeed and like it please consider supporting us.