Although Charles Leclerc’s maiden victory won’t have much of an impact on this year’s championship, it could have a huge affect on both his and Sebastian Vettel’s career.
Leclerc has looked the stronger Ferrari driver all season, despite the championship standings saying otherwise, and the 21-year-old highlighted this further by taking pole position on Saturday, an incredible seven tenths faster than Vettel who was second.
Then on Sunday, in difficult circumstances after the loss of his friend Anthoine Hubert in the F2 feature race the day before, he led from start to finish, holding off the Mercedes of Lewis Hamilton to win his first race by less than a second.
It has been a long time coming for Leclerc, after missing out on a win at Bahrain due to an engine problem and being passed by Max Verstappen for the lead in the closing stages of the Austrian Grand Prix, but he has finally got the monkey off his back, and in great style too.
But this win would appear to be a pivotal point in both his and Vettel’s career.
Ferrari is no stranger to team orders and it was no different on Sunday. Vettel had pitted six laps earlier than Leclerc in order to try and fend off Hamilton, and when he returned from the pitlane he found himself behind Vettel, but once Leclerc had caught his teammate, the team were on the radio to Vettel and instructed him to move over, which he did straight away.
That order was the move that allowed Leclerc to win the race. By letting Leclerc through, Vettel was then able to slow Hamilton down and hold him at bay while Leclerc built up a gap at the front.
Had that order not been called, then Leclerc would have lost time trying to pass Vettel, and this would have allowed Hamilton to catch the pair and ultimately win, with the Mercedes driver clearly having a faster race car.
It was the right order and the common sense thing to do, but it is highly unusual for Ferrari to order their “number one” driver out of the way. Then again, it is unusual for the Ferrari “number one” driver to be so much slower than his teammate on race day.
And therein lies the answer.
Leclerc is proving to be the faster Ferrari driver on a consistent basis. When he turned up at Ferrari this year, he was told that he would be the number two driver and that Vettel had priority status.
This didn’t matter to Leclerc – he knew he had much to learn and was happy to have a car capable of fighting at the front, and knew that his speed would eventually come to the fore, and so it has.
Leclerc has out-qualified Vettel for the last six races and on average has also been faster in the races.
It is unlikely that Ferrari expected Leclerc to be so fast, so soon in to his career, and it seemed to catch them off guard at the start of the year.
Ferrari have always favoured one driver, and usually that driver is the most experienced or most successful driver.
Now they find themselves with a driver who is only in his second year of F1, but is faster than his four-time world champion teammate.
At the start of the season, Ferrari stuck to their guns and continually provided Vettel with preferential treatment, sometimes ruining Leclerc’s race in the process, despite the Monegasque driver being faster, but things have slowly started to change and now Leclerc is starting to get that treatment instead.
It is an unprecedented move from the Scuderia, but it is starting to pay dividends as Leclerc has the greater potential over the long term.
He has so many years ahead of him, and with performances like yesterday, he is destined to be a multiple winner and potential champion.
Ferrari’s development appears to also be moving in a direction that suits Leclerc more than Vettel. He is able to extract more from the car, and while he still needs to work on tyre management, he is clearly the faster driver when tyre temperatures are not an issue.
With Ferrari building a car more to Leclerc’s style and Leclerc repeatedly beating his teammate, it is starting to raise questions about how viable it is for Vettel to continue with the Maranello team.
It is not acceptable for a four-time world champion, who has been granted “number one” status to suddenly have an inexperienced driver rock up to his team and start beating him.
Vettel will need to raise his game with immediately or otherwise, he may have no choice to leave Ferrari and fail in his bid to emulate his mentor and hero, Michael Schumacher, by returning Ferrari to the glory years.
Rumours have been circling for some time now that Vettel could retire or return to Red Bull and Leclerc’s performances will only increase the rumours as well as adding additional pressure to perform, and as we have seen so many times, the German tends to buckle when the pressure is too much.
One win will not turn Leclerc into Ferrari’s star man and main focus, but if he can regularly churn out better race performances than Vettel, his career will hit new heights, while his teammate will have to battle to save his reputation in a series he once dominated.