Charles Leclerc’s contract extension with Ferrari is no surprise, but the timing of it signals a changing of the guard at Maranello.
Leclerc has been part of the Ferrari family since 2016, when he joined the team’s academy, and after a year at Alfa Romeo, the Monegasque driver got the call up to drive for the Maranello based team.
When Ferrari confirmed Leclerc as Kimi Raikkonen’s replacement for 2019, it was made abundantly clear that Leclerc was expected to support Vettel in his title challenge against the Mercedes of Lewis Hamilton, but that expectation never met reality.
In the first half of 2019, Leclerc was the faster of the two Ferrari drivers, and he took the team’s first win of the year at Spa, before following it up with a win in Italy, and although Vettel picked up his own form in the second half of the year, it was Leclerc who ended the season with the most points.
But despite the fact Leclerc ended the season higher than his team-mate, Ferrari continued to give the impression that they felt Vettel would be their strongest hope of providing a world title – until now.
All of the top drivers are out of contract at the end of next season, including Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen, and there have already been rumours circulating that Ferrari has had private talks with Hamilton and that Verstappen could end up with the Silver Arrows.
There has also been a rumour in recent weeks that Vettel could be interested in a move to McLaren, with the Woking based team showing a huge improvement this year, but of course with F1 driver signings, these are all to be taken with a pinch of salt.
As the above demonstrates, there is the potential for a number of driver changes in 2021, and the silly season will not doubt begin in earnest when the season gets underway next March, but there is also plenty of time for Ferrari to take their time in choosing their ultimate line-up.
It is highly unusual for a team to extend a driver’s contract in the off-season, right before Christmas, especially at a title challenging team, but this news shows a real statement of intent from the Scuderia, that Leclerc is their man for the future.
He is the driver they see as having the greatest potential, and they didn’t want to hang around and allow Leclerc to be courted by the likes of Mercedes.
Ferrari know they want Leclerc for the long term, and why not? They have nurtured and developed him through his junior career, and in Leclerc, they have all the ingredients for a world champion.
It was a no-brainer to re-sign the 22-year-old, but while the move shows that Ferrari had no questions about keeping him, it does suggest that they are open to allowing Vettel to walk away, and for his seat to be taken by a new recruit.
It could well be that Vettel wasn’t interested in starting negotiations. At this stage, nobody really knows what is going behind closed doors, other than those behind them, but the body language from the bosses at Maranello has suggested for some time that they are not 100% happy with the four-time world champion.
Vettel is a great driver, who on his day is incredible, but he makes too many mistakes, far too many for a multiple world champion, and he has demonstrated that he is susceptible to cracking under pressure.
Of all the teams on the grid, Ferrari – and maybe Red Bull – are the two teams who put the biggest pressure on their drivers to perform, and while Vettel has done well during his time at Ferrari, in comparison to his old team-mate Kimi Raikkonen, he has faltered when up against new, young talent like Leclerc.
And with Ferrari publicly stating their admiration for Hamilton, and confirming that they have held private talks with him, it is clear that they are looking at other options beyond Vettel for 2021.
But, even if Ferrari were to sign Hamilton for 2021, it is unlikely to be a long term arrangement, with Hamilton about to turn 35 next month, and having already won six world championships.
Hamilton is coming towards the end of his career, while Leclerc is just starting out, and so while it is surprising that Leclerc’s contract extension was announced today, it is also a very sensible move from Ferrari.
Leclerc still has another 15 years ahead of him, and with the talent he has already displayed in his first year at the team, he has multiple championship winning quality written all over him.
That is what Ferrari have invested in today, by signing Leclerc for another five years. A young driver who will almost guarantee to provide consistent results, much in the same way as Verstappen, and who can provide it for years to come, while also being available on a much cheaper salary than the likes of Vettel and Hamilton.
Of course, this signing could hint at the potential for Vettel’s exit from the team, but then again, there is still plenty of opportunity for him to re-sign at some stage next year.
Vettel is also coming to the latter stages of his F1 career, and will also want to scour the market in an attempt to add a fifth title to his trophy cabinet, but time is running out.
It will likely be his last contract before he considers ending his career, and so he will want to get it right, but with so many talented young drivers, it could be hard for him to get the seat that he wants.
The situation isn’t clear, and won’t be until mid-summer 2020, and Vettel will want to see what Ferrari can provide next year before he decides to re-commit for 2021.
Ferrari will also want to consider drivers other than Vettel and Hamilton, such as Verstappen, Ricciardo, Ocon and Sainz, and it is unlikely any of these drivers will want to start talks until they know where their teams stand next year, and so that final seat is likely to remain open for some time.
But while questions remain over the last available seat at Ferrari, one thing is very clear – there is a changing of the guard at Maranello and the team-mate dynamic between Leclerc and Vettel will never be the same again.