How good is Charles Leclerc really?

The 2019 season of Formula 1 was a great one for Charles Leclerc. The young French driver started the season as Sebastian Vettel’s apprentice, with the expectation that he would learn from the German master and carry out some vital support and blocking duties in Vettel’s quest for the championship. By the time the season was over, he’d supplanted Vettel as the team’s preferred driver, and when the 2020 season begins, it will be him that carries the burden of Ferrari’s championship aspirations. It’s been a wild ride in a very short space of time.

We don’t want to take anything away from what Leclerc has achieved. Many voices within the sport have already tipped him as Ferrari’s next World Champion, and at times his driving during the 2019 campaign was out of this world. He drives with the maturity of a much older professional, and so far, he’s shown very little sign of being fazed by his meteoric rise to fame, and most of the time, he comes across as composed and focused. He’s prone to the occasional bout of whining on the pit radio, but Lewis Hamilton excels at radio whining, and he’s the most dominant champion of the 21st century. If it works for Hamilton, there’s no reason why it can’t work for Leclerc.

Even with all of this being said, we still want to see more from Leclerc in the 2020 season, because we have one significant question that we need the answer to. Has Leclerc risen to prominence with Ferrari so quickly because he’s incredibly good, or has his ascent been hastened by the fact that Sebastian Vettel is declining just as quickly? If it weren’t for Vettel’s erratic and sometimes downright inexplicable errors during the 2019 campaign, would Leclerc even be the team’s number one choice at Ferrari at all? To answer that question, we need to take a closer look at the German.

If you type the name ‘Sebastian Vettel’ into Google, one of the many options that appear as potential ways to complete the sentence is ‘errors.’ Vettel took the Formula 1 world by surprise when he started making unforced errors in 2018 – errors that would eventually hand the championship to Lewis Hamilton. At the start of the 2019 season, we began to see errors creep into his game again, and by the halfway point of the season, he was almost out of contention for the championship already. He might be faster than Leclerc on his day, and he can usually out-qualify him if he’s at his best, but holding on to a lead appears to have become a serious problem for the former four-time world champion. The issue has now become so pronounced that some commentators have openly begun to question whether his time at the top is over.

The sore point when it comes to Ferrari and Vettel is that none of his four world championships have come as a Ferrari driver. He dominated the sport for a brief period at Red Bull, and Ferrari spent huge money on acquiring him with the idea that he would continue that form and end their long, long wait for a championship of their own. It hasn’t happened so far, and now it looks increasingly likely that it will never happen at all. If anything, his time at Ferrari has served as a reminder of how fast that Red Bull car was when he drove it. He didn’t usually have to worry about fighting his way up through the field or defending a lead. When he’s called upon to do that – as we’ve seen him do so often under intense pressure from Lewis Hamilton – he makes mistakes. Often, those mistakes have taken him out of the race completely. Colliding with Leclerc in
Brazil and taking both Ferrari’s out of the race was his lowest point – and, for many followers of the team – the final straw.

Expectations at Ferrari are higher than expectations at any other team even after so many years without a driver’s or constructor’s championship. The red cars are synonymous with the sport. They’re used as the marketing shots for the official Formula 1 video games. They’re even used at online slots websites to draw attention to Formula 1-themed UK casino (of which there are several – some of which have seemingly been made without a license). Unlike the people who play and enjoy those online slots games, though, Ferrari aren’t gamblers. They like to get what they pay for, and with Vettel, they thought they were buying a champion. They were wrong. That’s why we suspect there’s some truth to the rumor that while Vettel has been offered a contract extension with the team, it will be for much less money than he’s paid at the moment.

To assess how good Leclerc really is, we need to see a whole season where he’s the number one guy with the team, and he’s backed in every decision the team makes. Too many times during the last campaign, we saw him asked to hold back to allow Vettel to overtake him, or pitted in a way that gave Vettel an advantage. It wasn’t until halfway through the season that Ferrari realized they were backing the wrong man and decided to get behind Leclerc instead. Who knows how many more points Leclerc might have finished the season with if he’d received that kind of backing from the start? Would it have been enough to prevent Hamilton from becoming a six-time world champion? Probably not, but it would likely have made the season much closer, and therefore made the final few races of the campaign much more exciting from a spectator’s point of view.
The only way we can answer the question we posed at the start of this article is to say we don’t know yet. We don’t know how good Leclerc really is, because we haven’t seen him drive a full campaign as ‘the chosen one’ for a top-level team. Unless Vettel has been able to work his way back into Ferrari’s affections for 2020, this time around, we’re likely to see him get that opportunity. That means we might have to wait a while for an answer — but an answer is coming.