🇺🇸 F1'23: R21 - Formula Conversion

Is Charles Leclerc Ferrari's past or future?

The Monegasque driver has long been a part of the Ferrari program since March 2016, his arrival being announced along the same time as a legacy name of Giuliano Alesi - son of former Ferrari driver Jean, but outpointed him in GP3, winning that championship at the first time of asking.

A SHORT HISTORY LESSON

A jump to Formula 2 the next year didn’t phase him, and he met the increased test with flying colours, winning that championship in his first and only season in the step below Formula 1. 

Coming into his first F1 season, he joined the Ferrari-affilliated Sauber and took 39 points for the team, emerging as the sport’s next shining star. This was the most points a Sauber driver had taken since Nico Hulkenberg’s 51-point haul in 2013. 

Widely regarded as the next number one driver for the famous Scuderia, it was no surprise to see Leclerc elevated to Ferrari after one full season in F1, swapping places with Kimi Raikkonen - Ferrari’s last world champion, and starting the 2019 season alongside four-time champion Sebastian Vettel. 

He even provided Ferrari with a memorable home win in Monza, delighting the legions of red-clad fans and cementing his place in the team’s folklore, joining the likes of Fernando Alonso, Michael Schumacher and Rubens Barrichello as Ferrari winners at home.

At the age of 21 and being one of Ferrari’s youngest drivers in several years, Leclerc won more races and scored more points than his illustrious teammate, continuing to do the same as the Ferrari stuttered towards one of its worst seasons in its history during the pandemic-affected 2020 season.

As drivers rotated around the teams in 2021, Leclerc extended his contract - another no-brainer move for the team, who had secured their driver lineup by adding Carlos Sainz, and it is perhaps here that Leclerc started looking backwards rather than forwards.

For the first time in his Formula 3, 2 and I career, Leclerc was outscored by a teammate. Carlos Sainz took more podiums and narrowly beat his teammate by 5.5 points. A great result for Ferrari who showed that they were back at the top end of the F1 grid.

Leclerc bounced back in 2022, eventually finishing second in the Championship, taking three wins and scoring his single-season record with 308 points. If he had scored that this year, he would be comfortably second.

And it looks like one of the biggest reasons Leclerc hasn’t been able to challenge Red Bull more consistently (aside from Max Verstappen’s dominance brushing every other rival aside) is that Leclerc has a conversion problem. 

If you see that post, Leclerc is in danger…

He has shown great single lap pace in 2022 and 2023, taking 14 pole positions across both seasons, and doing so across lots of different types of track - Baku the only track he took pole on in both years. A dozen of those poles have come since Melbourne 2022, and each one of those poles have resulted in someone else taking the chequered flag.

I thought it would be interesting to see what happened in those races before taking a look at what the future might be for Leclerc.

2022:

Miami: Verstappen overtakes Leclerc on lap 9 and never loses the lead, defending it after a late safety car. Leclerc finishes second

Spain: Leclerc leads every session and is leading before engine failure on lap 27. Verstappen wins

Monaco: The good news, Leclerc finishes his home race for the first time. The bad news? Ferrari strategy strikes as he finishes fourth. Perez wins.

Baku: Overtaken into the first corner, Leclerc’s engine blows out again, this time on lap 20. Verstappen wins

France: After winning in Austria the race before (not from pole), Leclerc pitches it into the wall. Verstappen wins

Italy: From seventh, Verstappen wins under safety car. Leclerc finishes second after an early stop under VSC forces him into a two-stop

Singapore: Leclerc gets overtaken at the start by Perez. On a drying track, a slow stop means Ferrari’s undercut fails. Leclerc finishes second

2023:

Baku: Perez leads a Red Bull 1-2 as Leclerc - who finishes third - gets passed by both within the first 10 laps.

Belgium: Leclerc finishes third after losing the lead to Perez on lap one.

Austin: Cross at having to let Sainz go past, Leclerc finishes sixth on track. Verstappen wins and Leclerc is disqualified for a technical infringement. 

Mexico: Crashes with Perez and gets overtaken by Verstappen at turn 1. Eventually finishes on the podium.

Vegas: Trades the lead with Verstappen and Perez before a brave overtake on the last lap on the latter gets Leclerc second

The common link in all of this is that Red Bull have won each of the last 12 races when Leclerc starts the race at the front. Perhaps that’s not the worst outcome. Maximising a result is all-important and perhaps third or maybe second is the place to aim, and that’s where he has largely been when he’s started at the front. When he hasn’t is when the problems set in. 

Sainz leads the Ferrari battle by 12 points, so it’s not decided yet with one race still to go, and Leclerc has finished higher than his teammate 11 times to 9. Sainz has won a race, but Leclerc has five pole positions to the Spanish drivers two. 

It is a fascinating battle that might have been decided by two legs of the triple-header being a disaster for Leclerc, where he was DSQ’ed in Austin, while suffering a crash on the formation lap in Brazil, meaning a DNS from what would have been a front row start.

For some time, I’ve thought a change would be best for Leclerc. He is contracted to the team until 2024, alongside lots of other drivers. There have been rumours that he has signed a multi-year extension at his current team, but a) those have been listed on Xitter and b) some of the sport’s writers have been focused more on engagement rather than truth, so who really knows?

There are lots of drivers out of contract at the end of next year, and someone like Alex Albon or - hear me out - Fernando Alonso could be attractive options for Ferrari if they want to clear the decks. They also have one of the sport’s next rising stars in Formula 2 in the form of Olly Bearman who could either head to Haas or be a very ambitious number two driver at Ferrari.

For Leclerc, Aston Martin feels like a logical fit. His title chances seem to be held back by being where he is now and probably has the same chance in the green machine. He is a lead driver who is underperforming behind his teammate, he is infinitely frustrated and his constant calls for change or reform over team radio must be a small portion of what his conversations are like with his team. 

If you’re not happy at your job, it makes sense to look for a new one, and if that new team is an up-and-coming outfit, it might be worth rolling the dice. However, that’s a long way away and 2024 could be a closer year between Red Bull Racing and the chasing pack.

There is one more chance for Leclerc to try and convert a pole position into a win at Abu Dhabi. Red Bull have secured their 1-2 in the Drivers’ Championship, but the stories continue to be told lower down the grid. Sainz and Alonso are both locked on 200 points. Lando Norris and Leclerc are still in contention for that fourth place, while in the Team battle, Mercedes lead Ferrari by just four points, Aston Martin are looking to overtake McLaren with just 11 points between them, and then there’s the battle lower down between Williams (who squandered the chance of points today) and Alpha Tauri who are just seven points behind.

I’ve really enjoyed this season, and probably enjoyed it a lot more than Charles Leclerc on the Sunday after a triumphant qualifying session.

Join the conversation

or to participate.