It’s a fact of life that when one team dominates in Formula 1, top drivers on the receiving end of seemingly endless defeats get restless. The 18 drivers not sitting in a Red Bull RB19 can’t resist looking on Max Verstappen and Sergio Perez with a touch of envy, which is only natural for the competitive beasts grand prix drivers must be to have any chance of thriving at the top level. Red Bull entering a second year of dominance, which followed a 2021 campaign during which it had equal-top billing with Mercedes, could have a profound impact on the driver market.
Lewis Hamilton is out of contract at the end of the season, leaving even Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff to admit he wouldn’t have any complaints if his star driver chose to leave in search of a better car – albeit with the caveat of “in a year or two”. He is expected to stick with Mercedes, although retirement or a shock move can’t be dismissed as a possibility until a deal is signed. There have also been question marks about Lando Norris, committed to McLaren until the end of 2025 but in a team that’s slipping back in the midfield. Both drivers would be of interest for any rival big squad with a potential vacancy. But there’s another established top driver who is in a difficult position when it comes to deciding the path for his future – Charles Leclerc.
Leclerc is now 25 and is arguably the fastest man in F1 over a single lap. Yet despite being a formidable performer ever since he moved to Ferrari in 2019 after a rookie campaign with Sauber, he’s won just five races. There are those who use the poor ratio of pole positions to wins (he’s topped qualifying 18 times) to criticize Leclerc, suggesting he’s simply a fast driver who can’t convert opportunity into victory. But while he has made mistakes, most infamously crashing out of the lead of the French Grand Prix last year, more often than not Ferrari has been the weak link that has given out at key moments either mechanically or strategically.
Leclerc is contracted to Ferrari until the end of next year. Usually, a top team would be determined to lock down its prize asset rather than running the risk of going into the final year with their future still up in the air. Ferrari team principal Frederic Vasseur has kicked this particular can way down the road whenever asked about it.
“It’s like for a wedding,” said Vasseur in January. “If both sides of the table are happy with the situation, we will continue. But it’s not the priority for today, we have a good relationship and we have time to discuss this. The only topic today that we have to focus on is pure performance and getting results.”
His point about performance referenced the team’s wider focus rather than what it needs to do to keep Leclerc, but it might equally be connected to his future. At that point, Vasseur will have hoped Ferrari would start the season strongly, provide Leclerc with a car that could win races and that a new deal would be straightforward. Nothing convinces a driver to stay where they are more persuasively than strong performance.
But given Leclerc’s 2023 results so far amount to a seventh place, a retirement and a 10-place grid penalty in a car that has a tire management problem, you wouldn’t blame him for starting to think about going elsewhere. The fact is, Vasseur isn’t trying to tie Leclerc down to a new deal because he knows Ferrari has to prove itself to Leclerc, who understands his own value well enough to ensure he keeps his options open just in case.
The Leclerc/Ferrari alliance has been a frustrating one. On his second outing for the team, he lost a sensational victory in the Bahrain Grand Prix to a dropped cylinder, then last year was robbed of at least one win by power unit problems. Engine reliability was the top priority for 2023, so it was no surprise that when Leclerc caught up with the media after retiring from third place in Bahrain, he couldn’t hide his disappointment. The optimism of the new season peeled away immediately and the Leclerc of the end of last year was back in front of us: downbeat, frustrated, disappointed – and with good reason.
Leclerc is a class act: stunningly fast, blessed with arguably the greatest sensitivity to grip in particular in traction zones and with a capacity to sit on that ragged edge. For him, lightning-fast corrections minimize mistakes and conserve momentum where for others they would cause a big moment or worse. Every now and again he falls off that tightrope, but it’s rare. That’s why he’s one of the most admired drivers in the paddock.
Mercedes is known to covet his services, and it’s a team that could potentially have a use for him in the not-too-distant future. It regards George Russell as a long-term driver, one capable of winning world championships, but isn’t afraid to put two topliners together. Should Hamilton walk away, Leclerc would be high on its list. Make no mistake, Leclerc knows there’s a potential Mercedes berth for him in the future.
The trouble is, Mercedes is no better off than Ferrari right now. What it does have is more recent success, a run of 15 titles out of 16 from 2014-2021 compared to a Ferrari team that last won a crown – the constructors’ championship – way back in 2008. But while Mercedes holds a certain appeal, it’s a sideways move on current form.
The move that everyone simultaneously wants and doesn’t want is Red Bull. It has the car, but it is a Max Verstappen stronghold. He’s earned supremacy at that team through relentless high performance and is reaping the reward of the years spent toiling in a car that could only occasionally grab victories. That in itself is a lesson for Leclerc and any other driver looking to jump ship.
The trouble for any driver eyeing a Red Bull seat is that Verstappen is under contract until the end of 2028, which is forever in F1 terms. The team is set up around him, optimized to make the most of his talents and that generally subscribes to the number one/number two model. Even if Red Bull did want to replace Sergio Perez, it’s questionable whether it would really want a driver of Leclerc’s class. As for Leclerc, while he would back himself to beat Verstappen (any driver on the grid would, many through delusional optimism, but at least in Leclerc’s case he is one of the few with the ability to give Verstappen something to think about) the circumstances wouldn’t appeal.
For Leclerc, Ferrari is the best option. The question is whether the revamped team can convince him it is capable of taking the step from occasional winner to champion. Leclerc had reservations about the old Mattia Binotto regime and is positive about Fred Vasseur’s leadership, but with rumors about top-level management intervention and the thorny issue of politics possibly undercutting the team’s potential never far from anyone’s thoughts, he likely still needs to be convinced.
As has been the case for much of F1 history, certainly since the long-distant days when sportscar programs were prioritized at times, Ferrari has everything it needs to succeed. It has the cash, it has the resources and the facilities to be at the top in F1. Recent investment has consolidated that position, with measures such as the new state-of-the-art driver-in-loop simulator that came online in late 2021 ensuring it’s still at the cutting edge. But the question with Ferrari is always whether it can make the most of it.
In that regard, Leclerc is at the heart of one of the few teams with the potential to dominate. In current conditions, it’s one of only three alongside Mercedes and Red Bull that can do so, and he’s the focal point of the team. While Carlos Sainz is not far off, ultimately Ferrari still regards him as the support act to Leclerc’s spearhead. That’s not a bad place to be.
Should Leclerc lose faith in Ferrari, there will be no lack of rivals interested in his services. And with teams like Aston Martin well on their way to establishing themselves as ready to fight for a championship, there will be even more realistic options presenting themselves in the near future. That’s why Leclerc will likely hang on until at least early next year before recommitting himself to Ferrari.
In the meantime, he must work on developing himself. He’s clearly less comfortable, or capable, with seeing the big picture in races and calling the strategic shots as Sainz is. And given the Spaniard is an intelligent and industrious character, there will also be less obvious shortfalls for Leclerc to work on off-track. A driver can’t single-handedly turn a team into a title winner, but he can be part of the process and should at least be able to ensure he’s ready to deliver relentless performance when the machinery to win consistently is under him. He does still have a mistake in him, two major in-race errors last year at Paul Ricard and when he went off chasing Perez at Imola, so ensuring he’s rock solid and ready to thrive when he does have a title-winning car under him is essential.
And looking back to the example of Verstappen, he spent five seasons with Red Bull staring at the back of all-conquering Mercedes cars. Leclerc is now in his fifth season with Ferrari, so the hope will be that the breakthrough is close. It won’t be this year, but it could be in 2024. Patience can be a virtue, particularly in contemporary F1 where lengthy phases of domination are a fact of life.
But 2024 needs to be strong both for Leclerc and Ferrari. If next year starts like this year then Leclerc will have to seriously consider hitching his career wagon to a non-prancing horse. But that move could be as risky, if not more so, than staying where he is.
The easy solution, for both sides, is for Ferrari to fulfill its potential. It’s only if that doesn’t happen that Leclerc could throw a spanner in the works of the driver market and face a career make-or-break decision of ‘should I stay or should I go’.