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Singapore Grand Prix: It’s time for young blood at Ferrari, and Charles Leclerc is more than ready

The Independent logo The Independent 14/9/2018 David Tremayne
a baseball player wearing a red hat © Provided by Independent Digital News & Media Limited

The news earlier this week that Ferrari have dropped Kimi Raikkonen in favour of rising star Charles Leclerc for 2019 was confirmation of what we thought we had witnessed on the opening lap of the Italian GP.

There, Raikkonen, in pole position, did not concede first place to team-mate Sebastian Vettel, as might have been expected, on the run down to the first chicane. Instead, his defence of the lead compromised Vettel’s exit.

That seemed to be the act of a man who knew he no longer had to play the second fiddle to his title-contending team leader all the time, on pain of censure, because he knew he wasn’t staying. Indeed, he later confirmed he had learned this over the Monza weekend.

The intransigence Raikkonen showcased at the Italian GP was on view again here in Singapore. As he headed to the green room after qualifying he commented to one observer: “I just annoyed that gentleman there,” pointing to Lewis Hamilton, “and I just really annoyed that gentlemen there even more!” pointing to Vettel. Annoyed and gentleman were not quite the words he is alleged to have used, but you get the picture.

Signing Leclerc was the late Sergio Marchionne’s last gift as president of Ferrari, before his untimely death in July, as the young racer, together with Max Verstappen, Esteban Ocon and recent McLaren signing Nando Norris, is clearly the future of the sport.

Ironically, Raikkonen is driving as well as he has since returning to Ferrari in 2014, but the 2007 champion’s second coming has been a case of too little, too late. In five years he has not scored a single victory in 93 races, and his two poles, seven fastest laps and 23 podiums also stacks up badly against Vettel.

Now he returns to Sauber – which is a very different team with Alfa Romeo sponsorship and Swedish ownership – where Peter Sauber gave him his big break after only 23 cars races back in 2001.

There are suggestions that some shares in the team – he already has his own Motocross GP team – proved attractive to him for when his two-year contract runs out at the end of 2020.

Via their Driver Academy, Ferrari have had ample access to telemetry to keep an eye on Leclerc’s progress, and Marchionne clearly liked what he saw him doing in the cockpit. And he was not an easy man to please.

In these days, when testing is limited, Leclerc struggled a little at first, notably in qualifying, and made some rookie mistakes with set-up. Perhaps he even disappointed some of those who had expected so much of him. But he persevered with learning the Sauber’s complex onboard systems, particularly all the different controls on the steering wheel which can bring so much performance, and avoided making serious driving errors.

Every teams does a lot of running in simulators, but he is quick to point out that “in the end when you arrive in the real car, it’s different. When you arrive on the race weekend with the others and there’s all the media attention, and there are 10 things that you need to do on the first lap… I mean, everything is going so quick that it’s not like in the simulator, when you can do a mistake and you just press replay and start again.”

a man wearing a baseball hat: charles-leclerc.jpg © Provided by Independent Digital News & Media Limited charles-leclerc.jpg
Charles Leclerc is one of the sport’s rising stars (Getty)

He quickly sorted all that out, and scored a string of impressive results that Vettel, for one, said his car should not have achieved. He was sixth in Baku, 10th in Spain, Canada and France, and ninth in Austria.

He’s very fast and smooth, smart enough to avoid mistakes, has a cool head and an ego that’s under control, and plenty of mental capacity left over beyond the mechanical aspect of driving race cars. He’s honest with himself, and brutally self-analytical. When he identifies weaknesses, he works until they are fixed.

Raikkonen might have more left to give, but he’s had his chance for the past five years. It’s time for young blood in the second car, and Leclerc is more than ready. Ferrari will have a fast 21 year-old who will keep Vettel on his toes and perhaps stop him getting too big for his boots, and with whom they can look forward to establishing a lengthy and successful relationship while keeping their current upward momentum.

a man wearing a red hat: Ferrari.jpg © Provided by Independent Digital News & Media Limited Ferrari.jpg
Could Raikkonen be a thorn in the side of Vettel for the rest of the season? (AFP/Getty Images)

Raikkonen was his usual disobliging self this afternoon when asked what had prompted the return to Sauber, talks with whom only happened after he learned at Monza that he was out of Ferrari.

“Because I want to go,” he said. “Why do you try to make it so complicated? I don’t know anything more than you guys, purely where they have been finishing. I don’t know what will happen, nobody knows what will happen next year. I don’t care about what others think. As long as I am happy with my own reasons, it is enough for me.”

Meanwhile, it will be fascinating to see if that trait will influence his decision whether to keep helping his team-mate in his fight with Hamilton for a fifth world championship. Last year another rash move by Vettel took out both Raikkonen and Verstappen at the start. On a super-important weekend for Ferrari, will that be uppermost in the Finn’s unpredictable thinking this time out?

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