It has not been as supreme a Formula 2 campaign for Charles Leclerc as the standings would suggest.
A suspension failure whilst leading in his home race in Monaco; demoted from pole to the back of the grid in Hungary; a demolition victory turned disqualification in Spa; and of course, most significantly, the tragic death of father Herve just prior to the weekend in Baku.
For even the most capable young driver, this would have been more than enough to derail such a decisive campaign in an already promising career. However, in 2017, Leclerc has found the strength to use setbacks as a motivational springboard, and swept to a level of performance that has quickly earned him acclaim within the Formula 1 paddock.
Twelve months ago, Charles was a well-respected up-and-comer, looking to capitalise on a seat with the ART Grand Prix powerhouse squad in GP3 and seeking to impress a restructured Ferrari Driver Academy following his winter appointment. Now the equation is on its head: now he has nothing more to prove; now like Lewis Hamilton, Nico Hulkenberg and Stoffel Vandoorne, his junior results are so masterful that the onus is on F1 to find him the seat he so richly deserves.
In recent times it is difficult to recall a twelve-month period in which a junior series driver has happened upon such an imperious vane of form; perhaps only Vandoorne’s steamrolling of the 2015 GP2 title is truly comparable. His GP3 campaign came across some speed-bumps in the form of occasional bouts of tyre degradation and internecine contact, but a consistent supply of fairly emphatic pole positions rather indicated that the title was seldom in doubt.
But in newly rebranded F2, Leclerc has reached entirely new heights of performance. To an extent never seen before, Leclerc has mastered a chassis and a tyre combo historically vexing for rookies. Charles has excelled no matter the challenge, be it a Monaco circuit he had never raced on before, carving through the traffic on course to victory in Barcelona, or maintaining focus amid increasing awareness of admiring onlookers in the F1 paddock.
At every critical juncture, every crucial moment Leclerc has been able to produce his best form; indeed, it is difficult to know what more the Monégasque could have done on course to the F2 title. Earlier this year whilst Antonio Giovinazzi was harvesting admiring looks subbing for Wehrlein in Melbourne, Ferrari stablemate Leclerc may have felt a little overlooked. Three crashes for the Italian and some F2 demolition later and Charles has comprehensively reasserted himself as the Scuderia’s rising star.
As rising stars go, the sixteen-year-old Dutchman who signed an F1 deal less than a year out of karts is the standard. As a repeat winner on the international stage in his first year in cars, it would have been interesting to see how Max Verstappen’s junior career would have progressed were he not parachuted into the Toro Rosso for 2015. However even Max would have been hard-pressed to have emulated the two rookie titles in succession and the seamless progression between series that Leclerc has achieved.
For a team that has had a historically casual attitude towards junior drivers compared with Helmut Marko’s well-established programme, Ferrari’s Driver Academy has produced a young hopeful that belies its shaky history.
Following the tragic death of the FDA’s first recruit Jules Bianchi, and having lost Sergio Perez to McLaren, the programme was bleeding momentum to the extent that it was doubtful whether it would continue. However, for 2016, with the fresh leadership of Massimo Rivola, it was the poignant task of Bianchi’s godson, Leclerc, to lead the FDA into a new era.
Ferrari now has a branded junior recruitment structure with championship-winning associations with powerhouse teams in both GP3 and F2 almost entirely thanks to Leclerc. Indeed, compared with the rather sparse range of talents currently being evaluated by the Red Bull Junior Team (a sparsity that may inconvenience Toro Rosso by overextending the career of the underperforming Daniil Kvyat), Ferrari is in an excellent position to further expand their renewed interest in young drivers.
This is another reason, were it needed, to promote Leclerc to the F1 seat that he so obviously deserves. But that is not the nature of the debate: there is no real question about whether Charles will make his F1 debut. Having reached the last rung of junior ladder as the only man to have ever taken titles at both GP3 and F2 level it would be a feat of extraordinary injustice to overlook such illustrious credentials. Whilst Charles faces stiff competition for a seat at Sauber, Ferrari is obliged to win out in the inevitable bidding war.
The question rather is whether Leclerc can alleviate the vacuum in the Scuderia’s top squad. Kimi Raikkonen’s succession has been a staple story of the driver market for the past three years, and in that time the Finn has done little to justify the three-consecutive single-season contract extensions Ferrari has dished out.
Over the same period the rise of Verstappen, a devastatingly capable young driver perfectly suited to step into Kimi’s shoes, may have prompted Ferrari to question why they don’t invest in young drivers.
Just as Verstappen has endowed Red Bull with a race-winning driver without the team needing to payout for a stalwart champion, Leclerc could be the young superstar Ferrari need without subjecting the Scuderia to the inevitable bidding war for the prodigious Dutchman’s services. If Charles can make the step up to F1 machinery with as much aplomb as he negotiated the previous rungs of the single seater ladder, he might just be the answer to all of Ferrari’s prayers.