Charles Leclerc replaces Kimi Raikkonen: How will it change F1 2019?
Leclerc will replace Raikkonen at Ferrari, but what does this mean for the grid, Vettel, and the Scuderia themselves? Watch this space...
By Matt Morlidge
Last Updated: 06/12/18 10:27am
Leclerc and F1's next generation
It's wonderful to see Kimi Raikkonen remain on the grid, and in extending his F1 stay for two more years with Sauber he should become the sport's record-holder for most races entered. He's currently 39 behind Rubens Barrichello .
But his exit from what has really been a fairly comfortable Ferrari seat should also be greeted with optimism and excitement - for a new generation of F1 racers are on the horizon.
While Mercedes are sticking with what they've got, Ferrari and Red Bull are putting their faith in youth; Charles Leclerc, Max Verstappen and Pierre Gasly will fill up three of the six 'big' F1 seats next season (and that's not mentioning Lando Norris, 18, at McLaren), and are all in their early twenties.
That's a potentially dynamite rivalry, and one that could lock out front rows over the next decade and beyond.
Many expected Raikkonen to join Fernando Alonso in leaving F1 and there will have been concerns the sport was losing its mainstays and therefore some of its personality - but now the F1 2019 season is tantalising.
There will be multi world champions battling at the front in Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel, there will be young guns looking to stamp their authority with victories and possibly titles in Leclerc and Verstappen, while there will be race-winning drivers aiming to dominate the midfield and propel their teams forward in Daniel Ricciardo and Raikkonen.
What a grid. Bring it on.
How will Vettel handle Leclerc?
While Raikkonen has rarely come under intense pressure throughout his time with Ferrari, it could be argued Vettel has not only enjoyed a trouble-free four years in red, but also throughout his career.
Vettel was the golden boy at Red Bull during his title-winning streak, clearly favoured over Mark Webber, while he, like plenty of others before him, has dominated Raikkonen at the Scuderia.
The one year he was truly tested by an up-and-coming team-mate was in 2014, and he was duly thrashed by Daniel Ricciardo at Red Bull, outscored by 238 points to 167.
He promptly left the team afterwards.
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And the early signs are that Leclerc will be tough competition for the four-time world champion.
Leclerc nigh-on won every single-seater championship he ever entered before debuting in F1, including a record-breaking F2 championship campaign, and has backed that up with a stellar rookie season in the senior category.
He has already recorded Sauber's best finish, and scored their most amount of points in a season, since 2015. He has entered Q3, the final portion of qualifying, three times - something no Sauber driver has managed since 2013. And he has comprehensively out-paced Marcus Ericsson, a not particularly quick but certainly able, experienced driver, throughout the year.
Vettel has a fresh challenge on his hands. Can he handle the heat?
And how will Ferrari handle Leclerc?
It is as yet unclear whether Vettel will enjoy number one status over Leclerc - and that will surely be decided once Ferrari find out exactly how quick their protégé is - but it will be interesting to see what they do if he is indeed quicker than Raikkonen.
Ferrari have historically adopted a main driver and a supporting driver in F1; it has been their way of prioritising the Drivers' Championship, while they have often had enough of a buffer over their rivals that the constructors' title was a given. But the sport's most successful team have endured a barren decade and, even though they now appear to have the strongest package once again, the battle with Mercedes is surely too tight to afford a driver who is frequently two or three tenths of a second off the other, as Raikkonen, admittedly enjoying a consistent season, has been for much of his four years with Vettel.
The question could then be how Ferrari will handle a second potential race-winner. This current regime hasn't always kept their drivers happy with their tactics (see 2017 Monaco GP, 2018 Italian GP qualifying), while Leclerc, set to become Ferrari's youngest driver since 1961 and a serial winner, will surely be doing his all to fulfill his Scuderia "dream" with a title of his own.
Would he even accept team orders?
Watch this space. It could be very interesting indeed.
What now for Vandoorne and Co?
Raikkonen's move back to Sauber will have surprised and disappointed many drivers. Boosted by a leading Ferrari engine, Sauber have established themselves as solid midfield runners and point-scorers this year and should only improve.
Even if Leclerc left, they theoretically still had two competitive seats available, something Stoffel Vandoorne - recently axed by McLaren - and Antonio Giovinazzi - the next Ferrari protégé in line - would surely have been eyeing up. Even Esteban Ocon, a Mercedes junior whose future is unclear, could have fancied his chances.
But Raikkonen's return closes one door, while Ericsson, closely linked with the team at board level, is expected to fill the other seat.