It is hardly coincidental that Ferrari’s announcement of Charles Leclerc’s contract extension – surprisingly four-year term taking him through to the end of 2024 – was the last big announcement before the usual lull over the festive season. Clearly the Scuderia hoped to cause a stir with this snippet of news, and that it managed.
Or Aston Martin conceding it is examining funding options – as per a story RaceFans broke early in December – but delaying an announcement until the markets were effectively closed for the weekend.
But there are more significant elements to Ferrari’s announcement than mere timing. The team now has a long-term hold over the Monegasque driver it funded through his junior career via the Ferrari Driver Academy, and taken up all its options in a single swoop. Contrast this with Red Bull’s approach: the company holds options over young drivers, but generally extends them for a season at a time.
Ferrari already had a hold over the 22-year-old who created such stirs during his first two seasons at the top level with both his skill and maturity. Yet they have chosen to put him beyond reach of any paddock predators. The message is unequivocal: Charles is ours, and for at least the next five years.
It’s not hard to see why they are so keen on him. Leclerc scored at least two poles more than any other driver (five more than team mate Sebastian Vettel); with better luck he could easily have taken more wins than either Valtteri Bottas or Max Verstappen, both of whom eventually beat him in the points and wins stakes; and he shaded Vettel virtually all season. But still it is an astounding act of faith for Ferrari to commit to him for four more years, particularly where options exist.
Any contract is, of course, a two-way street. As such Leclerc’s manager Nicolas Todt – son of former Ferrari boss Jean, who directed Michael Schumacher’s record-breaking career – no doubt expertly tugged strings in order to obtain the best possible terms for his charge regardless of eventual impact on Vettel’s future. Indeed, one has the distinct impression this was one of the objectives of the extension.
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In the process Ferrari likely froze any designs Lewis Hamilton has on joining them in 2021, for the six-time champion may not fancy taking on Leclerc on what would by then be his own turf. Remember – as Hamilton surely does – the last time he moved to a new team, from McLaren to Mercedes in 2013, new team mate Nico Rosberg scored more wins than he did in their first season together.
Yes, Hamilton has since developed into arguably one of F1’s finest drivers – and, by some metrics, into its best ever – but he has done so by being the number one focus within Mercedes. So does he really need to wager his formidable reputation by going eyeball-to-eyeball against a new generation talent who by then could already be a Ferrari world champion? Clearly, Hamilton would have vastly more to lose in the reputation stakes than Leclerc.
Equally, Leclerc’s extension slammed the door on Verstappen’s hopes of racing in red. Assuming, that is, the Red Bull driver had not already harpooned those by implying Ferrari ‘cheated’ with its power unit last year, for such utterances are not readily forgotten nor forgiven by the team’s current management.
Todt is likely to have negotiated some form of ‘soft’ veto over Leclerc’s team mate, if for no other reason than his man’s chances of winning championships are greater in a clear number one team structure, as his father proved for five consecutive seasons during the Schumacher hegemony.
Thus, in one fell swoop the careers of Vettel, Hamilton and Verstappen have been sideswiped, which no doubt suits Ferrari and Leclerc just fine as they gear up to prevent Mercedes completing a clean sweep of all seven championships in F1’s current ‘era’ before sweeping new regulations arrive in 2021.
Therein lies the most significant element of the extension. Although Ferrari is not (yet) formally committed to F1’s new era (2021-5), it has now done so tacitly, for the last thing this now-public company needs is a messy and costly untangling of a long-term contract.
That said, the timing of the announcement possibly had as much to do with maximising media reaction as unsettling the combined opposition just before Christmas.
View the current list of 2021 F1 drivers and teams
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2021 F1 season
- Analysis: Why Mercedes can “live with” Hamilton’s Turkish GP points loss
- Ferrari: Power unit upgrade can make the difference in fight with McLaren
- Why Schumacher’s Q2 heroics in Turkey didn’t surprise his Haas team
- O’Ward “going to become obsessed” with F1 test debut after McLaren simulator run
- USA ‘now a second home race’ for Williams after Dorilton takeover