Charles Leclerc, Ferrari, Bahrain International Circuit, 2019

Analysis: What Ferrari’s big Leclerc deal reveals about their plans

2021 F1 season

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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.

Contrast this approach with Williams’s attempts to bury the news it is involved in advanced talks for the sale of a significant chunk of its Advanced Engineering division to an investment by making a low-key announcement at noon on Christmas Eve.

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.

Lewis Hamilton, Charles Leclerc, Max Verstappen, Red Bull Ring, 2019
Hamilton and Verstappen may think twice about a Ferrari offer
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.

Sebastian Vettel, Charles Leclerc, Ferrari, Sochi Autodrom, 2019
Leclerc eclipsed Vettel 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.

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Dieter Rencken
Dieter Rencken has held full FIA Formula 1 media accreditation since 2000, during which period he has reported from over 300 grands prix, plus...

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34 comments on “Analysis: What Ferrari’s big Leclerc deal reveals about their plans”

  1. I don’t think this harpoons Lewis’ and Max’s chances of driving in Red. In fact, I would say that the message to Lewis and Max here is, “we are jettisoning our prior no.1 as soon as we noticed a better driver. We may do it again when necessary”.

    I think this is a very prudent financial and sporting decision by Ferrari (a public company now).

    What this does is also improve Ferrari’s bargaining power in the financial structure of F1 post 2021. They now control one half of the blockbuster driver battle of the 1st half of the 2020s decade – Verstappen vs Leclerc.

    1. Agree with both points, #sumedh.
      Hamilton has more to win than to lose in reputation if he joins Ferrari. Still many fans link his many WDC titles to the car rather than the driver.
      Having said that, this year would’ve been ideal. Leclerc is not fully embedded yet, and it will be significantly less special if Hamilton joins after Ferrari wins either of the titles in 2020.

      Verstappen will always be welcome in the (unlikely) event that Leclerc does not perform. Having a contract or just a sequence of options doesn’t make a difference (except financially). But don’t forget that Ferrari has also limited Leclerc’s salary trajectory moving to a contract rather than just annual extentions.

      Having one of the two young stars is indeed worth a lot for the team and the company.
      Mercedes now hopes that Russell will develop like Leclerc, or they will have to pay a step price for Verstappen (I don’t believe Ocon will be at the same level, and Mclaren will tie up Norris as soon as they’re convinced of his development)

      1. Mercedes can still get Norris especially as McLaren will be back to Merc engines in 2021.
        Their post Hamilton life will be with Russell and/or Norris which is very promising.
        Agree on your assessment of Ocon.

        1. I don’t think this harpoons Lewis’ and Max’s chances of driving in Red.

          Verstappen’s now extended his Red Bull deal to 2023.

          1. @keithcollantine Are you suggesting this has anything to do with Leclercs contract extension?

    2. I don’t think this harpoons Lewis’ and Max’s chances of driving in Red. In fact, I would say that the message to Lewis and Max here is, “we are jettisoning our prior no.1 as soon as we noticed a better driver. We may do it again when necessary”.

      Very nice point there.

      1. Except there’s a five-year contract involved in CL’s case and SV is out if contract end-2020. Plus if Ferrari jettisons it’s #1s that easily, it could do so with LH and MV too,

        1. Dieter, with LH maybe, with MV never!

        2. Counterpoint would be that Seb’s been with Ferrari half a decade, and still has a year to go. It’s not a question of merely rudely jettisoning a #1, it’s a question of whether they want to continue backing a driver who is ageing like milk.

          I’m not laying blame for all of Ferrari’s woes at Seb’s doorstep, but from the team’s perspective, they might be looking at it differently than I am.

        3. Plus if Ferrari jettisons it’s #1s that easily, it could do so with LH and MV too

          And they could do so with CL as well. I am sure a 5 year contract has exit options on both sides.

          Making this public shows Ferrari are finally going back to the equal / near equal driver policy they have had in 2007-2009 and in 2nd half of 2019. This is good news for fans as well as for Lewis and Max who have thrived well in such equal / near equal driver situations (Lewis with Jenson and Nico from 2010 to 2016, Max with Daniel from 2016 to mid-2018).

          Making this 5 year deal makes very prudent financial sense. Making this 5 year deal public is primarily about giving a message to Seb and for the commercial negotiations.

          I am actually hoping that post this news, Seb announces his retirement now, Ricciardo joins Ferrari and Hulkenburg returns back to Renault. The grid will be richer once that happens.

  2. Happy birthday to Hamilton, I would never say he’s 35. Healthy lifestyle is apparently helping him immensely, he’s in a best shape to stay at the peak of his abilities until his forties. It’s admirable.

  3. Ferrari have clearly decided to pin all their hopes on LEC.
    They believe every word his agent, Todt, tells them.

    I beg to differ. Sure the kid is first class [except when he bins it] and speedy [except when he bins it].
    But I really don’t know about sustaining a title campaign. I would even say Seb may be that touch more reliable, though we all know how UNreliable Seb turned out to be….

    In short, to win Ferrari actually need to get Max.

    1. In short, to win Ferrari actually need to get Max.

      Or Hamilton. Or perhaps Ricciardo or Bottas would do.

  4. 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

    Largely because Rosberg inherited Silverstone (Hamilton was comfortably leading the race when he developed a mechanical issue-Rosberg capitalised & took the win instead). But Hamilton still out-qualified & outscored Rosberg in 2013, despite being new to the team & driving a car largely built aroud Rosberg/Schumacher.

    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.

    The writer of the article needs to hang his head in shame writing such rubbish. Rosberg & Hamilton fought on equal terms (Rosberg wouldn’t have been able to win a championship otherwise).
    Bottas & Hamilton have equal chances at the start of the season. Bottas usually falls too far behind Hamilton, so Merc will then put all their eggs in Hamilton’s basket later in the season. But to say that Hamilton has been the number 1 focus is PURE RUBBISH. The car isn’t built around Hamilton. Merc have stated they generally build a car that is a fast as possible & then both drivers have to adapt. The fact that it’s often Hamilton who struggles in the first few races is testament that the car isn’t specifically built around him. The team isn’t built around Hamilton either e.g. Bottas was given some of Hamilton’s key crew last year, as was Rosberg. Strategy isn’t usually executed around Hamilton either (unless it’s later in the season & Hamilton has become their best shot at the title). There’s been many times when Merc’s strategy has favoured Bottas e.g. Bottas given priority pit-stop China 2019, Hamilton’s strategy compromised in Bahrain 2018 (Hamilton kept out long to act as car block to aid Bottas’s progression) etc etc etc

    Perhaps Dieter Rencken is confusing Hamilton with Schumacher…who unquestionably had the full focus of his team.

    By the way, Happy Birthday Lewis Hamilton

    1. ottas & Hamilton have equal chances at the start of the season. Bottas usually falls too far behind Hamilton, so Merc will then put all their eggs in Hamilton’s basket later in the season. But to say that Hamilton has been the number 1 focus is PURE RUBBISH. The car isn’t built around Hamilton.

      This was also exactly the case with Schumacher at Ferrari and these same arguments were used.

      Merc have stated they generally build a car that is a fast as possible & then both drivers have to adapt.

      This is also true of all teams, although some commentors like to suggest cars are built ‘FOR’ a specific driver. It has been happening for decades.

    2. @amam – If you are going to try to call out someone for leaving out details, please avoid doing so yourself.

      You say that Hamilton lost the British GP due to mechanical issues. But you fail to mention that Rosberg had three DNFs to Hamilton’s one. (A stat many love to trot out for 2016 but for no other season.) And Rosberg finished ahead in the races 8-7 (4 races had Merc DNFs so…). So their results were very even when all is taken into account.

      Yes, Merc drivers have had equal chances but Hamilton was/is the better driver. But I think Dieter’s larger point was that it took a year for Hamilton to establish himself as the lead driver in the team. And that was with only one title to his name and a ‘good’ but not ‘greatest ever’ reputation. The risk of going to Ferrari now would be that if Leclerc beats him in the same car, (regardless of the advantages of being in the same team), it could cause people to cast doubt on Hamilton’s achievements. More rumblings of ‘all car / no driver’ or ‘weak teammates’ when neither is entirely fair. See Vettel currently. Maybe Dieter’s choice of wording rubs you the wrong way but I think his larger point is a good one.

      1. @hobo

        You say that Hamilton lost the British GP due to mechanical issues. But you fail to mention that Rosberg had three DNFs to Hamilton’s one.

        Why would anyone mention that fact? Well because that is completely irrelevant.

        Dieter’s claim is:

        Nico Rosberg scored more wins than he did in their first season together.

        Hamilton was easily winning in Silverstone until his car broke down. So then Rosberg inherited that win. Which really is the only reason why Rosberg has more wins. So it shows Dieter’s claim is nonsensical for any performance comparison between the two.

        Rosberg dropping out of a few races (when he was way down the order) has no relevance to this claim.

        1. The TL;DR version is – Dieter’s point was spot on, and in trying to argue with it the original commenter above tried to take credit from Rosberg for the GBGP win but not give any back for being down on reliability.

          Longer:
          You completely skip over the last paragraph where I get at what I read to be Dieter’s larger point.

          But I think Dieter’s larger point was that it took a year for Hamilton to establish himself as the lead driver in the team. And that was with only one title to his name and a ‘good’ but not ‘greatest ever’ reputation. The risk of going to Ferrari now would be that if Leclerc beats him in the same car, (regardless of the advantages of being in the same team), it could cause people to cast doubt on Hamilton’s achievements. More rumblings of ‘all car / no driver’ or ‘weak teammates’ when neither is entirely fair. See Vettel currently. Maybe Dieter’s choice of wording rubs you the wrong way but I think his larger point is a good one.

          But I made my smaller point because HAM-ROS were basically dead even in results in 2013. And the comment I was responding to said things like:

          …but Hamilton still out-qualified & outscored Rosberg in 2013…

          This is true, but did not account for 3 technical DNFs that Rosberg had over the season. Had he scored a very conservative 7th place in each (he was only lower than 7th four times all season; an 8th and three 9ths) they would have been tied on points.

          So it is lovely to hear about reliability when it suits people (2016) but never any other time.

    3. @Aman, why getting so upset when somebody is slightly less than raving about your idol?
      The article isn’t even focussing on Hamilton FCOL.

      1. “but he has done so by being the number one focus within Mercedes”

        Funny how when I started reading the article, I almost straightaway picked the sentence to cause a few ripples. No idea why people get so sensitive about this, it doesn’t diminish Lewis’ achievements one bit. All team sport serial champions have similar advantages. They always play or compete for teams with the best resources. The also have the best teammates that allow them to elevate their performances. Lionel Messi for example, would never have hit the heights he did if wasnt for the likes of Xavi Hernandez, who is an unknown to most people who are not necessarily avid football fans.

        If Lewis isnt the main focus of Mercedes, the team management should be fired. Why would you pay a driver 50 million a year or whatever to not have him win? It doesn’t make economic sense. I’m not saying there is an explicit clause written into his contract or the teams prospectus, but there will be an “implicit bias”.

        Lewis to Ferrari can still happen. It all depends on the direction the company want to take. As a listed company, signing Lewis will be a healthy boost to their stock price. The marketing power of brand Lewis will be a the key factor as well.

  5. Sure that was a message for the other teams “stop calling Charles”. But I also see some kind of plot regarding the “leak” of Hamilton’s meetings with Ferrari’s top management.

    Was that leaked just to force Todt and Leclerc into accepting softer terms and less $?

    Or the real deal was trying to sign Hamilton, but since it wasn’t successful they signed Leclerc right away. He’s the only top driver left available to Ferrari in 2021 besides Ricciardo. Assuming that Max did blow the bridges with that comment on their PU…

    The question now is: who’s going to be Leclerc’s wingman?

  6. I think you overestimate Leclerc’s influence at Ferrari. Whilst the team has a rightfully-earned reputation for running a leading horse and a designated number two driver, that’s actually not their go-to operating procedure and they especially don’t hand out that number one status to someone just for winning two races and beating a famous teammate. Look at all Ferrari drivers of the modern age that had designated number twos: Michael Schumacher, Fernando Alonso and Sebastian Vettel. What have all these drivers had in common? Multiple world titles won elsewhere and they also joined Ferrari in a spot where the team needed them more than the other way around.

    This move is solely about securing the best active young talent on the grid (I know Verstappen is hardly older, but calling someone starting his sixth season in the sport a “young talent” feels like a bit of a stretch) for years to come before the pay rises to extreme heights and/or other teams can get too cozy with him or his agent. Ferrari will do what they did with Berger/Alesi and Räikkönen/Massa: run the two best drivers they can get (be that Vettel/Leclerc or Hamilton/Leclerc or Verstappen/Leclerc (winning fixes everything, as soon as Max would’ve scored a couple of wins or two, nobody in Italy will care one bit what he said two years ago)), see whether it’s good enough and if one of them is in title contention, put the other guy in a temporary number two role. I doubt Leclerc will be so much as asked on his opinion about who’ll drive alongside him.

  7. And Red Bull / Max Verstappen just announced they extended their contract till 2023…

  8. What will happen at Ferrari depends to large extend on how Vettel reacts to the fact that Leclerc is the man for the future there. Also, I don’t think that the Scuderia would be wrong to bring in Vasseur (who is under their umbrella) to replace Binotto as team principal…no disrespect, just reality.

  9. Contracts typically mean nothing in F1. They can be, and are, broken at will all the time. All this does is send a message to other teams to stop sniffing around Leclerc, tell Leclerc he has preference over Vettel now, and light a fire under Vettel’s ass.

  10. The thing is that Leclerc isn’t that good. He’s just better than Vettel and that really isn’t saying much. It still has to be seen if he’s any better than Russel, Sainz, Ocon etc. Or even Bottas for that matter.

    1. @f1osaurus I don’t disagree with that. I think CL has much to prove yet, and to me a percentage of people are assuming he’s the next coming because Ferrari has appeared to set him up as their rooster. And of course because he challenged SV. But…yeah, I haven’t exactly been blown away by the guy.

  11. Clearly the Scuderia hoped to cause a stir with this snippet of news, and that it managed.

    This is what is wrong with the racing media. Ferrari can’t “let one go” that media finds a way to find some meaning and a negative connotation with it. I had no idea about the Williams thing however, the off season is the most logical time to adress business. Re-signing Lec just before the season or in season would cause much more of a “stir”. I give up, I may just comment that Camileri likes Charles and so does anyone that has been paying attention, the guy is very clever.

    1. Timing of a message is as important as the message, whether in politics, corporate or F1. Fact of 21st Century life.

  12. Finally Ferrari figured out that vettel is the pr driver now they need a good driver, when they had Vettel and kimi they had two pr drivers and lost a lot of points because of this. Now all they need to do is replace Vettel with a good driver maybe Alonso and they have a chance at the constructors at least

    1. @carlosmedrano
      ALO is done in F1

      A spent force of arrogance which proves itself a liability more than anything

      1. Would definitely be better than vettel but if I recall alonso is now getting closer to being 40 years old, and on average every year beyond 35 you lose some performance, so he’s losing several tenths on his own potential by now, hence they should’ve gone for it earlier if they wanted alonso again.

  13. I think Ferrari realised that the only way they were getting Hamilton was if Mercedes doesn’t sign up for 2021-2024, because Lewis is basically happy where he is. However, if that wasn’t available, Ferrari would be, unquestionably, Lewis’ best choice for remaining in F1 (Red Bull picks its own wherever possible, preferring to promote people early than outsource, and it is unlikely any other team will catch Ferrari).

    That puts Ferrari in a strong position to dictate terms. I’m not sure Leclerc would have asked for a #1 positioning, so much as asked not to have the #2 position enforced the way it was in 2019. He seems quite happy to have Hamilton there with him – but he wouldn’t want Ferrari to see him the way Mercedes appears to see Bottas if a Hamilton-Leclerc situation was to happen. This long an extension communicates to Hamilton that he’d need to be equal #1, not the effective #1/#2 situation he knows. Lewis probably won’t consider this a door-closer in itself, but it’s a rather loud negotiating move. If he goes there, it’ll be on Ferrari’s terms, not his.

    I don’t see Verstappen-Ferrari happening; apart from the reasons Dieter mentions, he’s not a good fit for Ferrari in terms of mindset. There’s more mileage in a potential move to Mercedes (assuming it stays and there’s a vacancy), though Max staying put suggests he’s waiting for assurance that Mercedes will still be there when he wants to drive for them… …and that he’s confident Red Bull will be able to field a title-capable car either way. (On this, I believe he is correct).

  14. Lewis Hamilton would have a lot to lose in terms of reputation if he was beaten by Leclerc, true. But he’d have far more to gain if he beat him – and won a title at Ferrari in the process. Beating one of the best of the new generation, on equal terms, in a team where Leclerc is already familiarized, and winning a title for a third team, would push Hamilton’s reputation into the stratosphere. But I can’t see him moving there even if Vettel leaves.

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