The Australian Grand Prix, 2001. Two young drivers made their Formula 1 debuts " Fernando Alonso for Minardi and Kimi Raikkonen for Sauber. At this time, the illustrious Michael Schumacher had 'only' won three world titles and Jos Verstappen, Max's father, was still on the grid for Arrows.
Fast forward to 2018, and a lot has changed in the world of Formula 1. Both those young drivers are now world champions. Alonso is set to quit Formula 1 this season, and Raikkonen has just announced a shocking move from Ferrari to Sauber.
Honestly, the paddock has been awaiting Ferrari's announcement regarding their driver lineup with bated breath for several weeks. The slew of rumours flying around only made the wait more agonising, until Ferrari finally broke their silence and announced that Kimi Raikkonen would be replaced by Charles Leclerc starting 2019. Raikkonen would occupy Leclerc's seat at Sauber, in what is a highly unexpected swap. Perhaps the thought on everyone's mind was whether Ferrari swapped their last world champion (Raikkonen) with a driver they believed could be their next world champion (Leclerc). Also, has life come a full circle for Raikkonen as he returns to Sauber, the team where he started his Formula 1 career.
Why has Ferrari promoted a rookie?
Charles Leclerc, just 20 years of age, is in his maiden Formula 1 season. Leclerc will be Ferrari's youngest driver since 1961 but his talent merits such an exception starting from a meteoric rise through the junior formulae. In Formula 1, not only has he managed to consistently outperform his far more experienced teammate Marcus Ericsson, but has also taken on the quicker cars in the tight mid-field. When Firstpost spoke to Leclerc exclusively last month, he had quipped, "If I am in the red seat, then it's all fine" " surely 'fine' is an understatement to describe how he currently feels.
It is interesting to reflect on why Ferrari decided to promote Leclerc directly, instead of giving him a season at Haas to nurture his talent further. This signals a departure in Ferrari's norm of hiring only 'experienced' drivers " but with a title drought spanning more than a decade, perhaps change in perspective is just what the team needs.
This move should give Ferrari's Constructors' Championship campaign an additional boost. Since top teams like Ferrari could face a reduction in the historical bonuses from Formula 1 (everyone's renegotiating the famous 'Concorde Agreement'), the championship prize money that is earned by scoring points and finishing as high in the Constructors' Championship becomes more important. Raikkonen has not contributed adequately to this challenge in the past seasons " being out-scored by Vettel all seasons they were teammates. Hopefully Leclerc's arrival will give Ferrari two highly-competitive drivers.
Of course, the Raikkonen-Leclerc swap isn't only about Raikkonen's performances or the lack of it. It is also about Ferrari's foresight in identifying and investing to nurture Leclerc's impressive talent. For Leclerc's career, the ordinary course of action would have been a promotion to Haas for 2019 followed by a move to Ferrari in either 2020 or 2021. But Leclerc has shown that he's far from ordinary " in which case, Ferrari's double promotion for Leclerc with the attempt to fast track his success in Formula 1 is well deserved.
The other part of the answer to this lies in the form of a certain Max Verstappen. Red Bull Racing backed a teenage Verstappen to the top drive, spotting his talent early. He delivered " scoring a victory on his Red Bull Racing debut and going wheel-to-wheel with the big guys. Ever since, the spotlight has firmly shifted to young drivers, their capabilities and 'breath of fresh air' attitude. Given that Red Bull Racing is grooming Verstappen and Mercedes has a talented young driver in Esteban Ocon, surely Ferrari were thinking of the future when they promoted Leclerc. Is the team also losing patience with Sebastian Vettel and his repeated errors that are causing them to lose ground to Mercedes-Hamilton in the Championships?
Adding a dimension is the question surrounding whether Liberty Media had a role to play in Leclerc's promotion to Ferrari. Given that they are working hard to attract younger audiences (and have seen the magic Verstappen has unleashed in drawing in new fans) having an exciting, young driver at Ferrari serves their purpose well. All of this bodes well for 'hero building' in the sport of Formula 1.
The road ahead for Ferrari
This year's championship outcome will go a long way in determining how Ferrari's team dynamics play out in 2019. If Vettel pulls off a miraculous triumph (he is 30 points behind title rival, Lewis Hamilton), he will probably continue to reign as the team's top driver. Leclerc could be forced to fill in the void that Raikkonen leaves and play a 'supporting' role. Conversely, if Vettel does not manage to beat Hamilton, things at Ferrari might change. The blind support they have put behind Vettel could come under question, especially since the championship loss could be linked to various errors Vettel has made through the season. Is Ferrari using Leclerc to energise and 'discipline' Vettel? Traditionally, we know that Vettel has not responded well to being challenged by teammates. Alternately, does Leclerc's promotion signal a changing Ferrari where both drivers are given an equal footing, similar to Mercedes?
Even so, it will be interesting to see how Ferrari manage Vettel and Leclerc's aspirations. There will be a difference in 'hunger' and mindsets between the two drivers: Leclerc is eager to prove himself worthy as a Formula 1 driver and aim for his first-ever title while Vettel is already a quadruple champion and is looking to cement his status as a legend in the sport and also chasing his first championship with Ferrari.
Jacques Villeneuve, the 1997 Formula 1 world champion, believes that Vettel will 'eat Leclerc alive' at Ferrari " something Ferrari will be hoping to avoid by protecting their young driver. To this, Leclerc had told Firstpost, "To drive with such a driver next to me can only be good for me. I can learn from Sebastian. In terms of performance, it is impossible to know anything because we have never been teammates in the same car." Let's hope that Leclerc's career does not get scuttled by Ferrari's desire to win with Vettel or by Leclerc's inability to cope up with the challenges of the big team.
Ironically, this driver swap also gives an interesting twist to the ongoing championship battle. Seemingly, Raikkonen already knew in Monza that he would not be at Ferrari in 2019, and hence drove his heart out (rather than acting as Vettel's wingman). This could also mean that in the races to come, Raikkonen might not succumb meekly to accept the No 2 driver mantle " his time in a front-running car is limited, and he would want to use it to the maximum. Expect Raikkonen to show up in his true blooded racing avatar in all the races to come.
In honour of Kimi Raikkonen
Is there a Formula 1 driver who is as loved as Raikkonen? Probably not. The Finnish driver has carved a delightful niche for himself in the sport thanks to his irreverent personality, deadpan sense of humour, brutal honesty and non-PR talk. If there is one driver who tells it as it is, it's Raikkonen. This may sound like a retirement tribute to Kimi aikkonen, but it is far from that. The way we see it, the only retirement here is of Raikkonen as the number two Ferrari driver. The seasons ahead at Sauber promise to be spent 'on his own terms' " just as he likes it. This applies to both quitting the sport shockingly (2010) and now staying on against all odds (2018).
As Raikkonen revealed, "I don't feel like I drive any differently than 10 years ago. People say the speed would disappear but to this day, I don't feel it has disappeared for me." Astoundingly, if Raikkonen completes two seasons with Sauber, he will retire as the 'most experienced' driver of Formula 1 " he is 39 races behind another famous Ferrari No 2 driver, Rubens Barrichello.
Moving to Sauber may not have been what many Raikkonen fans were expecting (or hoping for) but fortunately his maverick presence will live on in the sport. Perhaps this is at the cost of a deserving young driver such as Antonio Giovinazzi or Esteban Ocon getting a seat at Sauber. That said, it's relevant to reflect on why Raikkonen chose to step down from Ferrari and move to Sauber " a team with a much slower car and known financial woes " instead of quitting the sport on a high with dignity. However, we know Raikkonen doesn't really care about public sentiment " he has always raced on his own terms.
The paddock is abuzz with conversations regarding Raikkonen's supposed co-ownership at Sauber, but no confirmation has been received yet. How will the Sauber team pan out; thanks to Raikkonen's involvement, can we expect a tighter partnership with with Alfa Romeo or Ferrari (a la Haas-Ferrari style) in the offing? With Raikkonen at Sauber, will the Swedish owners retain Ericsson for an all-Nordic team?
Formula 1 in 2019
If the 2018 Formula 1 season has been a cliffhanger, the 2019 season promises to crank it up several notches. Hamilton and Vettel will take on each other at the front " two champions with nine championships between them. Verstappen will be hunting for victories (if he keeps his racing clean and given that he no longer needs to jostle with Daniel Ricciardo) while rookies like Leclerc and Pierre Gasly will be looking to make their mark in their championship teams; Lando Norris in the Mclaren too.
In the already-competitive midfield, stars like Ricciardo and Raikkonen will keep the action high along with seasoned mid-field veterans " Nico Hulkenberg and Sergio Perez. Interestingly, Mercedes (and Haas) could potentially be the only team(s) on the grid with an unchanged line-up next year. But so much for Toto Wolff saying that the top teams wouldn't risk it with a young driver " we have two teams doing the exact opposite. Over to you, Mercedes.