Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 1 October 2020

Abu Dhabi Grand Prix: friction at Ferrari as Charles Leclerc rips up the form book

Electrifying pace has transformed the rookie into Formula One's future – and undermined the prospects of teammate Sebastian Vettel

Charles Leclerc has the slogan 'MISSION WINNOW' stitched into his Ferrari hat.

It’s on his flame red jacket, the baseball caps, the rear wing of the famous Maranello machines, and a range of promotional goods from backers PMI.

Their marketeers define the catchword as “learning from past mistakes to shape the future”; others simply see it as ‘Win Now’.

The dictionary describes winnowing as a method of refining the best from the rest. Whichever way you look at it Maranello’s baby-faced assassin is living it to a tee.

In 20 races Leclerc's electrifying pace has transformed him from little known rookie to Ferrari’s, and maybe even the sport’s, future alongside Max Verstappen.

He has ripped up the form book and arrives in Abu Dhabi this week in the eye of a storm caused by speed that has put the prominence of four-time champion Sebastian Vettel on the line at Ferrari and maybe even his long-term participation in the sport in doubt.

Traditionally, Scuderia’s second drivers have been obedient points-gathering bag-carriers for the main man and the trend looked set to continue when team boss Mattia Binotto opened the year by declaring the German would have “priority”.

It took just two races for Leclerc to rip up the script by handing Ferrari their first pole of the season and, but for an engine failure, a win too.

It was an early shot across the bows not lost on Vettel, who was soon to be on the end of the longest qualifying losing streak of his career.

Once in his stride, Leclerc out-qualified his teammate nine races on-the-trot on the way to seven poles and two wins. Victory in Belgium made him Ferrari’s youngest ever winner at 22.

Not bad going for a child born to parents of no real means whose racing dream started when the F1 circus came to his town when he was three.

That the town was called Monte Carlo and the bus stop to school stands yards from where the F1 grid lines up proves the sport is more than a recent motif in his life.

“It started when I was about three-and-a-half,” said Leclerc. “Standing on the exit of Turn 1 playing with small cars and dreaming of being in F1 and, now, here I am. It’s beyond amazing.”

The racing started at Brignoles karting track, a 90-minute blast west down the French Riviera towns of Cannes, Antibes and St Tropez.

But a trophied karting career would have come to nothing had he not been signed at 14 to All Road Management run by Nicolas Todt, son of the FIA president, Jean.

“In normal circumstances, that would have been the end of my racing career. My father didn’t have enough to keep me going, the money gets to crazy levels, but luckily [ex-F1 racer] Jules Bianchi spoke to Nicolas and he paid for me from then on,” said Leclerc.

The Monegasque added significantly to his trophy collection as he climbed the ranks but not without tragedy. Bianchi, mentor and godfather, died after crashing at the 2014 Japanese GP.

And it dogged him again at the greatest moment of his career when he won in Belgium. The win was dedicated to childhood friend Anthoine Hubert, killed in a support race the day before.

“I couldn’t fully enjoy it,” said Leclerc. “He was a good friend, there at my first race when I was seven.”

Otherwise the trend for the Monegasque has only been upwards and now his points advantage make him Ferrari’s only chance, if they care, of stealing third in the driver’s championship from Max Verstappen.

"Being third would be crazy. Last year I was fighting for 13th,” said Leclerc. "I'm very satisfied with the season. I had no expectations in terms of results, but I wanted progression. So, on that, I'm very happy."

Nico Rosberg, Mercedes 2016 champion, already rates Leclerc higher than the fellow in the other Ferrari.

The coruscating rivalry between the embattled Maranello teammates hit a new low when they committed the cardinal F1 sin of crashing into each other at the last round. An accident most blame on the older man.

“Particularly when you are in Ferrari, it’s the worst thing that can happen in the world,” said Rosberg.

“It’s a little, but only a little, less Leclerc’s fault. It’s being very well managed but it’s going to be explosive inside Ferrari, so insane, so hard to manage, oh my goodness. A whole one more season to go like that? Jeez, I wish them all the best.”

With the pair set for another season in each other’s company the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix may well be about a bigger picture than just another win if Ferrari want to prevent the rivalry torpedoing their own championship challenge in 2020.

The other option, of course, is a bit of winnowing of the driver line-up.

Updated: November 25, 2019 10:41 AM

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