Either Kimi Raikkonen knew very explicitly he was fighting for his Ferrari future or had been told he didn’t have one, when he said – after climbing out the car at the end of the British GP and being congratulated on his third place by Sky F1’s Martin Brundle – “Obviously I did the best I could but there seems to be some opposite views on what I’m doing unfortunately, so we’ll see.”
It was an answer to a question he hadn’t even been asked, so it was clearly something he wished to get off his chest.
Informed sources in Italy suggest an agreement has already been reached between Scuderia Ferrari and Charles Leclerc – the young Ferrari Academy driver who is in the midst of an eye-catching rookie season with Sauber – for a place alongside Sebastian Vettel next year.
However, recent history is littered with drivers who thought they had agreements to be replacing Raikkonen at Maranello, only for those agreements not to be signed. Usually after Raikkonen had discovered a second wind and put in some impressive drives. Nico Hulkenberg and Paul di Resta could tell you all about having reached such an agreement. The crucial thing is the final version of those agreements were never signed – and we do not know at the moment if Leclerc’s has been.
Which way will Ferrari go? There are pros and cons to either choice. Raikkonen cannot consistently match Sebastian Vettel’s qualifying pace and by definition that’s put him in the support role. He reckons he’s driving as well as he ever has, but the evidence just doesn’t support that.
In his McLaren prime he was savagely fast and consistent. In his latter Ferrari years he’s been a safe pair of hands that can occasionally – about twice a year – wind the clock back to his great days. The quality of his feedback borne of his vast experience and natural feel have often hastened productive set up directions that Vettel has benefitted from, although their driving styles are quite different.
Kimi has accepted his support role with equanimity, taking the money and saving any comments for behind closed doors, with only the occasional flash of anger (Monaco 2016 plus occasional radio comments about race strategies compromised to help Vettel).
He makes the running of the team around securing Vettel a drivers championship unambiguous and lower stress than it would otherwise be – and it helps keep Vettel in a happy place, which probably contributes to his performance.
But maybe this is no longer enough for Sergio Marchionne.
Vettel was signed early in the Marchionne era but his recruitment was initiated by Luca di Montezemolo. He’s justified his team leader role by performance, but nothing about the dynamics of the relationship between boss and driver seem particularly warm. It’s merely professional – and it’s had its tricky moments. This is no Todt/Schumacher partnership, where each supported the other on principle regardless of the circumstances.
Perhaps Marchionne is thinking of succession, of bringing Leclerc in as the quick understudy who will challenge, or even beat, Vettel on occasion, but support him when he cannot do that.
If, as Leclerc’s data banks get filled, he can begin doing that more often, it would be the signal to Vettel somewhere down the line that his best days were behind him and the succession would be complete.
But it’s easy to get carried away. Leclerc’s rookie form in the Sauber has been deeply impressive, but there’s no way of knowing if he would actually be able to out-perform Vettel at all, let alone consistently. Seb didn’t become a quadruple world champion by accident.
If Leclerc were drafted into the Scuderia in just his second F1 season and be out-performed by Vettel in the way that Stoffel Vandoorne has been by Fernando Alonso at McLaren, it would be very difficult to recover from that.
But they are concerns from the outside. From Leclerc’s perspective, full of the fizzing confidence of the new kid creating a sensation in the Sauber, he will be straining at the leash. Just as a new kid called Raikkonen was creating a sensation in a Sauber in 2001.
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(c) Sky News 2018: Kimi Raikkonen or Charles Leclerc? Ferrari facing crunch 2019 decision