Charles Leclerc heads into his sixth season in Formula 1, his fifth with Ferrari, and arguably the most defining year of his career in the sport to this point.
Following a failed attempt at contesting his maiden championship last season, Leclerc openly upholds ambitions to go one step further this year, with the likely backdrop of intense speculation over his future prospects to contend with.
As the Monegasque enters a pivotal year, he will do so amid further upheaval in the team’s ranks. Ferrari heads into a transitional period once more as the Italian stable welcomes a change at the top of its management structure for the fifth time since the beginning of the turbo-hybrid era in 2014.
Out has gone the long-serving Mattia Binotto and in his place has come the experienced but untested at-the-top-of-F1 figure of Fred Vasseur to oversee the Scuderia’s latest attempts to end its elongated Formula 1 title drought that will stretch into a 15th season this term.
After starting the newest technical overhaul on the front foot, Ferrari ended the campaign a huge 205 points shy of top spot. But, while 2023 will be an important season for the overall team, it’s arguably equally as important from an individual perspective for Leclerc.
Although he had stood on the top spot of the podium previously, 2022 presented Leclerc with the first car where he had the genuine possibility of being a title contender. As his team-mate struggled, Leclerc stormed to two wins in the opening three races, including a dominant grand slam in Australia.
However, a combination of strategical failings, horrid reliability and lacklustre development saw Leclerc’s early-season title charge rapidly peter out. Only one win would follow in the remaining 19 rounds as Max Verstappen swept to a record-breaking 15 victories in a season.
Leclerc was not perfect by any stretch – but the failings of the team were much bigger. After finally receiving a taste of competing regularly at the front last season, the ex-Formula 2 champion will be determined to go all the way in 2023 and anything less would be categorised as a failure.
A repeat of such shortcomings could lead to Leclerc becoming disillusioned, and arguably the displacing of Binotto for a trusted figure from the Monegasque’s past has shown the priority Ferrari has placed in keeping their prized academy graduate content.
Vasseur worked with Leclerc in GP3 and then again in F1 during his rookie campaign at Alfa Romeo Sauber in 2018, with it being well-documented the pair share a positive relationship.
The French team boss is likely to want to centre his long-term project around Leclerc’s talents and will be hopeful of putting a new contract in place as his current deal is set to expire at the end of 2024.
Leclerc, however, has understandably called for patience and is waiting to anticipate how Ferrari begin the new season before negotiating terms.
Despite Leclerc only turning 25 in October, long-term contracts have become prevalent in the sport ever since Ferrari took the decision to hand him a five-year extension at the end of his exceptional debut season in red.
That set of negotiations set a precedent as, from that point onwards, multiple teams moved to tie down their star commodities for the future – most notably McLaren and Red Bull extending the contracts of Lando Norris and Max Verstappen respectively well into the long-term.
Unsurprisingly, an individual like Leclerc is likely to warrant another multi-year deal that will take him well into his 30s, making this next career step undoubtedly his biggest yet.
Although Lewis Hamilton didn’t embark on his Mercedes venture until he was 29 – securing the second of his current seven world titles a year later – Leclerc’s next move could provide a watershed moment that defines the path his own racing career in F1 takes.
Unquestionably, Leclerc will have considered the success Verstappen has sustained over the past few years and be mindful not to get left behind. While the current Ferrari racer has only notched five victories across four seasons with the acclaimed Italian squad, Verstappen has soared to new levels to clinch two world titles and raise his win tally to a total of 35.
Such a disparity in statistics would be bound to make for frustrating reading for Leclerc. The Ferrari hopeful will be more than aware he can battle his old adversary from the karting days on the grandest stage, proving countless times he can come out on top in a straight duel on the track.
Leclerc’s speed has never been in question and his leading tally of nine pole positions across 2022 included some spectacularly mesmeric qualifying laps. Although he isn’t quite the complete package yet, there is no doubt Leclerc has the raw pace to rack up similar accolades.
Finishing runner-up in the standings in 2022 marked a career-best, but Leclerc won’t want to continually be referred to as the bridesmaid when he clearly possesses the talent to win immediately.
Across the pit lane, he should also be wary of being imminently eclipsed by George Russell. Despite the Brit retaining years less experience at the front, Russell is now part of a much more refined Mercedes operation, which have recent evidence of stringing together successful title bids.
Irrespective of the possibility of competing in a Verstappen-dominated era, Leclerc should be hugely disappointed if he fails to collect a single F1 championship in his time. Hypothetically speaking, he would debatably be regarded as the best to never win one if events unfolded in that manner.
Leclerc’s love for Ferrari is unmatched, but the 25-year-old will want to witness sufficient progress being made in every department before committing to the side he’s devoted himself towards since his childhood days in Monte Carlo. Delivering the championship back to Maranello has repeatedly been his aim, but further stagnation could lead to concerns over the alignment of his personal goals and the direction of the team.
At a time when Leclerc should have been frequently contesting for race wins after establishing himself as a front-running force, he was battling beneath his talent level in the midfield. His loyalty to the red team can’t be questioned; now Ferrari must return that by delivering him the all-around package he deserves.
Even accounting for a new team principal that will take time to stamp his blueprint on proceedings, there need to be signs that the mistakes that have plagued the team for longer than Leclerc’s own involvement in the team are beginning to be discarded.
Providing the same situation arises again as last year with Leclerc the dominant driver at Ferrari, the team must show a willingness to support his personal endeavours. Binotto lacked the ruthless leadership to assert team orders, while Vasseur has vowed to learn from the lessons that continuously failed the team from an operational standpoint last year.
Taking a leaf out from Mercedes and Red Bull would be applicable to the route Ferrari’s new boss should follow. Neither Christian Horner nor Toto Wolff is afraid to make the difficult decisions, or to throw their full support around their key men, granting them the platform to flourish on the track.
Ferrari is a different pressure entirely from other competitors, but the hierarchy could do a better role in alleviating such a build-up of intense pressure on its drivers’ shoulders.
The individuals behind the wheel remain human beings even when the visor goes down and they require a supportive environment to nurture their talent and smooth out the rough edges – much in the same way Verstappen progressed from being an erratic driver on the brink of another blunder to an unstoppable force at Red Bull.
Aside from a possible Mercedes switch in a post-Hamilton landscape, Leclerc’s alternative options beyond 2024 appear relatively thin. Ultimately, the ball lies in the Italian team’s court to provide Leclerc with a good car and an equally strong operational structure to match.
A repeat of last season’s futile attempt to sustain a title challenge could prove catastrophic for Ferrari – both in terms of falling short in its pursuit of success and its chances of retaining arguably the fastest driver currently in the F1 ranks.