Ferrari vice-chairman Piero Ferrari believes Charles Leclerc has the speed to be a match for Max Verstappen but argues he requires more experience in Formula 1 to eventually be seen as a true equal to the reigning World Champion.
While Verstappen charged to win from ninth on the grid to extend his championship lead at the last race in Miami, Leclerc came in for substantial criticism for crashing at the same corner in successive days.
However, the Monegasque driver’s dynamic approach had yielded the only non-Red Bull pole position effort of 2023 only a week earlier in Azerbaijan, with Ferrari adamant that Leclerc, winner of the Pole Position Award on two previous occasions, has a similar underlying speed to Verstappen.
Nevertheless, the son of Ferrari founder Enzo Ferrari asserts that Leclerc must be given the opportunity to amass a similar level of F1 starts to the Dutchman to develop into a more rounded driver.
Although Leclerc is only two weeks younger than the two-time title winner, Verstappen began his F1 career three years earlier than the Ferrari ace and has amassed over 50 more grands prix starts at the highest level.
“Charles has the speed to be equal to Verstappen,” Ferrari told Autosprint.
“But he has less experience, in terms of number of GPs. Leclerc can still grow, he will grow.”
Verstappen became the youngest F1 driver in history in 2015 before emerging as the youngest-ever race winner in his first start for the Red Bull team just over a year later.
Following several seasons that consisted of Red Bull being unable to challenge Mercedes, a slight tweak to the regulations for 2021 opened the door for the Austrian outfit to topple its German counterpart, with Verstappen defeating Lewis Hamilton during the final lap of a thrilling title battle.
Unlike Mercedes, Red Bull was able to recover from a sluggish start to the new rules cycle last year to convincingly wrap up both championships early, with Verstappen dominating proceedings to set a new record of 15 wins in a single F1 campaign.
“He is incredibly fast,” Ferrari said of Verstappen, who has already won three of the opening five races in 2023 to open up a 14-point advantage at the top of the table.
“He was already driving in F1 when he didn’t even have a driver’s licence in his possession.
“I was there when he got his first victory in Barcelona. He made his mistakes after that, his accidents.
“Now he is young and already has a lot of experience. He is a great driver who is now at the peak of his career.”
After spending two years fighting in amongst the midfield, the reset to the technical regulations last year propelled Ferrari back into front-running contention.
Leclerc promisingly scored two wins in the opening three races – including leading a 1-2 finish in Bahrain and a grand slam in Australia – as Ferrari opened up a sizeable lead in both standings.
However, a rueful combination of continuous reliability troubles and poor strategy calls meant the Italian squad was unable to maximise its early competitiveness, with a stagnant development programme also contributing to the Maranello-based camp going winless beyond the summer break.
Ferrari has been unable to build on its strong start to last year, as F1’s most successful team is rooted to fourth in the Constructors’ Championship after the opening five rounds, scoring only a solitary podium in that time.