Written by Katie Gregory, Edited by Meghana Sree
Sebastian Vettel and Charles Leclerc: rivals, teammates, and friends. Although brief, this driver pairing was meaningful nonetheless. Their partnership at Ferrari would signify a funeral and a coronation. For Vettel, his lifelong dream of winning a championship with Ferrari was over; while Leclerc was just getting started.
Leclerc was Ferrari’s new hope, while Vettel was considered old news. Leclerc’s first season with the Scuderia won the hearts of the Tifosi, with two memorable wins at Spa and Monza. Vettel, on the other hand, made several key mistakes that were painful for Ferrari fans everywhere. Ferrari’s lack of faith in Vettel was obvious when they failed to contractually commit to the driver, with him announcing his exit at the beginning of 2020. Adding insult to injury, Ferrari offered Leclerc a five-year contract, the longest contract in the history of the Italian team.
Even though Vettel was leaving at the end of the season, he wasn’t going to just hand over the number one spot he had earned. Leclerc on the other hand was eager to impress and prove that he deserved the seat he was in. Neither driver was comfortable being number two, leading to two separate incidents that are almost identical in nature. In the Brazilian Grand Prix of 2019, Vettel and Leclerc battled with just six laps to go and when Vettel attempted a risky overtake, their cars collided and both had to retire. Not even a year later at the Styrian Grand Prix of 2020, Leclerc’s overambitious overtake on Vettel led to contact, with both cars yet again bowing out of the race.
Vettel’s failed contract negotiations had soured his relationship with some of the team, giving Leclerc access to slide into his golden boy spot. However, despite a slightly awkward team environment, there was friendship, mentorship, and understanding between the two drivers who are actually very similar beneath the surface.
Both have a passion for Ferrari that is impossible to fake, making their wins euphoric and their failures painful. Their commitment to the Tifosi has made them fan favourites and their determination to win makes them admired among many. Despite being a four-time World Champion, Vettel’s biggest dream was to have a Schumacher-esque domination period at Ferrari.
While the Schumacher-Ferrari era is iconic for drivers and fans alike, it was extra special for Vettel. Vettel grew up idolising his fellow German and he even got to meet him at his karting competitions. Once Vettel got to Formula One, Schumacher had returned for his last dance in the sport and began to mentor the younger German driver. It should therefore come as no surprise that the ultimate goal of “Baby Schumi” was to match his mentor and solidify himself in Ferrari’s history.
Leclerc also had a mentor within his late godfather, Jules Bianchi. Bianchi was his brother’s best friend and their families were extremely close, with Bianchi helping Leclerc in his go-karting days. Bianchi was a member of the Ferrari Driver Academy and in only his second season was considered ready enough to step into the Ferrari seat.
Both drivers had the relationship with their mentor cut tragically short and both went to Ferrari to continue their legacy. Vettel was ready to step into the mentor role and Leclerc accepted with open arms. The pair became friends, and according to Leclerc they still regularly keep in touch.
Throughout his career at Ferrari, Vettel was constantly writing in his notebook. And while nowadays a retired Vettel is rare to see, his work ethic has been passed down to Leclerc - who can now be found with his own notebook. Leclerc records how the car felt, how the tyres performed and how the conditions were, just like Vettel before him.
While Vettel was unable to complete his dream at Ferrari, his influence on the team should not be overlooked. What set Vettel apart was that despite being their star driver, you couldn’t help but feel like deep down he was just a true Ferrari fan. Whether they won or lost, whether he actually felt supported by the team or not, he told the Tifosi what they wanted to hear– that he wasn’t going to give up.
Vettel was quick to forgive the team for mistakes on their part but some of the Tifosi were not willing to overlook his errors, especially in the 2019 season. Despite ending his time at Ferrari on less than pleasant terms, Vettel made it clear that he still wished to see the Scuderia succeed. A loyalty that was appreciated, but maybe not deserved.
Flash forward to the 2023 season and Leclerc continues to keep the dream alive. Even when the results are disappointing and a good result is never guaranteed, one thing is certain, Leclerc will continue to have faith in his team. Listening to Vettel and Leclerc talk, their passion for Scuderia Ferrari makes you fall for the magic, even if just for a moment.
Many fans have willed Leclerc to move teams, especially as his contract with Ferrari expires at the end of 2024. The Monegasque has gone from contending for the World Championship in 2022 to struggling with the pace and reliability of his car in 2023. Although there is speculation about a potential move to Mercedes, as long as Leclerc believes in Ferrari, it is extremely difficult to see him going anywhere else.
This coin toss is the same one that Ferrari drivers have made for generations in this sport. Succeed like Schumacher, and you cement yourself in Ferrari’s history forever; hailed as king by the Tifosi. Or the dream of winning at Ferrari may never truly materialise, and all you will be able to say is that you tried.
As Leclerc stands at this set of crossroads, perhaps he will remember the parting words of
the last man who took the gamble.
“To Charles, you are the most talented driver I came across in 15 years of F1. Don't waste it. But be sure whatever you do to be happy and smile. Thanks for everything!"
Vettel clearly saw the immense potential of Leclerc, and didn’t want to see him spending his best years driving an uncompetitive car. Speaking to Sky Sports F1, he told reporters: “He’s certainly a good kid and I think he will go a long way, he will be the man of the future. I hope he gets the car he deserves."
The man of the future has some big decisions to make, and while Vettel may not harbour the same hope in Ferrari that he once did, it seems he has more than enough faith in Leclerc.