It was only in 2016 when Formula 1 actively introduced a rule to avoid young (under-18 years) drivers from joining the sport. Cut to 2020, two of the sport's leading teams, Red Bull Racing and Ferrari, have rested their championship hopes in the new decade on the two brightest young talents of recent times. Charles Leclerc will stay with Ferrari till at least 2024, while Red Bull Racing extended Max Verstappen's contract until 2023. The biggest loser in the early announcements of Leclerc and Verstappen? The silly season of 2020!
Apart from the timing of the announcements — almost in the 'festive period' of 2019-20, and the contract duration, the reason why this piece of news is discussion worthy is because neither Leclerc nor Verstappen are seasoned campaigners in Formula 1. Leclerc, who will start only his 3rd season in Formula 1 in 2020, committed rookie errors last season while still finishing ahead of his much-experienced team-mate Sebastian Vettel. On the other hand, Verstappen will start his 6th season this year and while he's cleaned up his racing to a great degree in comparison to his rookie years, it is difficult to ignore his errors in the races that followed the summer break last season. However, it is the future possibilities with these drivers that both Ferrari and Red Bull Racing are investing in — winning World Championships.
The sport of Formula 1 will undergo massive changes in the next 12-15 months, given the new regulations for 2021. However, the one big (and unexpected!) shift in recent times has been the teams' obsession with hiring younger drivers. In 2020, at least five out of the twenty drivers on the grid would have graduated from Formula 2 in the last 3 years or less — Leclerc, George Russell, Alexander Albon, Lando Norris and Nicholas Latifi (Williams' new recruit). In fact, one wonders whether the teams are overlooking the much-experienced but not-so-old drivers like Sergio Perez, Daniel Ricciardo and others for their future line-ups.
The signings of Leclerc-Verstappen with their respective teams also bears well for Formula 1. As the trio of Lewis Hamilton, Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen, the sport's only World Champions on the grid, nears their twilight years, Formula 1 will be looking for new heroes to worship and rivalries to narrate. And of course, such headlines also aid Formula 1's constant efforts to attract younger audiences.
Apart from Hamilton's sixth Formula 1 title, the 2019 season saw the Leclerc-Verstappen rivalry commence. For Formula 1, it is important that the two rivals have competitive equipment at their disposal and these signings offer much hope to that. Unless of course either of them have inherited Fernando Alonso's fate!
Leclerc-Ferrari have been making headlines since 2018, the Monegasque racer's debut season. It took him only half a season to impress Ferrari and be announced as a surprise replacement for Raikkonen in the season to follow. As 2019 progressed, Leclerc's performances forced Ferrari to shift their understandable Vettel bias to a more neutral approach. In 2020, even though Ferrari claim to treat Vettel-Leclerc equally, their long-term contract extension is public disclosure that the team has chosen the young driver over the quadruple World Champion for their future.
Leclerc is living the absolute dream for any racer growing through the motorsport ranks and has been given the ultimate chance to not only end Hamilton's reign at the top but also initiate an era of his own with Ferrari. The long-term contract would definitely offer the driver-team a psychological boost and much stability to build upon. But in Leclerc's five year contract, Ferrari have acted un-Ferrari like. The Italian team has traditionally preferred much-experienced drivers, often world champions, to lead them forward — case in point being Michael Schumacher, Alonso and Vettel, all of whom won their titles with other teams before joining Ferrari. This approach from Ferrari is refreshing and indicates as more agile manner of thinking. As Leclerc-Ferrari continue through their steep learning curve under the public spotlight, one shouldn't be surprised or impatient if they commit errors a la Max Verstappen in 2017 and 2018.
As for the second seat at Ferrari, Vettel's post-season interviews from 2019 indicate that he's eager to continue in the top-flight of motorsport. At 33 years, Vettel definitely has age on his side and ample experience that Ferrari would benefit from in 2021 once new rules come into effect. However, his longevity in the sport might depend on a resurrection of form, a reduction in driving errors and his ability to accept Leclerc's rise in stature in the team. If Vettel goes, will Ferrari hire Ricciardo or former Ferrari driver academy member Perez? It is easy to assume that Vettel will be the next big name triggering the silly season.
Red Bull Racing
If Ferrari's preference has been experienced racers, Red Bull Racing's mantra has been the exact opposite. They created records with a young Vettel from 2010 till 2013 and are now eager (and almost impatient) to embark on a journey of championship wins with the prodigal Verstappen. If 2019 was an indication of sorts, Verstappen's learning curve and driver errors seem to have plateaued. After struggling for a competitive power unit supplier in the hybrid-turbo era, Red Bull Racing seem to have found an able partner in Honda with the Verstappen-Red Bull-Honda partnership delivering pole positions and race wins to finish ahead of the Ferrari drivers in the drivers' championship in 2019. For 2020, can the partnership go the full distance and sustain a season-long championship attack against Hamilton-Mercedes and Ferrari?
Given Red Bull Racing's repeated troubles with their second driver, the team's urgency to extend Verstappen's contract is understandable. But for Verstappen, is Red Bull Racing the team with which he will embark on his much-awaited journey to being a legend in Formula 1? Irrespective of what one's answer to that question may be, the truth is that in the current moment Red Bull Racing might have been Verstappen's only option. Luckily for Verstappen, he has age on his side and performance clauses in his contract might come handy should the partnership not deliver as planned. After all, a cockpit at Mercedes might be vacant should Hamilton or Valtteri Bottas decide to move on.
Very proud and happy that @redbullracing will stay my home until 2023. We started this journey together and they have supported me from day 1. I want to win with @redbull and @HondaRacingF1, our goal is to fight for a World Championship together. The best is yet to come! #YesBoys pic.twitter.com/gal9QVTEFO
— Max Verstappen (@Max33Verstappen) January 7, 2020
Let's also remember that Honda's commitment to Red Bull Racing and Formula 1 is only till 2021. Verstappen's announcement could indicate two things — either Honda is expected to commit longer or even if not, Verstappen believes that Red Bull Racing will be able to find themselves a competitive power unit even if they have previously failed to do so in the hybrid-turbo era. Could Mercedes' agreement to supply power units to rivals Mclaren (from 2021) give hope to Verstappen-Red Bull Racing?
The reigning World Champions are absolutely covered against the Leclerc-Verstappen extensions in the short to medium period — one of the main reasons why Mercedes can wait to make their moves in the driver market. Their star driver Hamilton has proven time and again that he is more than a match for his younger rivals. At only 35 years of age, Hamilton could emulate Schumacher with regards to racing well into his 40s, too. It was only a few weeks ago when the CEO of Formula 1 Chase Carey expressed interest in having Hamilton race in the sport forever. The general feeling is that Hamilton would race with Mercedes for another 2-3 seasons, as he attempts to break Schumacher's record of seven titles. But what if he actually races for longer?
Mercedes' succession planning will depend on the length of Hamilton's stay with the team. Despite the Hamilton-Ferrari rumours in the end of 2019, one expects Hamilton-Mercedes to continue their dream partnership well into the new decade. However, for whenever Hamilton chooses to departs, who would lead Mercedes forward? Despite his best efforts, Valtteri Bottas has proven to be better as a wingman than a team leader. The Finnish driver has struggled to match Hamilton through an entire season and Mercedes would be on the lookout for someone more potent to ward off the Leclerc-Verstappen threat in the future.
At the moment, there are two Mercedes junior drivers in Formula 1 — Esteban Ocon and George Russell. Ocon has been loaned to Renault till the end of 2021, while Russell is sharpening his racecraft with back-of-grid team Williams. Despite Toto Wolff's reluctance to promote a junior driver to partner Hamilton, one expects that while planning for Hamilton's successor, an Ocon-Hamilton or Russell-Hamilton partnership might be inevitable. It's more a question of when, rather than if.
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Updated Date: Jan 13, 2020 10:22:39 IST