The risks and rationale of Leclerc’s mooted Ferrari F1 mega deal
Mon 04, Dec, 2023
Source: The Race

Charles Leclerc has signed a bumper new Formula 1 contract with Ferrari that will last until 2029, according to reputable Italian publication La Gazzetta dello Sport. Scott Mitchell-Malm explains the likely rationale behind Leclerc's big move and the risks behind it.

Though Leclerc has long since made it clear a Ferrari Formula 1 contract renewal was in the offing, the length of his new deal, is a surprising one.

Leclerc is one of F1’s best talents. He is a massive asset for Ferrari, the kind of ‘franchise driver’ that gets talked about a lot in the modern era. Much like the contracts that tied down Max Verstappen and Lando Norris for so long, the logic for Ferrari wanting to get a fresh multi-year commitment from Leclerc is obvious to understand.

A new five-year deal, to follow from his existing one that was announced in December 2019 and ran to the end of 2024, is a big commitment for Leclerc to make though. And while Ferrari is special in its own way, from a competitiveness point of view it is just one of many aspiring title-challenging teams trailing in Red Bull’s wake.

Ferrari needs Leclerc more than he needs Ferrari. Sooner or later he would command a move to almost any other team with similar competitive prospects. So why hitch his wagon to this prancing horse until 2029?

It is partly driven by sentiment. Leclerc adores Ferrari and is hero-worshipped in return by the team and fans (especially in Italy). There is nothing he would love more than to win a title with Ferrari, though he’d settle just for fighting for one right now. He also has a lot of loyalty, having spoken previously about the gratitude he is for Ferrari’s faith in him, not just getting him into F1 with Sauber in 2018 but then promoting him to the top table after just one year. Ferrari made Leclerc an F1 driver, and an F1 race winner. He has not forgotten that.

However, Leclerc also knows sentiment can be a weakness. He acknowledges there could come a time where he needs to be selfish. When he stops believing in Ferrari’s project, he told The Race earlier this year, is when he will accept he needs to move elsewhere.

That time has not come. Leclerc is a big fan of Fred Vasseur, who took the reins at Ferrari at the start of 2023, and has bought entirely into the Frenchman’s vision for the team. No doubt that has been partially validated by Ferrari’s response to a challenging season, with a flawed car that – under Vasseur’s leadership – has not just been improved but has been tuned more to Leclerc’s liking, unlocking a fantastic run of end-of-season form.

It can be safely assumed that Leclerc believes in Ferrari more than he did 12 months ago, when his relationship with Vasseur’s predecessor Mattia Binotto looked irreparable and must have damaged Ferrari’s prospects of keeping Leclerc longer-term.

Vasseur’s arrival, Ferrari’s 2023 trajectory and that underlying affection for the team makes for a powerful combination. That alone means a renewal also makes total sense on Leclerc’s side. But signing up until 2029 is where it leaps from a logical show of faith to a gamble that risks wasting some of Leclerc’s best years.

Even if we assume a break clause – La Gazzetta dello Sport reckons a performance-based one will kick in from season three of the new deal, so in 2027 – Leclerc is banking on Ferrari rewarding his faith and loyalty early in the new regulations. It’s possible, but hardly guaranteed. After all, Ferrari has underdelivered in F1 since Leclerc was barely building a serious reputation in karting.

If, and right now it is a big if because we don’t know, Leclerc is relying on technicalities to extricate himself from an underwhelming Ferrari four years from now, then things will have gone very wrong. And the regret could be quite high, given Leclerc has ruled himself out as an option to be Lewis Hamilton’s immediate successor at Mercedes, or sliding into the Aston Martin-Honda works project whenever Fernando Alonso finally calls it a day.

Who knows what chances will still await Leclerc by then. Who knows if he will have a real opportunity to leave Ferrari before 2029 at all. Who knows, in fairness, if these will even be relevant thoughts by then if Ferrari really does get its act together.

The point is that Leclerc has made a huge commitment, likely borne from being enamoured with Ferrari, believing in its project, and being aware that there is no immediate better option. Why not, in that case, sign a lucrative, long-term deal with a possible escape ramp should things go awry?

There is a degree of risk, although the emphasis now is less on Leclerc to justify his rationale and more on Ferrari to justify it for him.

It has locked down a special driver at a time his faith could have been fundamentally shaken.

For the sake of the team, for Leclerc, and for the prospect of an F1 where this driver and team combination does end up in a full-on title battle, Ferrari better make the most of it.