It is sometimes easy to forget just how difficult it is to become the F1 World Champion.
Of the 770 drivers to have started a championship race, only 111 of them have won a grand prix. Just 34 have won a championship.
It stands to reason, then, that there is a gluttony of drivers who are title-level quality but are missing the good fortune needed to go from contender to champion. Right now Charles Leclerc fits into that category.
Pretty much since he first appeared on the scene for Sauber in 2018, he has been earmarked as a future great. After all, the story is too good, right?
Born in F1’s crown jewel of Monaco, one of just a select few F1 drivers from the Principality, racing for Ferrari with an all-or- nothing style not seen since perhaps Ayrton Senna.
But real life does not always follow the script.
Leclerc is heading into his seventh season of competition and, at 26, is entering what many would consider the prime of his career. And yet, what does he have to show for it so far? Five victories has him tied with the likes of Keke Rosberg and John Watson who, good drivers that they are, are not the level of driver Leclerc was being predicted to emulate.
To make matters worse, a man just a few weeks older than him is competing for what many suspect will be his fourth World Championship.
Leclerc and Max Verstappen’s talent may not be poles apart – but their teams certainly are. Red Bull are a brutally efficient machine, Ferrari are never too far away from the wheels falling off.
It is Leclerc who has felt the brunt of that in recent years. A potential title bid in 2022 spectacularly fell away when Ferrari repeatedly shot themself in the foot. Any other team and Leclerc would surely have been out the door by now.
But it is not just the team who have been at fault. Leclerc himself has made errors, most notably in qualifying, but it is the pressure applied by Verstappen and Red Bull, and even Ferrari, that have made him do so. In his desire to find that extra tenth that would at least bring him level with the Dutchman, Leclerc has pushed too hard and come undone.
It is why the next few years are so pivotal to Leclerc’s long-term career. Verstappen was 24 when he won his first title, Lewis Hamilton was 23 as was Vettel. Michael Schumacher first took the crown at the age of 25.
Leclerc is older than all of them and has far fewer trophies to show for it.
There are exceptions of course. Nico Rosberg was 31 when he won in 2016, Jenson Button’s Brawn victory came at the age of 29 but serial winners, of which Leclerc was predicted to be amongst, often win at an early age and never stop.
To make Leclerc’s task harder, it also seems more difficult than ever before to win a championship. Before the dominance of Verstappen it was Hamilton. Leclerc may drive with the same Prancing Horse logo that Schumacher did but that badge carries less weight now than it did during the German’s heyday.
Even away from the champions, there are a number of young drivers itching to get their moment in the sun. Lando Norris has arguably surpassed Leclerc as the highest rated prospect. George Russell and Carlos Sainz are there or thereabouts, as is Sergio Perez, and that is before you get to Fernando Alonso and Hamilton.
Leclerc finished 5th in 2023, three places and over hundred points down from his 2022 tally and his career has been one of extreme ups and downs. 13th for Sauber in 2018 was followed by fourth in his debut Ferrari season.
Then came the Scuderia’s engine troubles and down to eighth Leclerc went in 2020, followed by seventh in 2021. 2022 was talk of Ferrari being back but even then, it was Verstappen on top.
So when it came to the final year of his deal, Leclerc would genuinely have had a decision to make. His love of Ferrari is clear, even referenced in the comments made upon his contract extension, but love will only take you so far.
Only Verstappen scored more poles than Leclerc in 2023 and qualifying, in which you are less reliant on the team, has always been the Ferrari driver’s strong point – only furthering the argument that it is the team holding him back.
Right now, Ferrari are one of a number of teams hoping to hunt down Red Bull but they have always seemed like a riskier bet than the likes of Mercedes or even McLaren. And yet, apt for his hometown, Leclerc has placed all his chips on red.
The multi-year deal will likely take Leclerc until at least the engine regulation changes in 2026, when he will be 28 years of age and a less attractive bet for other teams than he is now.
So make no mistake: Leclerc has gambled his future on Ferrari pulling it off. Only time will tell if his luck comes in.