Lewis Hamilton arrival means it is sink or swim time for Charles Leclerc

Thomas Maher
Charles Leclerc, Ferrari, 2023 Singapore Grand Prix.

Lewis Hamilton's signing to Ferrari for 2025 puts career-defining pressure on Charles Leclerc.

Ferrari’s decision to bring in Lewis Hamilton alongside Charles Leclerc shines an intense spotlight on the driver they’ve reared.

As the only Ferrari junior to ever make it into the Formula 1 team, Leclerc’s ongoing loyalty – together with his speed, charisma, and resilience – has made him a darling at the Scuderia, one where the team has been moulded entirely around helping him challenge for the title over the past few years.

But the signing of Lewis Hamilton alongside Leclerc for 2025 suggests Ferrari is no longer happy with all their eggs being in one basket, and the young Monegasque is, ironically, now being put under the same pressure Ferrari used him to put Sebastian Vettel under five years ago.

Lewis Hamilton signing threatens Charles Leclerc’s comfort at Ferrari

While Carlos Sainz was no pushover alongside him over recent years, Leclerc has usually had the upper hand over his teammate by dint of just having an extra tenth or two in his pocket on most occasions.

Leclerc is yet to prove himself as World Champion material over the course of an entire season, but his pace is not in question – Leclerc is just as fast, if not faster, than anyone else on the grid.

It was for this reason that Ferrari opted to look to the future back in 2019 when they decided to light a fire under Sebastian Vettel.

The German driver, tempted away from Red Bull at the end of 2014 by the prospect of replicating his hero Michael Schumacher’s success in red, had shown signs of his powers waning in 2018.

As a result, Ferrari opted against sticking with what wasn’t working and dropped Kimi Raikkonen – the Finn having taken on the role of being a not-quite-equal to Vettel. In his place, they promoted Leclerc – a move that was clearly intended to force Vettel to pull up his socks, or see if they had a star in Leclerc.

As it turned out, Leclerc wasn’t cowed by Vettel and, over the following two seasons, proceeded to prove himself to the extent Ferrari didn’t even bother fighting to retain Vettel.

But Leclerc now finds the shoe on the other foot. The Ferrari team that has been moulded around him still loves him, but that doesn’t mean other options can’t be explored.

After all, Leclerc may be extremely fast but errors are never far away. While more fault lies with Ferrari than with Leclerc over the lack of a serious title tilt, Leclerc still stands out in a historical context at Ferrari – the Scuderia have usually plumped for proven winners and titan drivers.

Drivers exactly like Lewis Hamilton, then.

Nowhere near the youngest on the grid anymore, all the flaws of youthful exuberance and inexperience ironed out, a proven quantity in every single way – Hamilton is almost the quintessential archetype of what a Ferrari driver is.

On top of that, the alignment of Hamilton’s brand – the most visible and valuable of anyone on the grid – together with Ferrari’s brand makes it a sporting and commercial partnership that transcends F1 and the sporting world.

Not only that, with Hamilton approaching the end of his career, securing the seven-time F1 World Champion for the final years of that career means an association, potentially for decades to come, between Ferrari and the most successful driver in the sport’s history.

Throw in the genuine possibility of a record-breaking eighth world title in red, and Hamilton’s reported $100 million annual salary suddenly pales into insignificance compared to the possibilities of the Hamilton/Ferrari partnership.

What does Lewis Hamilton’s arrival at Ferrari mean for Charles Leclerc?

By all accounts, Leclerc is greeting Hamilton with open arms into ‘his’ team. After all, what other option does he have at this point? But Leclerc’s F1 future suddenly looks a lot more shaky than it did two months ago.

While Leclerc is immensely popular, his visibility does not yet transcend F1 to any meaningful extent. His status as Ferrari’s poster boy will unquestionably be trounced by the marketing push to align Hamilton with Ferrari in the eyes of a global audience.

How quickly might that turn into resentment, particularly after having to put up with years of Ferrari mediocrity and mistakes?

Added to that is the fact that Hamilton and Fred Vasseur’s relationship and friendship stems back two decades, so far back that Leclerc hadn’t even left childhood yet.

On top of that, there’s the added factor of historical success. After all, what are Leclerc’s five Grand Prix wins when stacked up against seven world titles?

It’s a hugely uncomfortable position for Leclerc to be put in, and he may find that Ferrari suddenly turns into an environment he no longer recognises, or enjoys, if Hamilton is able to come in and get the team to work around him – and who would bet against Hamilton being able to do that?

The situation means that Leclerc’s entire career trajectory could hinge on 2025 and how he handles a Hamilton onslaught. A failure to keep up or a trouncing at the hands of an aging Hamilton would doom Leclerc’s current status as a perceived Champion in waiting.

Leclerc, then, will have to dig deep and ensure he beats Hamilton fair and square throughout 2025, and prove to Ferrari they have been backing the right man. It’s a daunting task, and a very different dynamic to when Leclerc himself was brought in to apply pressure on Vettel.

There are few crumbs of comfort for Leclerc at this juncture in his career, but there are a few he can cling to.

Mercedes didn’t fight as hard as one might have expected the team to in order to keep or convince Hamilton he is making an error of judgement, perhaps indicating George Russell is seen as a worthy enough successor to lead Mercedes forward.

If Russell is seen on a similar level to Hamilton by the team that holds all the data on both, the task of beating Hamilton on track will seem less daunting to Leclerc. Mind management and keeping calm focus against someone as polished as Hamilton will be critical in the intra-team fight.

But what will worry Leclerc is how, in 2013, Hamilton moved across to Mercedes when it looked to be becoming Nico Rosberg’s team.

It didn’t take long for Hamilton to seize control and capitalise when Mercedes came out of the blocks with the best car for the new regulations.

It’s Hamilton’s strength of character and ability to pull a team around him, along with his speed and unrelenting race pace, that make him such a formidable challenge for teammates to overcome.

It’s sink or swim time for Charles Leclerc. Sink under the challenge, and his dreams of even racing for Ferrari any more, let alone challenge for titles, may slip away extremely quickly.

Swim, and he’ll prove that, as we’ve suspected all along, Ferrari was holding him back.

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