It may only be the third day of the new year, but the attention of many in the Formula 1 paddock will already be turning toward 2021.

Not only do we have a new raft of technical, sporting and financial regulations on the way, but the F1 driver market has the potential to be one of the most volatile in recent memory, given most of the grid are now into the final year of their contract.

The driver who can be most relaxed about his future is Charles Leclerc. Despite holding a long-term deal with Ferrari upon his promotion into a race seat for the 2019 season, the Monegasque youngster received an early Christmas present when a new five-year contract was announced, locking him in until the end of 2024.

The announcement may have come as little surprise considering his stunning start to life in the scarlet red of Ferrari, but the length of the deal did catch the eye of many. Not since Fernando Alonso signed a six-year contract with Ferrari in 2011 had two parties made such a long commitment to each other. (And we know how that ended.)

It is the ultimate show of faith from Ferrari in its young star, who has been under its wing since 2016 and since become the hero for the Tifosi. Leclerc wasted little time in proving he had all the ability to perform at the front of the grid in F1, taking the fight to four-time world champion teammate Sebastian Vettel week in, week out through their first season together.

The fashion in which Leclerc has matched and often beaten Vettel is exactly why Ferrari had no option but to negotiate fresh terms for 2020. While he still may not be on the same kind of money as Vettel, his new salary – rumoured in the Italian press to be around triple his previous wage – is still a fairer reflection of his contributions. You can also be sure that various clauses and triggers will also be in place to escalate the deal should world titles follow.

Ferrari’s decision to lock Leclerc in and throw the first die among the big teams for 2021 also warns off any potential suitors. It may have seemed unlikely but were relations with Vettel to sour further through 2020, an unhappy Leclerc could have been tempted to look outside of the camp. Team principal Mattia Binotto has acted swiftly and smartly by keeping Ferrari’s most precious commodity happy.

So where does all of this leave Vettel?

Twelve months ago, it would have been a surprise for Leclerc to be the man starting 2020 with his future secure. But that indicates just how much the power has shifted at Maranello.

Relations between Vettel and Leclerc have remained cordial off-track, with the pair insisting that nothing has changed despite various incidents. Vettel’s defiance of team orders in Russia added fuel to the fire that had been brewing since Singapore. It finally exploded in Brazil when Vettel and Leclerc collided in a battle for fourth place, causing both to retire from the race.

Ferrari has been insistent no team orders or change in approach is required to prevent their drivers from coming to blows in the future. For Vettel, the lack of security over his future will surely act as a deterrent to be the aggressor. If anyone is heading for the exit at Ferrari now, it is him, not Leclerc.

That is not to say Vettel is on borrowed time at Ferrari. Far from it. He proved his quality on numerous occasions in 2019, such as in Canada – dominant bar the mistake that cost him the win – Germany and Singapore, snatching victory away from Leclerc in the latter in convincing fashion. He remains one of the leading four drivers on the grid, and has a maturity that Leclerc still lacks by virtue of inexperience.

Vettel must recognise that he is no longer the ‘number one driver’ at Ferrari, a status enjoyed when partnering Kimi Raikkonen but undoubtedly lost through 2019. Even if he returns to his very best form through 2020 and finally ends Ferrari’s title drought, what kind of contract extension can he hope for? One or two years at best? Certainly nothing to the extent of Leclerc’s deal.

It is difficult to see who could step in at Ferrari. Talk of Lewis Hamilton moving to Maranello is understandable. Why wouldn’t he drive his price up? But the chances of him walking away from Mercedes, even for all the money in the world, look incredibly slim.

Then there is Max Verstappen. Now 22, 2020 marks his final chance to become the youngest world champion in the sport’s history. The Red Bull-Honda project has progressed well, but the Dutchman is no longer content with being an occasional race winner who earns praise for outstripping his machinery. He needs to be in a winning car.

Ferrari’s eye has surely been caught by Verstappen, yet the prospect of him teaming up with Leclerc again seems unlikely given the tensions and rivalry that has brewed between them. As spectacular as Verstappen may be on-track, it could give rise to some destructive factors few (if any) successful teams in F1 history have been able to overcome.

Daniel Ricciardo may be an option for Ferrari to explore, having previously shown an interest in the Australian towards the end of Raikkonen’s time with the team. Should Mercedes replace Valtteri Bottas, he too could be a solid team player for Ferrari to pick up, especially with no juniors on its books that look even close to being ready.

The opening set of races in 2020 will be crucial to deciding Vettel’s future. He needs to make a compelling case for Ferrari to want to keep him, complete with his bumper salary. Vettel is, of course, more than capable of doing so, and the attraction of sticking with two of the leading performers on the grid will be hard for Ferrari to ignore so long as the results prove as much.

For Leclerc, though, the focus can be on continuing his development and producing the best results on-track, free from the pressure of dwelling on what his future may look like.

Because in Ferrari’s eyes, it is clear: that future is Leclerc.



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