F1’s changing of the guard, both on-track and off-track

Charles Leclerc testing his Ferrari

This weekend, Charles Leclerc wrote himself into the history books. His victory for Ferrari at Monza ends the Scuderia’s longest-ever drought of wins in Italy. Not since Fernando Alonso won the Italian Grand Prix in 2010 have Ferrari won at this most historic and passionate venue.

It would have taken a heart of stone not to be swept up in the emotion of the tifosi as their new hero Leclerc emerged onto the top step of podium, positioned directly above hundreds of Italians dressed in red and waving the most enormous flags you’ve ever seen.

A victory at Monza almost makes up for Ferrari’s otherwise lacklustre season. This may be their second win in a row, but it’s an illusion caused by the fact that the two circuits least demanding on downforce are back-to-back on the calendar.

Leclerc’s win also had the useful side-effect of directing attention away from Sebastian Vettel’s truly disastrous race. It continues a disturbing trend of declining form that has now lasted for well over a year. I had hoped Vettel would be able to hit the ‘reset’ button. If anything, he is getting worse.

It’s one thing to lose control of your car with no-one around you. But for him to rejoin the circuit in a reckless way, directly into the path of the innocent Lance Stroll, was one of the most jaw-droppingly appalling pieces of driving I have seen. It is absolutely not what we expect from a highly experienced four-time world champion. If Romain Grosjean (or, indeed, Lance Stroll) had done that, he’d probably have been banned. Vettel has to set a better example.

As it is, he looks increasingly lost. When the mistakes started happening, it was funny. Then it became embarrassing. Now, it’s downright disturbing. It’s almost as if Vettel has caught one of those bugs from a cat poo that makes people behave strangely.

Immediately after the race, Vettel was standing in the drab media pen trying and failing to explain his actions.

Meanwhile, Leclerc was soaking up the adulation of a nation. A newly-designed podium saw a massive digital screen being used as a backdrop for the first time. As Charles Leclerc emerged, a giant image of him appeared on the screen. This portrait looked down on the crowd like Mao Zedong. It was as if to say to the tifosi: Forget the previous man you pinned your hopes on — Ferrari’s new leader has been chosen.

He deserves the adulation. This follows an intense week. His friend Anthoine Hubert lost his life on the racetrack. Leclerc took his first Formula 1 victory at Spa-Francorchamps the next day. One week later, Charles Leclerc stepped up to the plate in Monza in front of thousands of hopeful Italians. He asserted himself as Ferrari’s new leader. You can hardly imagine a more high-pressure situation, and Leclerc performed.

The race itself was not easy. With Vettel having made a fool of himself, Leclerc was left out there to fend for himself. Mercedes seemed to have the faster car. First Lewis Hamilton, then Valtteri Bottas, gave it everything they had in their attempts to take victory. It was a tense, thrilling race in which Leclerc had an answer for everything that was asked of him.

Not all of his answers were exactly by the book, however. He did make mistakes. He pushed his luck — and the rules — to the very limit.

In particular, his swipe across Lewis Hamilton going into the Roggia chicane was a hard move that would have been penalised in previous times.

But Leclerc’s arrival signals a new era. As he has asserted himself at the front of the field, he has also taken a leading role in defining new rules of engagement. As I wrote after the Hungarian Grand Prix, Leclerc’s developing rivalry with Max Verstappen has seen both of them pushing each other to the edge in a dual exploration of how far the rules can be taken.

Both of them are smartly taking advantage of the uproar following Vettel’s penalty during the Canadian Grand Prix.

The way F1 is being run is itself in a state of enforced transition following the untimely death of Charlie Whiting. His successor, Michael Masi has done a good job of fulfilling the important role of race director.

Having established himself as a safe pair of hands in the first third of the season, Michael Masi found himself having to make a decision after the Canadian Grand Prix. As a result, he is bringing a fresh approach in the face of increasing calls to “just let them race”.

The Masi method gives drivers more margin. He won’t let drivers do silly things. But if there is doubt, he will give drivers the benefit of it.

I favour his re-introduction of the black-and-white driving standards warning flag. Like a Ferrari home victory, it was last seen in 2010. After a surprise in Belgium this year when it was shown to Pierre Gasly, Michael Masi announced that he was bringing the flag back, comparing it to the yellow card in football.

I too have often wondered why the black-and-white flag hasn’t been used in recent times. It seems that the variety of time penalties now available has replaced the flag’s original purpose, but I see no reason why not to use the flag as an initial warning.

(It was also surprising and refreshing to see Michael Masi appearing on Sky Sports F1 to explain some of the decisions within an hour of the race finishing. Apparently he plans to do this more often.)

Charles Leclerc has obviously been paying attention. His one swipe across Hamilton appeared to be calculated to the millimetre. He gave just less than a car’s width, but only just less, in order to be given the benefit of the doubt. Hamilton bailed out through the escape road. Leclerc duly received the black-and-white flag, but he had released the pressure valve. It was probably the moment he secured victory.

It was good racecraft too. Hamilton has said that if he wasn’t fighting for the championship, he would have held his ground and the pair would have collided. Leclerc will have made this calculation.

This is probably the thing that impresses me the most about Leclerc. He is not just super-talented. He’s also clever.

His battles with Verstappen already demonstrated that he can use external political situations to his advantage on-track. To level-up and achieve the same with a five-time world champion shows that F1’s youngest star is already one of the smartest.

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