What does Charles Leclerc’s success tell us about Daniel Ricciardo?

Charles Leclerc testing his Ferrari

Formula 1 has its new wunderkind — or rather, its new enfant prodige — in Charles Leclerc. That he should have talent is no surprise, of course. The former Formula 2 champion had a very solid season racing for Sauber last year. Ferrari would never have promoted him so quickly if he wasn’t very special indeed.

Over the winter, people have pondered whether Leclerc may even be good enough to challenge Sebastian Vettel’s position as Ferrari’s number one driver. But that seemed like winter tittle-tattle; a contrived talking point to generate pageviews during quieter months for F1 news sites.

In fact, Leclerc has given Sebastian Vettel a headache straight away. In Australia, only team orders kept Leclerc behind Vettel during the race, with Vettel driving on heavily worn tyres as a result of his tyre strategy.

In Bahrain, Leclerc took matters into his own hands by qualifying on pole, three tenths ahead of Vettel. A poor race start saw Leclerc drop back, but he made amends for that within laps. While others may have panicked, Leclerc calmly picked his way back up to the race lead — coolly showing Vettel who’s now boss at Ferrari in the process.

That coolness is the most impressive aspect of Leclerc’s performance. It’s not that unusual for an exciting young driver to make his mark with some impressive performances. Vettel was that person once.

But invariably, they come with the rough edges of inexperience. They lack racecraft. They make mistakes. They crash.

Leclerc doesn’t do any of that. Watching him drive, you’d never guess he was only 21 and racing in his 23rd grand prix.

Vettel’s fall from grace

How times change for Sebastian Vettel. He was once F1’s bright young future. Now, Vettel has lost his edge. He is mistake-prone, and seems at a loss for how to improve.

Seasoned observers are now openly asking if Vettel has been overrated for some time:

In November, I wrote about how Vettel’s career at Ferrari had begun to go pear-shaped in a similar fashion to Fernando Alonso’s.

We’re now a long way away from the article I wrote five and a half years ago, Is Sebastian Vettel the greatest F1 driver ever?.

Between 2010 and 2013, Sebastian Vettel won each of his four world championships in consecutive seasons. His dominance during that particular era is undeniable.

But increasingly, the theory that Vettel just had a particular knack with that era of exhaust-blown diffuser cars is beginning to look more and more true.

What this tells us about Ricciardo’s reputation

This brings us on to Daniel Ricciardo.

Ricciardo is a very handy driver. But his reputation was largely formed on his performances during the 2014 season, when he was team mates with Vettel at Red Bull Racing. This was the first year exhaust blown diffusers were effectively banned.

That year, Vettel was oddly off-colour. He finished a distant fifth in the championship, 71 points behind Ricciardo. Vettel sceptics revelled in the fact that he had finally been beaten in equal machinery, and quite handily so.

In a sense, Ricciardo has never had such a good season since. Part of this may be down to the Red Bull car dropping off the pace against Mercedes and Ferrari. But looking at the drivers’ performances, it’s more complicated than that.

In 2015, Ricciardo finished the season three points adrift of Daniil Kvyat, a man who has been sacked by Red Bull three times for not being good enough. True enough, Ricciardo had a string of rotten reliability problems that year — so his reputation was maintained, while Kvyat didn’t even keep his job until the start of the European races in 2016.

Then, the new wunderkind, plucky teen Max Verstappen, arrived on the scene. Then the trouble really began for Ricciardo. Verstappen won on his debut for Red Bull Racing. Over time, Verstappen asserted his authority at Red Bull Racing, to the point that Ricciardo felt like he had to leave for a different team.

Ricciardo at Renault — relevant for his reputation

So here we are, in 2019, and Ricciardo has joined Renault, a midfield team that has little chance of competing with Red Bull Racing on a regular basis.

His team mate is Nico Hülkenberg. He is another driver who’s difficult to measure. He had a stellar career in the junior formulae, and during his F1 career he has also won the 24 Hours of Le Mans, one of motorsport’s most prestigious events. But success in F1 has eluded him.

The front-running teams don’t want to touch Hülkenberg with a barge pole. The reasons for this are fairly unclear to outside observers, but seem to be crystal clear to those in the know.

I had considered this to be the year when we find out whether Hülkenberg is any good or not, in the same way I thought Nico Rosberg was the driver to watch in 2013. Here, for the first time, he is being tested against a driver who is somewhat of a known quantity.

Yet, as these two races have gone past, I have found myself wondering if we’re learning more about Ricciardo. You may have expected Ricciardo to have a clear upper hand over Hülkenberg at Renault. Yes, we are only two races in, and Ricciardo is inevitably still finding his feet at his new team.

But Ricciardo’s mediocre start to the season, combined with Vettel’s continued collapse in form, are making me wonder if we’ve been overestimating Ricciardo this whole time.

I’d love to be proved wrong. Ricciardo is probably my favourite driver, a breath of fresh air and a demon overtaker. But if he can’t beat Nico Hülkenberg, you have to wonder what’s the point. I’m sure Renault, who are paying him an eye-watering amount of money, would have the same question.

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