Ferrari have underperformed in Formula 1 for far too long, but if they can get their act together they have a driver in Charles Leclerc ready to challenge for the title.
The 25-year-old put down a marker in 2022 when winning two of the first three races, holding a 46-point lead over Max Verstappen before his campaign crumbled.
A series of mechanical and team errors ruined Leclerc’s title ambitions as the Monegasque driver eventually finished a distant second to Verstappen in the standings.
But, in forcing his way into the championship picture and dominating qualifying throughout 2022, Leclerc proved he’s ready to make the step up, potentially renewing a rivalry from childhood with Verstappen for Formula 1’s top prize.
Growing up in F1’s spiritual home Monaco, the son of a former Formula 3 driver Herve Leclerc, Charles and his brother Arthur, who is currently part of Ferrari’s driver programme, spent their young lives surrounded by motorsport.
It was therefore not a surprise when Charles started karting in 2005 and was immediately good at it. Only one driver was better than Leclerc, a young Verstappen denying him the karting world title in 2013.
While Verstappen was fast-tracked into F1, Leclerc moved on to work his way through the junior single-seater ranks, winning the GP3 series in 2016 before a dominant run to the Formula 2 title the following year.
Leclerc was already part of the Ferrari academy by that point and in 2018 he was handed a drive with Sauber.
Sauber were struggling towards the rear of the grid when Leclerc arrived, but he managed to pilot the car to 10 points finishes, securing 13th in the drivers’ standings, while reaching Q3 eight times in qualifying.
It was his incredible pace in qualifying that caught the eye and the F1 Rookie of the Year for 2018 was soon promoted to drive for Ferrari.
Paired with four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel at the Scuderia, Leclerc was expected to play a supporting role to the illustrious German driver, only to outperform him in his maiden campaign with the Italian marque.
Leclerc won his maiden Grand Prix in Belgium that year and backed that victory up by storming to victory in Ferrari’s home race at Monza.
The 25-year-old also chalked up eight further podiums, seven pole positions and ten fastest laps to lay down a huge marker.
Vettel struggled to keep up, questioning how Leclerc could be so fast in qualifying, with his colleague on full attack for every session on a Saturday.
Formula 1: Max Verstappen in profile
Formula 1: Lewis Hamilton in profile
The 2019 campaign would be Leclerc’s best before last year, with Ferrari failing to produce a competitive car in 2020 and 2021 - Leclerc managing a combined three podiums in those two years.
He would comfortably outperform Vettel in 2020 before the German departed and Leclerc was promoted to become the team’s lead driver, albeit the team doesn’t like to differentiate between him and his current colleague Carlos Sainz Jr.
Although this was a trying period for Leclerc and his world title ambitions, not being in the spotlight allowed him to hone his craft.
Leclerc found a better balance between qualifying and race day having previously hindered his chances of a strong Sunday by thrashing his Ferrari on Saturday.
His tyre and engine management skills have steadily improved, without compromising his aggressive style which makes him such a fierce competitor on the track.
He was finally able to put everything he’s learnt in F1 to good use in 2022 when enjoying the best year of his career to date.
In those first few races of last season, Leclerc showed he had the composure and skill to duke it out with the best F1 has to offer on the track.
His battles with Verstappen in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia provided fans with two of the most exciting races of the season before he went on to enjoy arguably the best weekend of his career when dominating every facet of the Australian Grand Prix.
Having started so well, Leclerc understandably grew frustrated as his season fell apart and in his desperate attempts to stay on the coat tails of Verstappen, he did make some costly mistakes.
His crash in France was a prime example and if he wants to seriously challenge Red Bull next season then he can’t afford to make those types of errors.
Consistency, as Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton will testify, is key and Leclerc may have learnt that the hard way in 2022, along with several other tough lessons.
But with Ferrari bringing in Fred Vasseur, who worked with Leclerc at Sauber, as team principal, and an air of optimism surrounding their new SF-23 challenger for this season, Leclerc will hope he can stay in the title picture a little longer in 2023.
Leclerc is 5/1 to win a maiden drivers’ championship in 2023 and is 7/2 to win seven or more races this term.
He is 1/3 to out-perform his Ferrari team-mate Carlos Sainz for the second year running, while the team’s ultimate dream of a Leclerc/Ferrari title double is 12/1.