New F1 Rumors Suggest Formula 2 Driver Leclerc Could Be in a Sauber for 2018
All aboard the silly season hype train.
It all started last month when team principal Monisha Kaltenborn left Sauber. She was the one who orchestrated the deal for the team to use Honda engines in 2018. While that choice was a risky one, the move has been looking better and better over the last few weeks, as Honda has stepped up its game over at McLaren. But the powers that be at Sauber just decided that it's not worth the risk and struck a new deal with Ferrari for 2018.
With that new deal comes rumors about who might be driving for the team next year. Currently, Marcus Ericsson and Pascal Wehrlein drive for the team, with Antonio Giovinazzi as the reserve driver. Wehrlein has long been linked to an eventual seat at Mercedes—or at least a Mercedes-powered team once a seat is available. Ericsson's time in Formula One is probably coming to a close. In three and half seasons, he's only scored nine points. As far as Giovinazzi goes, he still needs a little refining before being moved to the grown-up table. He filled in for Wehrlein at the start of the season and did a practice this weekend in Hungary. Of those three opportunities, he's crashed during two of them. He's a skilled driver, but likely needs one more year in Formula 2 to hone his skill.
With the renewed Ferrari deal for 2018, there has been a lot of chatter about Formula 2 championship leader Charles Leclerc getting a spot at Sauber. Leclerc is a Ferrari Academy driver and a reserve driver for the Ferrari F1 team, so he's almost there. With the masterful skills he's shown this year in Formula 2, there is little doubt that he'll get an F1 seat next year.
As Leclerc recently said to Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, “The big dream is to wear red and I hope that one day it will become reality. But I also think of everything, as long as it is F1.”
Wisely, he seems to be keeping his options open. There is no doubt that several teams will be interested in talking to him, but not all them will have a seat available.
In the past, Leclerc had been rumored to be in line for a seat at Haas. But Haas has said they are keeping their driver line-up as is. Red Bull won't have a seat open. Torro Rosso might, but that would mean driving for a non-Ferrari team. Ferrari would be very keen to keep him in the family. (Oddly, there have also been rumors of Toro Rosso making the switch to Ferrari for next season. This is doubtful, but would certainly be something to keep an eye on.) Mercedes should be keeping Valtteri Bottas around, so that isn't an option for Leclerc.
So as far as keeping him close to the vest as a Ferrari Academy driver, the options are Sauber or Ferrari. The factory spot is obviously the preferred choice for any driver. If Ferrari will even have an open seat, however, has yet to be determined. Kimi Raikkonen is the wild card here. The first half of the season, he seemed very lackluster, especially considering how well Sebastian Vettel was doing. But now, Raikkonen seems to have had a moment of clarity. He's driving better and fighting for wins.
Maybe he knows his seat is at risk. This is Kimi Raikkonen we're talking about. He'll do whatever he feels like doing. If he wants to drive, he'll drive. If he's not feeling it, he'll just meander around the track, mumbling on the radio. Maybe that's a little harsh, but it's not untrue. Raikkonen is one of the most popular drivers in the sport because of the lack of care he gives about anything. But that laissez-faire attitude seems to be wearing thin at Ferrari.
Historically, Ferrari hasn't signed too many rookie drivers. It's not the Ferrari way. They want their drivers to be seasoned and mature. But maybe this is the time that they break with tradition if Raikkonen doesn't stay around for 2018.
Sauber would be very keen to get their hands on a driver of Leclerc's caliber. It would do wonders for the team. They have been struggling for years now, always seeming to be on the cusp of a breakthrough only to have it never materialize. Part of that problem has been the team's driver line-up. They never seem to get the right people in the car at the right time.
Leclerc would be the right person at the right time for Sauber. The team is under new leadership. Their new engine deal will get them current Ferrari engines, rather than the year-old power units they use now. Leclerc and Wehrline should prove to make a competitive pair, as they are both highly rated young drivers.
On paper, this would be the route to take for Leclerc to cut his teeth in Formula One. It's still a risky move for a rookie driver. The team has not had much success in recent years. Getting stuck at a floundering team can be a career killer for an up-and-coming driver. But helping to turn around a team like Sauber just raises a driver's stock price.
Where Leclerc ends up will largely be up to Ferrari. Will there be a race seat open at the team, and if so, who else would Ferrari be willing to sign? Realistically, there aren't many current F1 drivers who might be available that Ferrari would grab.
Leclerc is due to drive for Ferrari at the test this week. Before the recent developments with Sauber, the test was looking like more of an audition. Over at Sauber, F2 driver Nobuharu Matsushita will be testing with them this week. Matsushita is a test and development driver for McLaren-Honda. When Sauber was slated to get Honda engines for next year, Matsushita testing for them made sense. Now, it's something of an oddity. Where Matsushita had been rumored to maybe get a drive at Sauber next year, that seems all but off the table now.
Eventually, all will be revealed. But for now, silly season is in full swing.