By Alan Baldwin
LE CASTELLET, France (Reuters) - Sauber rookie Charles Leclerc burnished his prospects of eventually replacing Kimi Raikkonen at Ferrari with a stunning eighth place in qualifying for the French Grand Prix on Saturday.
The 20-year-old Monaco national, who has been carefully nurtured by Ferrari, is increasingly talked about in the Formula One paddock as the man most likely to join Sebastian Vettel at the Italian team.
Raikkonen, the 2007 world champion who is now 38, is out of contract at the end of the season.
Sauber finished last in 2017 but have strengthened their ties with Ferrari since then, using the latest specification engines, and Leclerc has been driving the car beyond expectations.
His Swedish team mate Marcus Ericsson, who had not scored in two years until he finished ninth in Bahrain in April, has been eclipsed by the man in the other half of the garage and qualified only 15th.
"I have no words to describe how I feel right now," Leclerc told reporters after reaching the final top-10 shootout for the first time.
"I’ve just had a smile since I passed (into) Q3 (the third phase) and it’s great. We all should be proud, the team and I, of what we have achieved today.
"It’s probably the best recovery I did in my career from one day to another," added the Formula Two champion who had been 13th and 14th in Friday's two practice sessions.
"Yesterday, it was a disaster, the car didn’t feel great, I was not driving very well. We changed completely the car today and I felt a lot better."
Vettel and Lewis Hamilton, who are separated by only a point in the battle of four-times champions for a fifth title, were both asked about Leclerc's performance in the post-qualifying news conference.
The German said he had noticed Sauber team boss Frederic Vasseur was "pretty happy".
"Obviously eighth is an impressive result. I think they are still quite a long way behind with the car so I think for him, he’s doing the job," added the Ferrari driver.
Hamilton, who made a sensational debut with McLaren in 2007, was also complimentary.
"There’s a lot of pressure for him, being here in the South of France, so yeah, really, really good," he said. "I'm really happy for him, particularly in that car.
"He’s doing a great job with what he has and probably delivering more, which is what you would hope from a good driver."
(Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by Clare Fallon)