By Alan Baldwin
MONZA, Italy (Reuters) – Former Ferrari president Luca di Montezemolo says the Italian team’s latest race winner Charles Leclerc reminds him of the Niki Lauda of the 1970s.
The 21-year-old Monegasque took his first Formula One victory in Belgium last weekend, also becoming Ferrari’s youngest ever winner, and has impressed with his calm under pressure and speed.
Speaking to reporters at an event in Milan on Wednesday evening to mark Ferrari’s 90th anniversary, Montezemolo said Leclerc was quick even last year in his debut season with uncompetitive Sauber.
“With Ferrari of course it’s different. He makes very few mistakes. Like Niki at the beginning, he was only conscious why he made the mistake (and how) not to repeat it,” said Montezemolo.
“I think he is a very intelligent driver, very quick. Not only on one lap but also in the race. I think he can maybe be the best representative of a new generation of drivers. It’s very important for Formula One.”
Austrian Lauda, who died in May at the age of 70, won his first two titles with Ferrari in 1975 — at the age of 26 — and then in 1977 after an astonishing 1976 comeback from a fiery near-fatal crash.
Montezemolo, who had joined as Enzo Ferrari’s assistant, was team manager at the time and had an instant rapport with the driver.
Leclerc, in 13 races with Ferrari, has had three pole positions and is only 12 points behind team mate and four-times world champion Sebastian Vettel.
The Monegasque has had six podium finishes, the same number as Vettel, and has stood out also for his mental strength and discipline.
His win in Belgium came a day after French racer Anthoine Hubert, a friend and boyhood rival, was killed in a crash during the Formula Two feature race at Spa.
Leclerc was a godson of the late French racer Jules Bianchi, who died in 2015 after a 2014 crash at the Japanese Grand Prix, and won the 2017 Formula Two season while mourning his own father Herve.
Montezemolo left Ferrari in September 2014 before Vettel joined the team but he said the 32-year-old German remained a key member despite not having won a race now for more than a year.
“Sebastian was crucial for the victory,” he said of last Sunday’s race at Spa-Francorchamps.
“I think without Sebastian it was very difficult for Leclerc to win the race. Sebastian was able to hold back Hamilton for a few laps. Sebastian is still for me very, very good,” added the Italian.
“In life you have some difficult moments but I’m sure he has all the characteristics to come back. I hope very soon.”
(Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by Christian Radnedge)