By Alan Baldwin
MONZA, Italy (Reuters) – Sebastian Vettel was supposed to be the man to follow in Michael Schumacher’s footsteps at Ferrari but the heir apparent to the master of Maranello is looking more and more like Charles Leclerc.
The 21-year-old Monegasque’s victory at the Italian Grand Prix on Sunday triggered scenes of intense emotion at Ferrari’s home race and catapulted Leclerc ahead of Vettel in the standings.
The newspaper headline writers left no doubt about the prevailing sentiment on Monday.
“Reclerc” declared the front page of the daily Gazetta dello Sport, playing on the Monegasque’s surname with the Italian word for king and announcing the coronation of the team’s ‘little prince’.
Vettel, a four times world champion who endured a bleak afternoon at Monza and was lapped by his team mate after collecting a 10 second stop/go penalty for dangerous driving, was highlighted as a man in crisis.
The victory at Monza was Leclerc’s second in a row, following on from his breakthrough in Belgium the previous weekend, but the first by a Ferrari driver since 2010.
Tellingly perhaps, the last Ferrari driver to take back-to-back wins in Belgium and Italy, Formula One’s two fastest tracks, was Schumacher in his debut season with the team in 1996.
Leclerc, too, is in his first season with Ferrari, a team celebrating their 90th anniversary, and two thirds of the way through the campaign the youngster is ahead of Vettel on points, poles, podiums and wins.
Leclerc also showed in Monza that — like most great drivers including seven times world champion Schumacher — he can be fearless but also selfish and ruthless when it suits his purposes.
Team boss Mattia Binotto alluded to this when he congratulated him over the team radio at the finish by saying ‘you are forgiven’, referring to shenanigans in Saturday’s qualifying.
Leclerc had taken pole on the basis of his first fast lap in the final shootout, with the final minutes descending into farce with no driver willing to take the lead and allow others to slipstream.
Within Ferrari, sources said, it had been agreed that Leclerc would give Vettel the necessary tow but that never happened and the German was not impressed.
In the race, Leclerc also showed he was willing to push the rules to the limit — triggering a black and white warning flag, the equivalent of a yellow card in soccer, when he squeezed Mercedes’s Lewis Hamilton off the track.
“The racing was very hard, maybe over the line — and Lewis I think was instrumental in not making it an incident,” commented Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff.
“But at the end of the day, what do you do? You give a leading Ferrari in Monza a five-second penalty? Out of the question… because then we need a police escort out of here.”
Leclerc, like the Schumacher of old, was aggressive and single-minded after seizing his chance and starting from pole position.
Unlike the German, he addressed the crowd afterwards in fluent Italian. The crowd had no need for forgiveness, they already had their favourite.
(Reporting by Alan Baldwin; Editing by Toby Chopra)