Sport

Formula One’s young guns rise up

2019-09-08 12:00

Charles Leclerc has finally taken his maiden win in Formula One.

His triumph in Belgium last weekend could, and perhaps should, have been his third win of the year after his engine woes in Bahrain and his late tussle with Max Verstappen in Austria.

But all good things come to those who wait and, with that first victory, Leclerc joins an exclusive club of drivers who won their first grand prix before the age of 23.

The timing could not have been better, with today’s Italian Grand Prix in Monza practically being the Ferrari home race.

Buoyed by the win in Belgium, Leclerc told media ahead of today’s race that he sees his future lying with the Scuderia.

“In five years, I still see myself in Formula One, dressed in red and with a world championship title to my name,” he said.

The young Monégasque is only 21 and joins Verstappen, Lewis Hamilton, Sebastian Vettel and Fernando Alonso as present-day drivers who won before they turned 23. An illustrious list indeed, as three of those five are multiple world champions.

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Spaniard Alonso made his Formula One debut with Minardi in 2001 and was winning races with Renault by 2003, taking his first in Hungary of that year. Following this with two world championships in 2005 and 2006, the now 38-year-old cemented his place as one of the championship’s elites.

Then came Hamilton and Vettel. Now two of Formula One’s elder statesmen, it was only 12 years ago that the pair emerged on the scene as fresh-faced rookies.

Hamilton immediately made an impact on his debut in Australia in 2007, when he finished third on the podium.

He went on to take his maiden win at Canada on a weekend when no one else could come close.

Since then, the Brit has ascended to the upper echelons of sporting folklore with five world championships and 81 victories, just 10 shy of Michael Schumacher’s seemingly unsurpassable record.

Vettel made the step up to Formula One halfway through the 2007 season, just after Hamilton had taken his first win. Scoring points on his debut for BMW Sauber, it wasn’t long before Red Bull recalled the German and placed him at Toro Rosso for the rest of the season.

The motorsport world was stunned when, in 2008 and at just 21 years old, Vettel dominated the wet conditions at the Italian Grand Prix to take his Toro Rosso to the top of the podium. At the time, he was the youngest race winner and achieved something that had not been seen before by dragging a backmarker to victory.

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The rest is history – just two years later, Vettel had clinched his first title and thus began a storming charge of four championships in a row with Red Bull.

Seven years later, a fresh-faced teenager in the shape of Verstappen became Red Bull’s next big thing.

At just 17 years old, Verstappen took to the grid in Australia in 2015 to smash the record as the youngest driver by a year.

After only a year cutting his teeth at Toro Rosso, the Dutchman was swiftly promoted to the senior Red Bull team in time for the 2016 Spanish Grand Prix.

After both Mercedes drivers, of Hamilton and Nico Rosberg, wiped each other out on the first lap, Verstappen defended mightily against Kimi Räikkönen to win his first grand prix on his debut race for Red Bull.

In fact, Verstappen’s meteoric rise, all happening just as he turned 18, led to the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile introducing a new set of rules dictating the minimum amount of experience a driver must have before he can compete in Formula One.

Leclerc won the Formula Two championship in 2017, blitzing to victory in Azerbaijan at 19 years old – just days after the death of his father – so he was more than qualified to join the pinnacle of motorsport.

He stepped up to Formula One with Alfa Romeo last year, under the watchful eye of Ferrari.

Tipped as a future world champion, it didn’t take long before he would get his chance to go for the title as Ferrari called him up to the team for this season.

Leclerc looked in imperious form all weekend in Belgium, taking his third pole position last Saturday afternoon.

But things would take a deep plunge later in the day.

The tragic loss of fellow racer Anthoine Hubert in Saturday’s Formula Two race cast a dark shadow over the weekend, and motorsport in general.

Hubert was a close friend of Leclerc’s. The pair had grown up together and rose through the junior formulas at the same time.

It was somewhat fitting, then, that Leclerc would go on to take his first win in the sport, dedicating it to his friend’s memory and honour.

Between the pair of them, it’s no stretch to say that the future of the sport is very safe in the hands of Leclerc and Verstappen, and with other youngsters, including Lando Norris and George Russell, making a mark in the sport, more records may yet be broken soon.

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September 15 2019