Five world champions in the past 12 years. That says much about how the elite dominate in Formula 1 and how hard it is to break through to the topper-most of the popper-most. Of that quintet of champions, two – Jenson Button and Nico Rosberg – are already retired and the other three will be aware, to varying degrees, just how loudly the clock is ticking. Kimi Räikkönen, champion in 2007, is the oldest, having just turned 40; Lewis Hamilton, champion for the first time in 2008, is 34; Sebastian Vettel, who won four consecutive titles between 2010 and 2013, is 32 but is increasingly looking older after a fraught couple of years at Ferrari. What is certain is that all are closer to the end than the beginning.
That’s true even of Hamilton, despite still appearing at the height of his powers. But he will recognise that a changing of the generations – as inevitable as taxes – is upon F1. How can he not, after a 2019 season in which a clutch of fresh talent has risen to challenge the status quo, with all the glorious precociousness and cocksure self-belief of youth?
F1’s new power generation are not just the future. They’re right here, right now, and ready to grab at opportunities, whenever and wherever they come.
Charles Leclerc, age 22, team Ferrari
Monaco’s new favourite son stepped up to Ferrari this year and wasted little time in proving that the usually conservative team had made the right call in signing him. The near-miss in Bahrain, a race he would have won convincingly without an engine problem, also foreshadowed the growing problem Ferrari team-mate Vettel now has on his hands. Leclerc is increasingly proving tough to live with and at this rate could even shorten the four-time world champion’s career.
Like Max Verstappen, there are creases in Leclerc’s driving to be ironed out – but unlike Verstappen, he’s only in season two. The mistakes, especially in one who is so openly and refreshingly self-critical, will surely dwindle as experience grows.
The back-to-back victories at Spa and Monza, the latter automatically elevating him to god-like status in the eyes of the Tifosi, offer the evidence to indicate just how special this driver could be. In both races, he faced the physical and psychological challenge of a looming Hamilton in his mirrors. Like Ayrton Senna 30 years ago, Hamilton strikes fear into the heart of the best in such circumstances – Vettel, even if he wouldn’t admit it – but Leclerc refused to be rattled. Hardened perhaps by coming off second in combat with Verstappen in the closing stages in Austria, he delivered the kind of composed performances that marked out Hamilton in his rookie year at McLaren in 2007. The parallels have not escaped Hamilton, either.