Is it time for Charles Leclerc to become the number one driver at Ferrari?

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Charles Leclerc finally won his first race at the Belgian Grand Prix. He did so after out-performing Ferrari teammate Sebastian Vettel all weekend — the four-time world champion was even asked to move out of his way during the race.

So that begs an important question for our F1 panel — Nate Saunders and Laurence Edmondson join columnists Maurice Hamilton and Kate Walker — about the existing hierarchy at the Italian team.

Is it time for Ferrari to throw its weight behind Charles Leclerc?

NS: Leclerc is the coming man and Vettel is looking like yesterday’s news. I don’t think it makes much difference this year, but the idea on who gets priority in 50/50 calls has to flip around if the team has a title shot in 2020. Leclerc needs to be the guy who gets Plan A every week, rather than whatever back-up strategy is left on the floor of the Ferrari pit-wall.

LE: For the remainder of this season Ferrari must target the best team result at each round, regardless of the order of their drivers. Let’s face it, neither are in the running for the championship so there’s no point in making public (or internal) statements over which driver is No.1. Based on what happens over the next eight races, it can then make an informed decision over which driver to back for 2020 — and I get the feeling it may well be Leclerc.

MH: Not sure ‘throwing it’s weight’ is the right expression. Given Sebastian Vettel’s title chance has gone, it should be all about optimising track position — much as they did on Sunday — with the aim of getting the most points from each race, regardless of which of their drivers is leading.

KW:: Yes, yes, a thousand times yes! The Scuderia aren’t going to win either title this season, and while Seb should be top dog given his experience and titles, he’s simply not been delivering at a level commensurate with his salary. Charles has been an excellent rookie, and represents the future. It’s a no-brainer..

Having seen his display at Spa-Francorchamps, do you think Red Bull made the right decision promoting Alexander Albon?

NS: Early days of course, but it was an impressive start. Interestingly, post-race Albon apologised to the team for what he thought a bad race, but Christian Horner was genuinely impressed. His moves on Daniel Ricciardo and Sergio Perez were the important takeaways from the event. Toro Rosso rates Albon very highly and hopefully he can build on a solid debut with another good showing at Monza.

LE: He did what Pierre Gasly failed to do so many times in the first half of the season and got the best result given the circumstances. Red Bull wasn’t going to challenge Mercedes and Ferrari on Sunday, so fifth was the best the team could hope for and Albon delivered on a day when Max Verstappen found the wall. I’d like to see more from Albon before making a definitive judgement, but so far, so good.

MH: Definitely. Albon must have taken on board Helmut Marko’s comment about Pierre Gasly regularly being stuck in traffic because Alexander showed how it should be done with some demon moves. That apart, he handled his first experience of the car with great maturity, particularly on such a demanding track.

KW: Yes. Ignoring any of his moves on track — and there were good ones! — Albon should have finished fifth or sixth given the relative pace of the Red Bull. Max’s retirement made fifth the target, and he nailed it. Finishing fourth or higher would have been incredible, but entirely unexpected. I don’t see how anyone could have asked for more from Alex last weekend.

If you were Guenther Steiner, would you pick Romain Grosjean or Nico Hulkenberg to partner Kevin Magnussen in 2020?

NS: I’d go Hulkenberg. Clearly neither Hulkenberg nor Magnussen are that fussed by their, erm, “beef” from a few years ago. Whatever you think of his form under pressure, Hulkenberg is still one of F1’s great unfulfilled talents and is a good acquisition for any midfield team.

LE: It’s easy to say Grosjean has underperformed by looking at the points standings this year, but it’s a lazy assumption. With the exception of Silverstone, where both Haas drivers were to blame, his other five retirements have been caused by factors outside his control. And in the races where neither Haas driver has scored points but saw the chequered flag (usually due to the car’s crippling tyre weaknesses), he has finished ahead of Magnussen on three of four occasions. Haas is kidding itself if it believes Hulkenberg can answer the team’s engineering problems and, on his day, Grosjean is still capable of doing things neither of the other two can.

MH: Grosjean is so difficult to quantify; the speed is definitely there, but so is inconsistency, even allowing for the race pace of the Haas regularly falling off a cliff. Hulkenberg will forever rue that mistake at Hockenheim — but I’d still choose him.

KW: I’d choose the Hulk, if only for all of the “suck my balls” merchandising opportunities the driver pairing provides. I can see the tee-shirts now… Steiner’s already used to handling a combative pair, and Hülkenberg looks to me to be more consistent and less complainy than RoGro.

What do you make of F1’s plans for a 22-race calendar next year?

NS: F1 wants each race to be like a Super Bowl; the great thing about the Super Bowl is there aren’t 22 in one calendar year. The grand slam events in golf and tennis or a World Cup every four years are other good examples — exclusivity leads to prestige. I think each race risks diluting the product even more, especially if the current weekend format stays the way it is.

LE: Twenty-two races run to an identical race weekend format is too many. But if Formula One starts to mix things up with sprint races and reverse grids at some of the rounds, I think there is the possibility to expand the calendar further and still maintain interest. But in a perfect world, I’d cut out the tracks that don’t provide good racing such as Barcelona, Paul Ricard, Sochi and Abu Dhabi. That would take us down to manageable 18.

MH: It’s a mistake. You can have too much of a good thing and it smacks of greed. Apart from anything else, it’s really tough on the mechanics and the people who do all the graft — unlike the decision makers swanning about in First Class or on private jets. If the teams need back-up squads to cope, what does that do for the supposed need to cut costs? The maximum should be 18 races.

KW: Make it stop! Please, somebody, make it stop! We hit too much of a good thing somewhere around the 20-race season, and while I’m excited at the prospect of racing in Hanoi and thrilled we’ve kept Mexico, something has got to give. We’re devaluing individual grands prixs as it is.

Do you think Alfa Romeo’s Antonio Giovinazzi will still be in F1 at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix in December?

NS:His career so far has been the shrugging-man emoji in human form, but I don’t know who the team can replace him with before then. It’s effectively a Ferrari seat and they don’t want to rush Mick Schumacher up the ladder, so unless the team has some left-field candidate, Giovinazzi will see out the season. He surely won’t be there in 2020.

LE: Ferrari has the say over the second seat at Alfa Romeo, so it will all depend on Mick Schumacher. Schumacher currently has enough points for an F1 superlicence but if he fails to finish in the top six in F2 this year (he is currently 11th and 48 points off Guanyu Zhou in sixth) he will drop below the threshold of 40 points when his 20 points for finishing second in German and Italian F4 in 2016 expire. That might mean he gets a call up before the end of the year to gain a superlicence for 2020.

MH: Only if Alfa Romeo want to try a promising young driver. That seems unlikely at this stage given the close fight near the bottom end of the Constructors’ Championship. Giovinazzi’s problem is that he’s being compared to Kimi Raikkonen, who’s quietly doing a really impressive job. The same comparison would apply to whomever they brought in.

KW: He’ll probably be in Abu Dhabi, but I don’t expect to see him retained for 2020. He’s been a bit of a non-event on track, so unless he’s some sort of secret development guru (no signs of that yet…) there doesn’t seem to be much point keeping him around. Ferrari have other drivers they can run in his place.

How do you see the Italian Grand Prix unfolding?

NS: That Ferrari rocket in a straight line and the team has a brand new engine for both cars so, barring something unforeseen, I have Charles Leclerc beating Sebastian Vettel to a one-two. Lewis Hamilton finishes a distant third.

LE: Ferrari should comfortably lock out the front row of the grid thanks to its straight-line speed advantage, but in the race it will all come down to protecting the rear tyres. Last year, Lewis Hamilton beat Kimi Raikkonen thanks to the Ferrari’s tyres falling apart and it could be a similar story this year based on what we saw in Spa. Keep an eye on Friday practice to see how Ferrari is coping with that challenge.

MH: It’s got to be looking good for Ferrari, given what we saw at Spa and the way Leclerc and Vettel worked the low drag/plenty of power combination on the SF90, with even fewer slow sections to lose out on to Mercedes at Monza. Last Sunday’s win could not have been better timed and the team — Leclerc in particular — will be able to deal better with the inevitable Monza pressures. It’s difficult to see Red Bull getting into the mix at this one.

KW: I’m going with shades of Barcelona 2016, this time with Ferrari flavour. They should be the fastest car, so either Charles or Seb is going to be pretty miffed on Saturday night depending on how qualy plays out. There will be some form of headache for the pit wall, I’m certain.

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