Charles Leclerc's Ferrari contract extension is a huge statement from F1's most famous team and speaks volumes about the impact he had during his first season in red.
Leclerc's 2019 was not without drama and frustration, but on paper was very impressive. Ferrari had broken from its norm by promoting the young Leclerc to replace Kimi Raikkonen and the Monaco native immediately set about showing that it was the correct decision - he claimed the first two victories of his F1 career, one of which ended Ferrari's drought at the Italian Grand Prix, and scored more pole positions than anyone else. He could have easily finished the year with four or five wins to his name rather than just two.
It did plenty to justify the substantial hype which has followed Leclerc around since his junior racing career. In Leclerc Ferrari has now tied down one of the two hottest commodities on the grid (the other being Red Bull's Max Verstappen) to a long-term deal, which should make the tifosi feel very comfortable about the next decade of racing. It also speaks volumes about the nature of Leclerc's competitive relationship with teammate Sebastian Vettel this season.
Leclerc joined the season as a clear number two to Vettel. Ahead of the Australian Grand Prix the team said the German driver would retain the priority in any 50/50 situations, with Leclerc very much feeling like a long-term project for two or three years down the line. If any driver was going to lead the charge for Ferrari - which entered the season as favourites for the title - it was Vettel. Leclerc was well thought of but there was no expectation he would be immediately competitive at the front.
It became almost immediately clear Leclerc had no intention of being the dutiful number two or waiting for his opportunity to be Ferrari's main man. He very nearly won his second race, only to be robbed by an engine issue at the end of the Bahrain Grand Prix, where he had beaten Vettel to pole position. While there were the occasional mistakes you would expect from a young driver making such a big step in his career, every strong display seemed to increase Leclerc's confidence about his ability and, crucially, his place within the team.
Vettel was clearly irritated by what was happening around him and spoke out against Leclerc later in the year when the youngster refused to return the favour of offering him a slipstream down Monza's long straights during qualifying for the Italian Grand Prix. Leclerc went on to claim pole position and win at Monza the following day -- prompting one Italian newspaper to dub him "The Prince Who Became a King" -- while Vettel, whose qualifying was ruined, was left fourth on the grid before making one of a number of high-profile errors which were littered throughout the campaign. A handful of races later Vettel went against a pre-race deal to hand the lead back to Leclerc after the opening corner at the Russian Grand Prix as the tense environment within Ferrari was laid bare for everyone to see.
Leclerc's contract extension (which Italian press reports say comes with a substantial salary increase) comes in spite of the role he played in creating that environment alongside Vettel and very much confirms what everyone inside and outside the paddock already knew - while he was already the future of Ferrari, he is now very much the present as well. Leclerc's deal will not only cement that viewpoint in the Monegasque's head but it represents a kick in the teeth to Vettel, who until this season had tried to reshape the team around himself in the same fashion Michael Schumacher did in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
If you needed any convincing Leclerc had become the team's main focus for the future, then this new deal -- longer than any of his rivals' -- is proof of that. Ferrari has already confirmed there will be no similar declaration ahead of the 2020 Australian Grand Prix about one driver being favoured over the other in 50/50 scenarios.
What does 2020 hold for Vettel?
As soon as Leclerc had his breakout year, next season was always going to be make-or-break for Vettel's Ferrari career. It will be the final year of the extension Vettel signed in 2017 at a time when several other big names are in similar situations. Ferrari chairman John Elkann's meetings with Lewis Hamilton started the rumour-mill, but Renault's Daniel Ricciardo will also be on the market. Ferrari won't be short of options if they want to jettison Vettel, who is currently on one of F1's most lucrative contracts.
When Vettel joined Ferrari, he was heralded as the man who would end its long wait for a driver title but a maddeningly long list of high-profile errors have taken some of the gloss off the four-time world champion in recent years. Mistakes cost him and Ferrari the 2018 championship and those moments continued into 2019. Vettel's spin in the early laps of the Italian Grand Prix came as Leclerc romped away to victory out in front, which felt like the lowest point of his time at the team. He has given Ferrari plenty of reasons to seek other options for 2021 in the seat alongside Leclerc and surely cannot afford another year in which he is made to look fairly ordinary alongside a much younger and much less decorated teammate.