Lewis Hamilton says Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc reminds him of himself in his own debut season in Formula 1.
Leclerc is just a point behind team-mate Sebastian Vettel in the title race despite team orders aimed at favouring the German in all three races so far.
Hamilton said: “When I got to Formula 1, I wanted to win as soon as possible and beat the champion I was racing against. So it is very similar.
“I see much of myself in Charles and he is doing a great job so far.”
Championship leader Hamilton added in the build-up to Sunday’s Azerbaijan Grand Prix: “With really high expectations at a huge team like Ferrari, he is driving so well, and he just has to keep doing what he is doing, it will come to him.”
The five-time world champion likened Leclerc’s situation to his own when he was alongside two-time champion Fernando Alonso in his debut season with McLaren in 2007.
Hamilton was angered by what he perceived to be the way McLaren manipulated the Monaco Grand Prix to prevent him having a chance to win, but took his first victory at the next race in Canada.
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“There have been a couple of scenarios when there are multiple world champions who demand the number one position and so you become a number two, and while it is a privileged position it goes against your core values,” Hamilton said.
“I understand how Charles feels because in his heart he believes he has the potential be the best and it is almost like having your light dimmed.
“So as a racer and as a fierce competitor, you kind of rebel. They say to do one thing but the fighter in you wants to push against it. I experienced that.”
Leclerc, who was promoted to Ferrari after a stellar debut season for Sauber last year, lost what would have been a dominant maiden victory in the second race of the season in Bahrain when he was hit by an engine problem in the closing stages of the race, handing victory to Hamilton.
In the first race in Australia, he was told to stay behind Vettel in the closing laps after catching him because of a better tyre strategy.
And in the last race in China he was forced to hand third place to the four-time champion in the opening laps after Vettel said he could go faster.
The move ensured Leclerc finished fifth behind Red Bull’s Max Verstappen, while Vettel took third behind Hamilton and Mercedes team-mate Valtteri Bottas.
In Bahrain, Leclerc was also asked to stay behind Vettel for two laps when he caught him after dropping back because of a poor start. He ignored that order and passed his team-mate a few corners later.
What does Leclerc say?
Leclerc said he believed that his destiny was in his own hands and depended on him proving to the team he could be faster than Vettel.
“It is frustrating when you are in the car to be told to let past another driver,” the 21-year-old said. “But on my side I understand them in a way.
“Seb is now in his fifth year with the team and has won four world titles and I am only coming in my second year in F1 so I have got a lot of things to prove and now it is up to me to do the best job possible in the car to prove to the team what I am capable of.
“So I just need to continue doing what I am doing, trying to improve myself and hopefully it will change soon.”
Asked whether he felt he could beat Vettel over the season and whether he would be allowed to, Leclerc said: “I believe there is the potential to do so, but from the potential to actually doing it I need to do a lot of work and put all the things together. We will see.”
Ferrari team boss Mattia Binotto has said Vettel will be favoured in what he called “50-50 situations” but added that the situation could change as the season develops.
And asked whether he would accept further instances of team orders, Leclerc said: “There will always be team orders but it depends on the situation. In some situations, I would.”
Vettel said: “We try to maximise points. That’s our first priority. It is normal you try to do everything to perform well.
“I understand people are talking about decisions we made here and there but it will be impossible to know where we will be in a couple of months time or half a year.”
Can Ferrari finally win in Baku?
Mercedes have taken one-twos in all three races so far but Vettel played down the idea that this weekend’s Azerbaijan Grand Prix is a “must-win” race even though he is already 31 points – more than a clear win – behind Hamilton in the championship.
The Italian team have a major aerodynamic upgrade on their car in Baku.
Vettel said: “It is different but if you improve the car in general it helps everywhere. The new bits are all targeted to make the car faster.
“Hopefully we can find the same results we found in the tunnel. Hopefully the numbers stack up and we see how much of a jump we can do.”
Hamilton said he expected a reinvigorated threat from Ferrari this weekend.
“You’re going to see this weekend Ferrari are probably going to be extremely quick since they’ve got an upgrade and this is a track that has boded well for them in the previous years,” he said.