Max Verstappen will be battling Charles Leclerc for Formula One Drivers’ Championships once Lewis Hamilton retires, Mark Webber reckons. The Dutchman has been tipped as the heir to Hamilton’s throne once the 36-year-old calls it a day.
The Red Bull driver has been hoping to topple Hamilton in recent seasons but Mercedes continue to reign supreme.
Hamilton is looking to win an eighth world title in the upcoming 2021 season which would see him surpass Michael Schumacher for the most of all time.
Four of his previous seven have come in consecutive years with neither team-mate Valtteri Bottas or Verstappen, widely viewed as the second fastest driver on the grid, able to get close to the Briton.
Yet Hamilton, only under contract until the end of this season, is steadily nearing retirement with this set to be his 15th year in the sport.
And Australian Webber, discussing who will rise to become the new driver to beat once Hamilton calls it quits, believes Ferrari’s Leclerc will go head-to-head with Verstappen for titles.
The former Red Bull driver did not name George Russell although the 23-year-old is widely expected to drive for Mercedes either as Hamilton or Bottas’ replacement in the coming years.
“Max is on the level of Lewis. How that will be in 23 races we don’t know yet,” nine-time Grands Prix winner Webber told De Telegraaf as the Bahrain Grand Prix, on March 28, draws closer.
“Lewis very often makes the right decisions at the right time. Okay, that’s easier with the best car too, but you also have to appreciate his absolute class.
“Lewis and Max are both out of this world. Lewis is writing the final chapters of his career.
“Maybe he’ll quit after this season, though I doubt it. After that, it will be between Max and Charles Leclerc. As far as the future is concerned, we are in good hands.”
Russell could displace Bottas or Hamilton at the Silver Arrows for 2022 with both of the Mercedes duo out of contract.
Hamilton’s countryman impressed when he stood in for him at the Sakhir Grand Prix in Bahrain last year, finishing ninth although he was on for a race win before a pitstop mix-up and then a puncture.
And it is clear he is in the frame for a future Mercedes seat, telling Sky Sports F1 recently when asked about the prospect of partnering Hamilton: “Every driver wants to put themselves against the best, obviously.
“I believe in myself and Lewis is the benchmark at the moment. But equally you’ve got a lot of fantastic drivers out there who might not have the same CV as Lewis but Max, Charles [Leclerc], Lewis, they’re all on the same level.
“Putting yourself against any of those three would be great for any driver. Mercedes and [team principal] Toto [Wolff] have always had my back. They have believed in me from day one and, when they believe the time’s right, the time will be right.
“So, I am not hassling them. I’m just going out there, doing my job on the track and what comes in the future will come.
“Obviously, I had the great opportunity in Bahrain last year. For now, I’m just focusing on the job here at Williams for this season and trying to get the most out of it.”
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Ferrari meanwhile endured their worst season in 40 years in 2020 but are hopeful they can launch a recovery in 2021 before challenging for titles in 2022.
And Leclerc is the man tasked with the prospect of reviving the Prancing Horse with the 23-year-old Monegasque having racked up two wins and 12 podium finishes so far.
Reflecting on his hopes over the coming years, he said: “To be honest, for me, whenever I put on the helmet, all drivers are the same.
“In the first few races in Formula One, when I arrived, it was quite a shock that all the drivers I used to watch, I was then racing them.
“In those first few races I was quite intimidated but you cannot keep going like this, and after a few races you get used to it.
“Now, after every time I fight a driver on track I don’t think about what this person has achieved.
“I’ve huge respect for everyone on the grid, and Lewis has achieved so much in the sport, but whenever I put on the helmet I try to fight him as much as anybody else on the grid.”