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Ferrari to swap Kimi with Leclerc

Charles Leclerc (right) will step up to Ferrari from Sauber after only one season in Formula One.

Ferrari have finally confirmed that Sauber rookie Charles Leclerc will replace veteran former world champion Kimi Raikkonen as Sebastian Vettel's team-mate next season.

The two drivers will swap places, with Raikkonen signing a two-year deal at Ferrari-powered Sauber, where he started his F1 career in 2001.

"Feels extremely good to go back where it all began!" the Finn said in an Instagram post ahead of this weekend's Singapore Grand Prix.

Leclerc, meanwhile, described his move as a "dream come true".

One of the worst-kept secrets of the 2018 driver market, the 20-year-old's promotion has been the subject of strong speculation since he overcame a difficult start to his F1 career and scored five top-10 finishes in six races.

Leclerc's results have tailed off since then, with three retirements in four starts before an 11th placing in Monza, and it was reported by Italian media during the summer break that Raikkonen might be given a new contract following the appointment of John Elkann to replace the late Sergio Marchionne as company chairman.

However, it emerged during the Italian GP that Marchionne had already signed off on Leclerc's deal before his death in late July, when he passed away due to the post-surgery health complications that forced him to stand down from his role.

Tuesday's announcement was pre-empted last Friday by a congratulatory statement to Leclerc on Facebook from Garage Italia, a company founded by Elkann's brother Lapo, which was soon deleted.

Raikkonen was runner-up at Ferrari's home race, having started from pole after setting the fastest lap in F1 history in Q3.

The 38-year-old Finn has been the team's unstated No 2 driver since rejoining in 2014, first alongside two-time world champion Fernando Alonso and then the past four years with four-time title winner Vettel.

He is third in the championship after 14 of 21 rounds – if he can maintain his position it will be his best season in F1 since the same result in 2012 with Lotus.

He was also third in 2008, the last season of his first stint with Ferrari, having won his only world title the previous year. He has scored 20 wins and 100 career podiums in F1, having also tried rallying and NASCAR during a two-year stint away from the sport.

“Signing Kimi Räikkönen as our driver represents an important pillar of our project, and brings us closer to our target of making significant progress as a team in the near future," Sauber team principal Frederic Vasseur said.

"Kimi’s undoubted talent and immense experience in Formula One will not only contribute to the development of our car, but will also accelerate the growth and development of our team as a whole."

Twice a championship runner-up with McLaren, Raikkonen is one of the most popular drivers on the grid – as well as the oldest. A petition urging Ferrri to retain him next year had almost 90,000 signatures at the time of Leclerc's confirmation.

Known as 'the Iceman' for his cool unflappability, Raikkonen prefers to let his driving do the talking, and has won legions of fans for his irreverent behaviour – such as eating an ice cream during a rain break in Malaysia, watching a curtailed Monaco race from his yacht, and being asleep half an hour before his F1 debut in 2001.

During his 2012 Abu Dhabi GP win, he famously told his race engineer: “Leave me alone, I know what I’m doing” – which spawned a multitude of internet memes and t-shirt sales.

Leclerc paid tribute to his father Herve, a former racing driver, and childhood friend Jules Bianchi, neither of whom lived to see him compete in F1.

Like Bianchi, he is a graduate of Ferrari's academy, and he rose up through the Italian marque's ranks after winning the 2016 GP3 title and last year's Formula Two championship.

Born in Monaco, he scored a career-best sixth place in Azerbaijan in April – Sauber's best result since 2015.

He also finished in the top 10 in Spain, Canada, France and Austria, putting him 15th in the drivers' championship on 13 points.

“It has been a great pleasure to support Charles Leclerc in his rookie year in Formula One," Vasseur said. "Since his arrival, he has given the team great motivation.

"We have constantly improved and we will work hard until the end of this season to achieve the best possible results together."

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