MILAN: Young Monaco driver Charles Leclerc will replace Finnish veteran Kimi Raikkonen at Ferrari next season with the former world champion returning to Sauber where he started his career, both Formula One teams announced on Tuesday.
The 20-year-old Leclerc -- a Ferrari Driver Academy graduate -- is a rising star of the sport winning GP3 in 2016 and Formula 2 in 2017, before making his debut in F1 this season with the Sauber team.
"Scuderia Ferrari announces that, at the end of the 2018 season, Kimi Raikkonen will step down from his current role," the team said in a statement. ".. in the next Formula One racing season, Charles Leclerc will drive for the Team alongside Sebastian Vettel," it added.
"Dreams do come true," Leclerc posted on Twitter. "I'll be driving for @scuderiaferrari for the 2019 Formula 1 World Championship."
Leclerc has had a promising start to his rookie season, finishing sixth at the Azerbaijan Grand Prix, with 16 points from 14 races.
He has been nurtured by the Scuderia Ferrari for several years and is managed by Nicolas Todt, son of former Ferrari team principal and current FIA president Jean Todt.
"I will be eternally grateful to @scuderiaferrari for the opportunity given. To @nicolastodt for supporting me since 2011. To my family," Leclerc added.
Leclerc also paid tribute to former French driver Jules Bianchi, who died aged 25 in 2015 from injuries he sustained at the Japanese Grand Prix.
"To Jules, thank you for all the things you learnt me, we will never forget you," he added of Bianchi whom he knew from his karting days in south-east France.
The 38-year-old Raikkonen has entered 287 Grands Prix --- 144 for Ferrari -- winning 20 since his debut in 2001 with Sauber.
The Finn -- known as the "Iceman" -- achieved his 100th podium finish by finishing second at the Italian Grand Prix in Monza this month after claiming his 18th pole in style with F1's all-time fastest lap.
This season he has had nine podium finishes and is third overall, 92 points behind Lewis Hamilton.
"During these years, Kimi's contribution to the team, both as a driver and on account of his human qualities, has been fundamental. He played a decisive role in the team's growth and was, at the same time, always a great team player," Team Principal Maurizio Arrivabene said.
Raikkonen left F1 two years after winning the world title with Ferrari and spent two years competing in the World Rally Championship, before returning to F1 with Lotus in 2012.
Raikkonen returns to F1 roots
Raikkonen moved back to Ferrari in 2014, and was a popular figure with over 87,000 fans signing a petition this week to keep him at the Maranello-based team.
"As a World Champion for Scuderia Ferrari, he will always be part of the Team’s history and family. We thank Kimi for all of this and wish him and his family a prosperous future," the team added.
Sauber later confirmed Raikkonen would return to the team he made his debut with in 2001.
"The Alfa Romeo Sauber F1 Team is delighted to announce that Kimi Räikkönen will join the team from 2019. The 2007 Formula One World Champion has signed for the next two seasons," Sauber confirmed.
Raikkonen left Sauber for McLaren in 2002 before rejoining Ferrari in 2006.
He tweeted: "Guess who’s back?! Next two years with @sauberf1team ahead! Feels extremely good to go back where it all began!"
Sauber team principal Frédéric Vasseur said: "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.
"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.
"Together, we will start the 2019 season with a strong foundation, driven by the determination to fight for results that count."
Vasseur added: "It has been a great pleasure to support Charles Leclerc in his rookie year in Formula One. Since his arrival, he has given the team great motivation."