CHARLES LE­CLERC

Charles Le­clerc might be slip­ping qui­etly on to the back of the grid with Sauber this sea­son, but great things are ex­pected of him down Maranello way…

F1 Racing (UK) - - CONTENTS - WORDS AN­THONY PEA­COCK PIC­TURES AMY SHORE

Sauber rookie gets be­hind the wheel of the new Fer­rari Portofino

The Cinque Terre, jammed into the north­west cor­ner of Italy on the Lig­urian coast, is a fa­mous touris­tic sprawl of five vil­lages that form a pas­tel sym­phony of Latin love­li­ness: all brightly coloured houses, hid­den beaches, rus­tic trat­to­rias and kilo­me­tres of switch­back roads that hug the Mediter­ranean.

The vil­lage of Portofino isn’t ac­tu­ally one of the cel­e­brated quin­tet – it’s lo­cated about an hour away, closer to Genoa – but it has the same hall­marks and ar­guably even more vis­i­tors, at­tracted by high­lights such as the un­der­wa­ter ‘Christ of the Abyss’: an enor­mous bronze sub­merged statue, de­signed to pro­tect scuba divers and fish­er­men.

Portofino’s prox­im­ity to the French bor­der also means it’s fa­mil­iar ter­ri­tory to any­body well-ac­quainted with Monaco. Such as Sauber’s Charles Le­clerc, one of the few mo­tor­sport cham­pi­ons to hail from the principality.

Le­clerc had never vis­ited Portofino be­fore – give him time, he’s only 20 – but when the oc­ca­sion arose to drive the new Fer­rari Portofino on the roads that in­spired its cre­ation, he was never go­ing to say no. The Portofino is the suc­ces­sor to the Cal­i­for­nia: a V8-pow­ered drop top with hints of Day­tona to the volup­tuous styling, born to be driven roof-down on roads that of­fer a 360-de­gree panorama of sky, sea, cliffs and as­phalt. With Fer­rari also sup­ply­ing the pow­er­plant to Le­clerc’s Sauber C37 (a cur­rent unit this time, rather than a year-old ver­sion as was the case in 2017) the as­so­ci­a­tion is an ob­vi­ous one. Felipe Massa came to Fer­rari from Sauber and Kimi Räikkönen started with the Swiss team, so it’s a path well-trod­den – and Charles is on pole po­si­tion to re­place the 2007 world cham­pion when the Kim­ster fi­nally re­tires.

De­spite be­ing prob­a­bly the least flashy per­son to come from Monaco, Charles al­ways en­joys be­ing at the wheel of some­thing red with plenty of horse­power (592 in the case of the Portofino).

“Driv­ing a Fer­rari is al­ways spe­cial, isn’t it?” he points out. “It’s an amaz­ing car with an amaz­ing noise. I like road cars, but ob­vi­ously for me it’s mostly about rac­ing cars.

“Portofino is beau­ti­ful and it ac­tu­ally feels quite fa­mil­iar, if you come from Monaco. It’s al­most like an Ital­ian ver­sion of Monaco, with the same sort of build­ings and streets.”

But it’s time to de­bunk a myth: that the roads of Monte Carlo are some­how paved with gold. Not ev­ery Mone­gasque is born with a huge bank ac­count and the luck of a pro­fes­sional gam­bler. Charles ex­plains the com­mon mis­con­cep­tion.

“It’s ac­tu­ally the for­eign­ers who have the real big money in Monaco, not the or­di­nary Mone­gasques,” he says. “My friends from Monaco it­self are just nor­mal peo­ple, like me. Ob­vi­ously, my fam­ily had some money to start my ca­reer in kart­ing, but only un­til 2010, when it ran out. It was then that my friend Jules Bianchi in­tro­duced me to his man­ager Ni­co­las Todt, and Ni­co­las pro­vided the fund­ing for me to carry on. Oth­er­wise I would have stopped, def­i­nitely.”

What di­rec­tion would his life have taken then? It prob­a­bly wouldn’t have led to the sub­lime mo­ment of driv­ing a car with a pranc­ing horse on the nose, while stand­ing on the thresh­old of an F1 ca­reer that might just turn out to be stel­lar.

But it would cer­tainly have led to some­thing good any­way; a life less or­di­nary. Charles is a

“MY FAM­ILY HAD SOME MONEY TO START MY CA­REER IN KART­ING, BUT ONLY UN­TIL 2010, WHEN IT RAN OUT. THEN MY FRIEND JULES BIANCHI IN­TRO­DUCED ME TO HIS MAN­AGER…”

quiet and hard worker, de­ter­mined to bet­ter him­self. While a sig­nif­i­cant num­ber of born and bred Mone­gasques are or­di­nary, un­priv­i­leged peo­ple – as Charles tells us – it must still feel quite strange grow­ing up sur­rounded largely by brash for­eign­ers, dis­play­ing al­most unimag­in­able wealth. There’s an el­e­ment that would in­evitably make you bris­tle with a sense of vague in­jus­tice: “why them and not me?”

And there are two pos­si­ble re­ac­tions to that, broadly speak­ing. One is to sur­ren­der to bit­ter­ness, envy and spite. The other is to use it as a mo­ti­va­tion. To work hard and prove that you don’t need money to suc­ceed.

“If I had been forced to stop back then?” muses Charles. “I liked school, so I would have con­tin­ued there, and I would have liked to have been an en­gi­neer prob­a­bly – work­ing with cars – or an ar­chi­tect work­ing on houses.”

He didn’t stop, of course. Yet Charles wasn’t to know that the con­tin­u­a­tion of his ca­reer was to mark the most dif­fi­cult pe­riod of his life. That there were to be tragic end­ings, as well as be­gin­nings. In quick suc­ces­sion, Charles lost Bianchi in 2015 and then his own fa­ther last

year: two peo­ple who had each been a sine qua non of his ca­reer.

A lot has been said and con­jec­tured about that time; how Charles per­haps felt a burn­ing need to suc­ceed for both of them. The dis­arm­ing truth is that it re­moved the ur­gency.

“Of course, I wanted to do well for them,” re­mem­bers Charles. “Not so much when I was in the car, be­cause then I was just con­cen­trat­ing on try­ing to win. Out­side the car it struck me ev­ery time. But prob­a­bly that ac­tu­ally took a bit of pres­sure off me in the end be­cause it made me re­alise that there was more to life than just mo­tor­sport. Be­fore, I had been all about that.”

And now it can be all about that again. He’s in­fec­tiously en­thused about his move to Sauber, fizzing with ex­cite­ment about the fa­cil­i­ties, the peo­ple, the op­por­tu­nity, and the engine. Es­pe­cially that engine and ev­ery­thing it stands for. With the crim­son Alfa Romeo brand­ing cloak­ing a heart trans­planted from Maranello (in an ex­clu­sive Swiss clinic) this is now un­doubt­edly Italy’s sec­ond team.

“I think Italy be­came spe­cial for me when I first en­tered the Fer­rari Driver Academy,” says Charles. “And of course, like ev­ery­one else, I spent a lot of time in Italy when I was rac­ing in karts: I’ve spent more time there than any­where else. I speak Ital­ian and I love Ital­ian food: just the sim­ple things re­ally, pasta and pizza.”

Re­fresh­ing that there’s no zeal­ous men­tion of the ubiq­ui­tous poached salmon and gym that makes up the bulk of a mod­ern grand prix driver’s diet. And that’s very much a part of Charles’s suc­cess: he’s not a man to over­com­pli­cate any­thing.

“It’s ac­tu­ally quite a strange feel­ing, to be where I am now,” he re­flects. “On the one hand, it’s a dream come true. On the other hand, you’ve been so fo­cused on the work to de­liver that dream, you don’t re­ally re­alise it’s hap­pened.”

This won’t be like any other sea­son for him, though: the ex­pec­ta­tions are higher. This much he will have been told by his much-missed friend Jules, while his out­ings in free prac­tice and test­ing with Haas and Fer­rari will have got him used to the level of per­for­mance.

But also, he’ll be deal­ing with a very dif­fer­ent com­pet­i­tive sit­u­a­tion. He’s been used to sail­ing into the dis­tance, con­trol­ling each race from the front, win­ning the GP3 and For­mula 2 cham­pi­onships on his first at­tempts.

While Sauber seem to have taken a dis­tinct step for­ward, this year ob­vi­ously won’t be like that. Charles re­alises al­ready that this men­tal re­set will form his big­gest chal­lenge.

“First of all, the goal is to im­prove the car from the be­gin­ning to the end of the sea­son,” he says, prag­mat­i­cally. “The step up to For­mula 1 is go­ing to be quite a big one, with all the data and set-up changes that are pos­si­ble, it’s a bit of a dif­fer­ent story to F2. But I’m pretty con­fi­dent. Ob­vi­ously, it’s a dif­fer­ent sit­u­a­tion to what I’ve been used to be­fore, but you just have to start the sea­son with a dif­fer­ent mind­set.”

The re­ward for get­ting it right might be the big­gest prize in F1. In a year’s time, the scarlet Fer­rari he could be driv­ing might still be roof­less (sort of) but have rather more than the 320kph top speed of­fered by the volup­tuous Portofino. And from there? The sky’s the limit…

“THE STEP UP TO FOR­MULA 1 IS GO­ING TO BE QUITE A BIG ONE, IT’S A BIT OF A DIF­FER­ENT STORY TO FOR­MULA 2. YOU JUST HAVE TO START THE SEA­SON WITH A DIF­FER­ENT MIND­SET”

Le­clerc caught the eye of Fer­rari; they’ve backed him through the ju­nior for­mu­lae

Do­ing a great job with Sauber this sea­son could un­lock the key to a Fer­rari seat in 2019

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