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…
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”
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