CHARLES LE­CLERC: THE NEXT FER­RARI CHAM­PION?

There’s a gen­er­a­tional shift un­der way in For­mula 1 as long-es­tab­lished su­per­stars face the in­evitabil­ity of age. Fresh-faced Charles Le­clerc car­ries the big­gest ex­pec­ta­tion of all – for it is he who is primed to take over from Kimi Räikkö­nen at Fer­rari,

F1 Racing (UK) - - CONTENTS - WORDS AN­THONY ROWL­IN­SON POR­TRAITS ADRIAN MY­ERS

Thurs­day af­ter­noon at the Bri­tish

Grand Prix. Lewis Hamil­ton is in con­fi­dent form dur­ing a press con­fer­ence ahead of his favourite race, at a track, and be­fore a crowd, that have sur­ren­dered to him these past few years. This 33-year old megas­tar, still in his com­pet­i­tive prime, is flanked to his right by Max Ver­stap­pen and to his left by Charles Le­clerc – both only just out of their teens. In their com­pany, Lewis is very much the grand old man, ridicu­lous though that may sound. And, bright but­ton that he is, Hamil­ton is aware of his creep­ing se­nior­ity: “I have a ques­tion for you guys,” he throws out to the press hud­dle. “How am I do­ing? I no­tice I’ve got two 20-year olds next to me. I’m the old­est driver here by a long way.”

Hamil­ton’s point is acute. There’s no ques­tion yet of his pow­ers be­gin­ning to fade with age, and he has just re-signed for two more sea­sons at Mercedes. But there’s a sense that the likes of Ver­stap­pen and Le­clerc are about to up­set the gen­er­a­tional ap­ple­cart. Max, a GP win­ner for Red Bull at 18, is leader of F1’s youth move­ment, while Le­clerc, lined up if not yet signed up to re­place 38-year-old Kimi Räikkö­nen at Fer­rari for 2019, is set to land another blow for the young guns. This cheru­bic 20-year old has emerged in­deed, as the one who’ll fi­nally break the Ice­man.

Not bad for a rookie only half a sea­son into his F1 ca­reer – but what a glit­ter­ing half-sea­son it has be­come. It be­gan un­der­whelm­ingly, with P18, P19, P19 qual­i­fy­ing po­si­tions in Aus­tralia, Bahrain then China. The three races were marked by sub-op­ti­mal tyre choices, mi­nor mis­takes and a spin. It was Le­clerc’s largely un­sung team-mate, Mar­cus Eric­s­son in fact, who took Sauber’s first 2018 points, with a Bahrain P9.

Then came Baku: Le­clerc’s break­through Q2 qual­i­fy­ing ses­sion and a P13 time, be­fore a stun­ning sixth-place fin­ish at a cir­cuit no­to­ri­ous for pun­ish­ing even mi­nor lapses in con­cen­tra­tion. He ben­e­fit­ted from the late re­tire­ment of Gros­jean, the Red Bull duo, and Valt­teri Bot­tas’s punc­ture, but it was a re­sult built on pace, fo­cus and ap­pli­ca­tion: “I un­der­stood what I wanted from the car there, in terms of bal­ance,” he says, “and the en­gi­neers were able to give that to me, so we could make a big step. To fi­nally put every­thing to­gether af­ter three very dif­fi­cult races was in­cred­i­ble. We got a bit lucky, but that’s the game and we knew at the be­gin­ning of the year that some­times we would have to be bet­ter when the op­por­tu­nity was given to us. We were, in Baku, and it felt in­cred­i­ble.”

There was a poignancy to the re­sult, for at the same event in 2017, Le­clerc cel­e­brated a bril­liant F2 win (on his charge to the se­ries ti­tle in his rookie year) only days af­ter his ex-racer fa­ther Hervé died, fol­low­ing a long ill­ness. That re­sult, and the emo­tional swirl sur­round­ing him, moved Le­clerc to tears for the first time in a racing car, he ad­mits, but not un­til the job of winning the race was com­plete.

More points came in Spain and Canada. Then, in France, he de­liv­ered an ex­cep­tional qual­i­fy­ing per­for­mance: P8 – his first Q3 in a car that had seemed off the pace in prac­tice. Le­clerc later re­vealed he

and his en­gi­neers had pulled a ver­i­ta­ble Fri­day ‘all-nighter’ in the hunt for a setup that would al­low him to de­liver on the po­ten­tial he could feel in the C37. Points again in Aus­tria, then a P9 qual­i­fy­ing for the Bri­tish GP, al­though a pit­stop fum­ble in the race caused a DNF. In Ger­many there was another grid P9, al­though a promis­ing race re­sult was scup­pered by a failed gam­ble on in­ters.

Not all of this is down to Le­clerc, of course: his car is fast im­prov­ing from the back-of-the-grid fod­der that Sauber have run pre­vi­ously. Alfa Romeo in­vest­ment, smart lead­er­ship from Frédéric Vasseur and key tech­ni­cal ap­point­ments are all boost­ing the per­for­mance of the Swiss team. Jan Mon­chaux, ex-toy­ota, Fer­rari and Audi, was ap­pointed head of aero in April, while Fer­rari’s for­mer head of ve­hi­cle project co­or­di­na­tion, Si­mone Resta, be­came tech­ni­cal direc­tor in May. Fur­ther ap­point­ments have boosted the pre­vi­ously tech­ni­cally thread­bare team.

The added fire­power is help­ing, but there’s more to his ap­proach than sim­ply ‘driv­ing the wheels off the thing’. Those around him speak of a strong work ethic and men­tal ap­pli­ca­tion al­lied to ex­cep­tional driv­ing abil­ity.

Le­clerc’s man­ager, Ni­co­las Todt, whose in­sights are in­formed, if not im­par­tial, of­fers: “‘Speed’ is hard to as­sess, but Charles has amaz­ing speed. Some driv­ers take time to get to the top in a new cat­e­gory, but Charles has al­ways got up to speed straight away. That’s im­pres­sive. He’s very adapt­able, a great racer, but also a big learner and a hard worker. He’s al­ways one of the last to leave the cir­cuit and when he wants to achieve some­thing he won’t give up. He is never happy un­less he is winning, while oth­ers maybe are happy with third or fourth.”

Harder to im­press is a been-there-seen-that racing war horse such as Vasseur, who has worked with Le­clerc on-and-off since Charles’s kart­ing years. But even he is cav­ing: “You know,” he re­flects, “at the start of the year, all the ques­tions were ‘did we ex­pect too much from Charles?’ and ‘are you dis­ap­pointed with his per­for­mance?’ And hon­estly, prob­a­bly Mar­cus was more help­ful at the be­gin­ning of the sea­son than Charles, be­cause he had the ex­pe­ri­ence. But now Charles is get­ting the ex­pe­ri­ence and has a bet­ter un­der­stand­ing of the sit­u­a­tion of the car, of the week­end, of tyre man­age­ment, of fuel man­age­ment and, for sure, he is a huge part of the de­vel­op­ment of the car – as Mar­cus and the en­gi­neers are. But yes, Charles is a huge tal­ent.”

Le­clerc has it all: speed, tech­ni­cal nous, a winning man­ner on and off track, plus one of F1’s most pluggedin man­agers. Todt, as well as be­ing the son of a cer­tain FIA pres­i­dent, man­ages Felipe Massa and was ush­er­ing Jules Bianchi to­wards a Fer­rari drive be­fore Jules’ ul­ti­mately fa­tal ac­ci­dent at the 2014 Ja­panese GP.

The Bianchi con­nec­tion is sig­nif­i­cant. The driv­ers’ fa­thers were friends and it was a word from Jules, to Todt, back in 2011, that led to a 13-year-old Le­clerc be­ing picked up by Ni­co­las. Kart­ing, then For­mula Re­nault and F3 fol­lowed, by which time Todt was con­fi­dent enough

in Le­clerc’s po­ten­tial to in­tro­duce him to Fer­rari team prin­ci­pal Mau­r­izio Ar­riv­abene in mid-2015. It paid off: in 2016, Le­clerc joined the Fer­rari Driver Academy (as Bianchi had), a scar­let car­pet rolled out at his feet.

“He has changed a lot in that time,” Todt says. “He was quite shy and lack­ing in con­fi­dence, but step by step – first by winning races and by go­ing through some very tough times per­son­ally, like the loss of Jules – he has be­come much, much stronger. For sure, what he went through over the years has helped him be­come what he is to­day. It has been quite un­be­liev­able.”

That com­po­sure is ap­par­ent in any con­ver­sa­tion with Le­clerc. He is calm, po­lite and well-man­nered, yet gen­uine and ap­proach­able. Who knows how fame might change him if the F1 big time is his fate, as seems in­evitable; for now he is re­fresh­ingly open, un­fazed by talk of el­e­va­tion to Fer­rari. “At the mo­ment, I’m really fo­cus­ing on my­self and not try­ing to think about what is sur­round­ing me,” he says. “Ob­vi­ously it’s al­ways a plea­sure to see these two names to­gether – Le­clerc and Fer­rari – be­cause it’s a huge hon­our for me: I have al­ways dreamed of driv­ing for Fer­rari one day. But for now there have been no thoughts… I’m just try­ing to fo­cus on this sea­son. It is ex­tremely im­por­tant for me.”

His words be­lie a greater truth: the plan­ets are align­ing for Le­clerc, as they did for Räikkö­nen when he burst into F1 with Sauber, straight out of For­mula Re­nault – so quick he had no need for fur­ther train­ing in F3 and F3000. So quick, Mclaren snapped him up to re­place Mika Häkkinen, where­upon he set about end­ing the top-line ca­reer of team-mate David Coulthard.

As Räikkö­nen proved then, youth­ful in­ex­pe­ri­ence is trumped by tal­ent and in­nate abil­ity – par­tic­u­larly when those qual­i­ties are ex­pertly nur­tured and coaxed to early ma­tu­rity. So there’s no real sur­prise at Le­clerc sud­denly be­ing touted as ‘Fer­rari’s fu­ture’: he’s an overnight suc­cess 16 years in the making, who has won hand­somely – and quickly – in ev­ery sub-f1 cat­e­gory.

Guil­laume Capi­etto, en­gi­neer­ing chief of the Prema team with whom Le­clerc swept to last year’s F2 ti­tle, has no doubts that his for­mer charge is the realest of deals. Capi­etto used to en­gi­neer Lewis Hamil­ton and he reck­ons Le­clerc’s abil­i­ties are right up there in the ‘Hami­sphere’: “If Charles were to be with Fer­rari next year,” he says, “he would be ready to fight for the ti­tle straight away, as Lewis was when he came in. Of the driv­ers I have worked with he re­minds me most of Hamil­ton be­cause he is very com­plete. Charles raced against Max Ver­stap­pen in karts and al­though Max got to F1 more quickly, he has made a lot of mis­takes since ar­riv­ing. Charles has a more com­plete foun­da­tion. Is he a po­ten­tial world cham­pion? Of course he is.”

Le­clerc’s abil­ity be­hind the wheel is based, Capi­etto reck­ons, on his round­ed­ness. He is able, for ex­am­ple, to brake late into cor­ners, but then also to main­tain high mid-cor­ner speeds. “Many driv­ers can do one or the other,” Capi­etto says. “Very few can do both.”

The man him­self isn’t keen to give away the se­crets of his driv­ing style, but he’ll ad­mit to want­ing “sta­bil­ity” from his Sauber, whereas in F2 he was “happy with the car be­ing more un­sta­ble.” On track, one ob­vi­ous Le­clerc hall­mark is how com­fort­able he is to let his car take a

“OB­VI­OUSLY IT’S AL­WAYS A PLEA­SURE TO SEE THESE TWO NAMES TO­GETHER LE­CLERC AND FER­RARI BE­CAUSE IT’S A HUGE HON­OUR FOR ME: I HAVE AL­WAYS DREAMED OF DRIV­ING FOR FER­RARI ONE DAY”

“I THINK MY MEN­TAL STRENGTH WAS A WEAK­NESS AT THE START. NOW IT IS ONE OF MY STRENGTHS. I DON’T FEEL THE PRES­SURE”

Le­clerc qual­i­fied P9 at Sil­ver­stone, back­ing up the French Q3 break­through and a slew of points fin­ishes lot of kerb, rid­ing the wave and guid­ing his ma­chine, with­out ap­pear­ing to hus­tle it. A grin: “F1 is a lot faster than F2,” he ad­mits, with wel­come hu­mil­ity, when asked about adapt­ing to this year’s new chal­lenge. “That took me time to get used to – es­pe­cially the high-speed cor­ners, where you have so much more down­force.”

He’s more can­did – sur­pris­ingly so in a sport where talk of ‘feel­ings’ is ta­boo – with his in­sights into the psychology of his sport­ing de­vel­op­ment: “My men­tal strength was a weak­ness at the start,” he says, “and I worked on this from early on.” From age 11, Le­clerc re­veals, he un­der­went men­tal coach­ing at the driver per­for­mance-fo­cused For­mula Medicine sports sci­ence in­sti­tute. “Start­ing young helped me to grow quicker,” he adds. “I felt the dif­fer­ence and now it is one of my strengths. Be­fore I was very emo­tional and if I hadn’t worked on that I would be a dif­fer­ent per­son now. But I worked hard and I feel calmer. I don’t feel the pres­sure, which helps. It takes weight off your shoul­ders.”

Around the time of his fa­ther’s death, Le­clerc was able, says Capi­etto, to com­part­men­talise his emo­tions, keep­ing a ‘race face’ on at the track and let­ting his guard down only among closes con­fi­dantes. “There’s a lot he didn’t let peo­ple see,” says Capi­etto. “What he was able to do at that time was re­mark­able.”

A fu­ture su­per­star com­fort­able in his own skin, who draws strength from his past to un­bur­den him­self from the weight of ex­pec­ta­tion… If that makes Charles Le­clerc sound a for­mi­da­ble prospect, it’s prob­a­bly be­cause he is. And more than that: he’s the ful­crum upon which a whole gen­er­a­tion of F1 is about to tilt.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.