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,
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.