Fu­ture champ?

Is this Fer­rari’s next F1 World Cham­pion? We might not have to wait long to find out...

Top Gear (UK) - - CONTENTS - WORDS JASON BAR­LOW

Ac­cord­ing to peo­ple who know, Charles Le­clerc has all the hall­marks of a For­mula One cham­pion

IT’S A STICKY, AIRLESS DAY IN YAS

MA­RINA, A 45-MINUTE DRIVE FROM DOWN­TOWN ABU DHABI, A CITY WHOSE SKY­LINE GLIT­TERS WITH THE UAE’S EYE-POP­PING BIL­LION­DOL­LAR AR­CHI­TEC­TURAL AM­BI­TION.

Since the in­au­gu­ral Grand Prix here in 2009, this race has joined Monaco and Sin­ga­pore as the mag­net for mega money on the F1 calendar. Pre­pos­ter­ous su­per-yachts bob cheek by jowl in Yas Ma­rina, much of their hu­man party cargo equally ex­trav­a­gantly pro­por­tioned.

The Yas Ho­tel strad­dles the cir­cuit, at Turns 18 and 19, an­other spec­tac­u­lar ed­i­fice, but a place that fails in its pri­mary func­tion un­less you’re one of the noc­tur­nal party an­i­mals who treat sleep like an al­ler­gen. “You’re stay­ing there?” Charles Le­clerc asks wide-eyed. “I was warned against it, by Fer­nando ac­tu­ally. He stayed there a few years ago, and barely slept all week­end.”

He’s a lit­tle weary him­self, he says, as we wan­der out of his ho­tel to­wards the wait­ing blood-red Alfa Romeo Stelvio QV. It’s been a long sea­son, and the F1 cir­cus is ready for a break. Even its rookie star. It’s no dis­tance to the track, but it’s a funny thing chauf­feur­ing a driver many reckon could be Fer­rari’s next cham­pion. We’re not re­ally meant to bring up the ‘F’ word, but the ele­phant’s in the room and it’s big and red. We’ll circle back there later; for now, TG has been given priv­i­leged ac­cess in this last race week­end be­fore the Scud­e­ria force-field is fully erected.

The fu­ture cham­pion wears his prom­ise lightly. I spent a day with him in Portofino a year or more ago, when the wheels were al­ready turn­ing and the Sauber-Alfa Romeo drive was 95 per cent in the bag. He’d driven over alone from Monaco for the shoot, and was by some mar­gin the most re­laxed, gra­cious, and in­sight­ful young rac­ing pro­tégé I’ve ever met. Funny, too. Le­clerc has an aura, no doubt about it, acts like he knows some­thing maybe you don’t, but with­out a trace of su­pe­ri­or­ity or im­pa­tience.

Not then, and not now, 16 months and a hugely im­pres­sive de­but sea­son later. “You’ve got your own place now in Monaco?” I ask. “Yes. I don’t live with my mother any more,” he laughs. Le­clerc’s mum, by the way, is a hair­dresser and counts David Coulthard among her cus­tomers.

Her son is a grad­u­ate of Fer­rari’s Driver Academy, and those in the know say his abil­ity, speed and con­sis­tency is eclipsed only by an urge to win. But don’t all F1 driv­ers have that? One of only three Moné­gasque to make it to F1 (along with Louis Ch­i­ron and Olivier Beretta), Le­clerc be­gan kart­ing aged just four, urged on by his fa­ther Hervé, a some­time F3 racer. He bunked off school one day to visit a kart track some­where near Nice owned by the late Jules Bianchi’s fa­ther, a close fam­ily friend, and that was that. Bianchi, his god­fa­ther, also be­came his men­tor, as he as­cended through the mo­tor­sport ranks via For­mula Re­nault 2.0, Euro­pean F3, and For­mula 2 – six con­sec­u­tive poles there – his in­nate gifts as­sisted by some per­sonal DRS. Each sea­son he raced with a dif­fer­ent team.

“It’s helped me to know a lot of dif­fer­ent na­tion­al­i­ties,” he says of this peri­patetic ex­is­tence. “Ac­tu­ally, there are some sim­i­lar­i­ties be­tween the English and the Swiss. They are ex­tremely pointy, by which I mean they look at ev­ery de­tail – they’re very strict with ev­ery­thing. With­out go­ing into all the dif­fer­ences, it has helped me grow as a driver. And to learn the pol­i­tics.”

Fer­rari’s in­ter­ven­tion brought with it not just top-level driver coach­ing but ac­cess to the best sim­u­la­tors, physi­cians – the rig­ma­role of the top-flight rac­ing ex­is­tence bankrolled by the big­gest name in the game. The Academy’s young guns (in­clud­ing Gi­u­liano Alesi and Enzo Fit­ti­paldi) train to­gether and even co-habit, some­thing that calls to mind Pro­fes­sor Xavier’s X-Man­sion in the X-Men. Part of the pro­gramme sees the driv­ers wear­ing an ap­pa­ra­tus that mea­sures their neu­ral ac­tiv­ity while do­ing a race sim­u­la­tion. (This even sounds like Xavier’s mu­tant­net­work­ing Cere­bro.) Then they’re told to re­peat the feat us­ing less and less men­tal en­ergy. In­cred­i­ble.

“Be­fore I started do­ing it, I’d think I was con­cen­trat­ing 100 per cent and then you look at the graph and you’re not at all,” Le­clerc says. “It’s teleme­try for your brain. Not of what you are think­ing, luck­ily, but they know whether you are anx­ious, re­laxed, too re­laxed. It’s about find­ing a bal­ance. We’re all dif­fer­ent, but I think I found my set­ting, a com­pro­mise be­tween con­cen­tra­tion, re­lax­ation and the adren­a­line you get in the car. You’ve got to find it and man­age it again to be in the best men­tal state for quali or the race… it’s dif­fer­ent for these two sit­u­a­tions.”

All the while Ni­co­las Todt, son of for­mer Fer­rari team prin­ci­pal Jean Todt, driver man­ager and co-owner of F2 team ART Grand Prix, has smoothed Le­clerc’s path to glory, iron­ing out any con­trac­tual creases and fi­ness­ing re­la­tion­ships like you have to in this sport (speed isn’t enough). This guy sounds like he’s one step away from hav­ing been ge­net­i­cally mod­i­fied to race.

But a par­al­lel nar­ra­tive is at work here, and it’s all too hu­man. Although modern F1 is in an­other world when it comes to safety com­pared to how things used to be, it’s still ca­pa­ble of spring­ing freak­ish sur­prises. Jules Bianchi died fol­low­ing his ter­ri­ble ac­ci­dent in the 2014 Ja­panese GP, the first rac­ing fa­tal­ity since Ayr­ton Senna’s in 1994.

Life, the big­gest race of all, can also de­liver dev­as­tat­ing blows. Le­clerc cites Senna as an in­spi­ra­tion, a driver whose abil­ity to de­liver su­per­hu­man per­for­mances in the high-pres­sure mo­ments of qual­i­fy­ing he’s al­ready em­u­lat­ing. Poignantly he re­calls dis­cussing the Brazil­ian star with his dad when he was a child. Le­clerc’s fa­ther died, aged just 54, three days be­fore the fourth round of the F2 Cham­pi­onship in Baku last year. His son went on to take pole po­si­tion, win the first race, and fin­ish sec­ond in the sec­ond. Not many 19-year-olds have that sort of emo­tional and men­tal ma­tu­rity.

Le­clerc, how­ever, re­fuses to see it as any­thing par­tic­u­larly spe­cial. “It was dif­fi­cult, be­cause what­ever I have done to train my­self men­tally could never pre­pare you for los­ing a fa­ther. I tried to deal with it in the best way I could. I asked my­self what my fa­ther would have wanted if he had been there, and the an­swer I came up with very quickly was to do well. It was im­pos­si­ble to reset, but I tried to fo­cus on the week­end, to get a good re­sult for him. In ev­ery im­por­tant step that has hap­pened since he has gone, I wish he was here to see it. I think about him ev­ery day. But I’m pretty sure he’s watch­ing.”

“I have se­ri­ous prob­lems say­ing any­thing pos­i­tive about my­self,” he con­tin­ues, “be­cause I just want to get bet­ter than I am now. So, say­ing that

I have tal­ent is some­thing that is just im­pos­si­ble for me.”

Fred Vasseur, Sauber-Alfa Romeo F1 team boss, has known Le­clerc since his for­ma­tive years. Hav­ing run Nico Ros­berg in the ART GP2 squad in 2005, and some guy called Lewis Hamil­ton in 2006 (what­ever hap­pened to him?), this is a man who can un­pick tal­ent foren­si­cally, even if his cur­rent driver won’t. Preter­nat­u­ral speed is just the start of it.

“Be­ing fast is the pur­pose of the whole busi­ness. These are 20 of the best driv­ers in the world, so of course they are fast,” he says. “Charles has the skills to be a real leader of a team. What you can com­pare [with other great driv­ers] is the ap­proach, the way they deal with is­sues that arise, and so far Charles is a very strong com­peti­tor. He’s very charis­matic, and he’s able to bring the team along with him. In F1, when you have 1,000 peo­ple around you, it’s not easy to mo­ti­vate all the me­chan­ics and en­gi­neers – it’s a huge skill.

“I would love to see him flour­ish. But I also know the most dif­fi­cult step is not the first one. It’s the next one that counts. You can do what­ever you want up to this point, but if you f**k up the next one… His move to Fer­rari means that col­lec­tively we did a good job. It’s part of our mis­sion, but, of course, it’s a bit frus­trat­ing to see him go.”

No kid­ding. Le­clerc took his time get­ting to grips with the car, but amidst the chaos of a bril­liant Azer­bai­jan Grand Prix, you might have missed a lone Sauber-Alfa Romeo pick­ing its way through the debris and shat­tered egos to a sixth-place fin­ish. From then on, his progress has fol­lowed the sort of pat­tern set by the likes of Alonso, Schumacher and Senna, even if di­rect com­par­isons are im­pos­si­ble to make. Let’s just say he out­per­formed his car – although the C37 evolved into an ex­tremely im­pres­sive ma­chine – and his team-mate. F1 no­ticed.

The late Ser­gio Mar­chionne de­creed that the time was right to pro­mote him to a Fer­rari race seat, a de­ci­sion that might have been de­railed by in­ter­nal pol­i­tick­ing fol­low­ing the CEO’s un­timely pass­ing in July, and Kimi Räikkö­nen’s mer­cu­rial yet ul­ti­mately con­sis­tent per­for­mances. It adds yet more ten­sion to the move. As it is, Le­clerc will be the youngest Scud­e­ria Fer­rari driver since Ri­cardo Ro­dríguez drove for the squad in the 1961 Ital­ian GP. It’s partly prepa­ra­tion for the next era, in par­al­lel with the ar­rival of Ge­orge Rus­sell, Lando Nor­ris and the grow­ing might of Max Ver­stap­pen, but also surely sends the sort of sig­nal to Se­bas­tian Vet­tel that Enzo Fer­rari him­self, the self-styled ‘ag­i­ta­tor of men’, would have sanc­tioned. Yet Le­clerc some­how glides past it all.

I men­tion Vasseur’s ob­ser­va­tions to him.

“In the teams I’ve been in, I’ve in­te­grated quickly. I think I’m hon­est with the peo­ple I work with, and hope­fully they like me. It was a chal­lenge in F1 be­cause there are so many peo­ple it’s dif­fi­cult to build a close re­la­tion­ship with ev­ery­one.”

When I put it to him that it seems un­likely he would re­spond the way Ver­stap­pen did when he clashed with old foe Este­ban Ocon while lead­ing the Brazil­ian GP, he’s prag­matic.

“It de­pends on the sit­u­a­tion. I sup­pose I can be im­pa­tient. But when there is an in­ci­dent like that, I’m not the sort of guy who re­acts quickly in the heat of the mo­ment, and you can say things you prob­a­bly don’t want to say… as I did with Mag­nussen, when I said he was stupid in Suzuka [‘Mag­nussen is and al­ways will be stupid. It’s a fact. A shame,’ he said over the team ra­dio, af­ter the Haas driver moved across him]. Although

I still think he was wrong, I be­lieve I think be­fore act­ing.”

But the hu­man drama is part of what peo­ple love about F1, and we want more of it, I say. Lib­erty Me­dia, F1’s owner, wants more of it… “Of course. But I don’t want to be what the peo­ple want me to be. I want to be the best of my­self and what is best for me to per­form on track. If that’s not the per­son­al­ity the peo­ple want, I don’t mind…”

Is he too young?

“No. Ex­pe­ri­ence is a big thing in F1, but when it comes to speed, you ei­ther have it or you don’t. If I don’t have it next year, they won’t wait for me to find it. If I do, well it’s proof.”

I ask him about the sport’s no­to­ri­ous pol­i­tics. “To be hon­est, I’ve been warned a lot about it in F1. And I’ve been sur­prised since I ar­rived here, although it’s a small team, so maybe that’s helped, but there was no pol­i­tics this year. For now, I’ve been im­pressed.”

Le­clerc fin­ishes sev­enth in the race, af­ter out­flank­ing Daniel Ric­cia­rdo in the open­ing laps. Sev­enth, in fact, is al­most dis­ap­point­ing. Two days later, he tops the tim­ing sheets af­ter test­ing 2019’s Pirellis in his Fer­rari.

The stage is set.

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