Reigning GP3 champion Charles Leclerc is a member of the Ferrari Driver Academy since 2016 and a name that you will be hearing a lot in the next few months. The 19-year-old Monegasque racing driver is currently dominating the FIA F2 championship this season (the re-branded GP2) and at Silverstone this weekend he took his fifth victory of his rookie season to open up an 87 point lead in the table.
In two weeks his attention will turn to Formula One testing with Scuderia Ferrari after the 2017 Hungarian Grand Prix. Charles Leclerc will drive for the Maranello team on one of the two days of testing before the summer shutdown and it is likely that from there attention on him will grow as the market for F1 seats for 2018 begins in earnest.
The Ferrari Academy driver is a hot property and James Allen, one of the most experienced and insightful broadcasters and journalists working in Formula 1 today, did not miss the chance to visit the F2 paddock and get an exclusive interview with the talented young driver.
So, let’s go back a little bit to the origins, how did you start racing?
Charles Leclerc: Yeah my dad used to race in F3 but his best friend was also the father of Jules, the parents of Jules. So every time we had free time we were going to the track so that’s how I actually started, we were going there. The first time I went there I was probably three-and-a-half and I didn’t’ want to go to school so I told my dad I was sick so he brought me to Phillippe’s track and there Jules’ dad was driving, obviously, and I did my first lap behind Phillippe, the father of Jules, with a rope attaching his go-kart to my go-kart, to be sure that I knew the basis before and then I did half a lap and he took off the rope and that’s how I started.
How come your family was in Monaco?
Charles Leclerc: Well my father has always been there. My mum then married my father and became Monegasque also.
Your grandparents were as well?
Charles Leclerc: Yeah. They had, well my grandfather had quite a big plastic industry and then my father had some little industries for himself but to be honest he was more following me on the races than anything.
So is it a rich family?
Charles Leclerc: No. My parents aren’t’ particularly rich, my grandparents were a little bit, so they were helping us pay for the hotels and all that but they never wanted to invest in anything in racing.
How far did your dad’s career go?
Charles Leclerc: He went into Formula 3 then he tested in Formula 1 once or twice, but he never had the budget.It was like 10 years before I was born, so that’s why I don’t know much about it.
Was he always keen for you to race? Did he push you into it?
Charles Leclerc: No I don’t think he was. Actually, on the way back after I did my first laps, which I asked for on the karting, I said to my father ‘I want to do that when I’m older’. And from then on we were going very very often to Jules’ track, probably every weekend to drive because I was really asking for it and obviously my father was more than happy that I was driving because it was his passion, but he has never pushed me. I mean I always wanted to go there so it wasn’t necessary for him to push me.
What were the turning points along the way? If you had to identify moments where things really turned.
Charles Leclerc: Hm. Well obviously, my first race I did Jules was my mechanic so obviously there he taught me a lot from the beginning which helped me to work maybe a bit quicker than others. Then I would say 2011 when Nicolas (Todt, Leclerc’s manager) took me, obviously it was a big moment in my career because at the end of that year I would have stopped because my sponsor couldn’t have any more afforded the other budgets. Jules has helped me massively to make contact with Nicolas explaining to him the situation of my career that I will have stopped at the end of the year and luckily Nicolas helped me and obviously since then he has helped me hugely. Then 2014, when I went up to cars, that has been quite a big moment also and 2016, which was my first year as a Ferrari Academy driver.
And you won championships along the way, which has not been easy – some big fights. But you seem as you’ve gotten older you’ve gotten more – not dominant, too strong a word – much stronger as you progressed up the category?
Charles Leclerc: Yeah well I believe, yeah. As I said I think I had a really good godfather, that was Jules, and that helped me massively to grow up as a driver especially as I made my step up to cars. Well his crash has arrived quite early in my car career but he has helped me hugely to get into this world and then my father, even though he hasn’t been to a very high motorsport level, his advice was always very good and I think circumstances I’ve been in in the last two years, losing two very close people have made me a lot stronger as a person.
Obviously it was a big shock for all of us what happened with Jules, but did that hit you very hard? Did that take a while to get over? You were very young as well.
Charles Leclerc: Yeah I mean; Jules, it was a bit like the family, my brother was his best friend. So, yeah it has been very hard at the beginning. It still is obviously but I need to do well for them up there. It has been a shock. Once I knew, I remember I was in Jerez for the last round of the championship and my father wouldn’t tell me what happened and I learned eventually and obviously it was quite hard.
What happened in the race? Do you remember what you were thinking? Or did you forget about it and drive the car?
Charles Leclerc: Well I had to. Obviously it’s quite hard in these types of circumstances but that’s how – I’ve seen it the way that I had to do the best job I could in the car. Obviously in that moment I didn’t really know all about his real state because we didn’t have any news in Jerez, yet but I knew the accident was quite bad but I told myself that I knew that Jules – and my father, in Baku – would be happy for me to do well and not to think about it and not do a bad race. So that’s the only thing I was thinking about; trying to do the best I could for them.
In the Formula 1 paddock people were really impressed with that; impressed that you turned up for the next race and won in Baku. That really made an impression in the Formula 1 paddock And obviously the way you drive, I’ve worked with Senna and Schumacher, you have a calmness as a driver. I mean, when you need to get on with it you do and you make the passes, but you don’t make the passes in a very aggressive way, and it seems to me that you make them in a thoughtful way. Is that right?
Charles Leclerc: Yes. I think I’ve definitely improved in this since I was younger. I was very very emotional when I was younger. I could get quite angry very quickly and I knew that was my weakness and I’ve worked on it quite a lot.
Charles Leclerc: With Formula Medicine (an organsation run by Dr Cecharelli), who are helping mentally, the drivers to just stay as calm as possible. I have actually been doing that for nine years now; to mentally work on myself, which I think is very very important and now for two years I’m working with the mental trainers of Ferrari which are amazing also. And that’s helped me a lot to improve in this manner, to stay calm in these difficult times, that was quite difficult from me in the beginning.
And one of the things I’ve noticed working with champions over the years is that when they’ve had a big setback, they first seekto understand it, and then they throw it away like a piece of rubbish and move on and never think about it again otherwise it drags you down, doesn’t it?
Charles Leclerc: Right, exactly. I think, in sport the last part of the season in F3 was hugely difficult and to come back from that in GP3 has been quite hard. And as I said I think until I was 11 years old I would have never thought the mental aspect of a driver is that important and once I started to actually work on it and see the improvements I actually think that a driver cannot be good if his mental aspect is not right.
The other thing I am fascinated with is that we all see the talented guys coming through from the juniors, like you, Lewis or Verstappen. But now there is a real debate about how long it should take to arrive in F1. Verstappen went straight in from F3, Lewis took a few more steps. You’re doing it more like him, F3, GP3, F2, you’re not straight from F3 into F1. I can’t help but feel that these extra couple of steps are a good idea.
Charles Leclerc: Yes. It depends on the driver; I think some people adapt very quickly, not not all of them. It depends also on how you look at things. With my manager, Nicolas, we think that if one day I want to go into F1, I want to be 200% ready and that’s what we hare aiming for. That’s why we did so many steps in the junior categories. I did one year in more or less every category that was useful to arrive in F1. And looking back at it I think we did well. This year I feel more ready than I’ve ever been, a lot of experience. So yeah, looking back at things I wouldn’t change anything. I’m very happy with how we solved things and how we managed my career until now.
Last year you got a taste of F1, driving Friday FP1 for Haas at several races. But to get a taste of F1 before F2 is good because you know where you’re aiming for, where the next step looks like?
Charles Leclerc: Definitely. But I also thought there’s a positive part and a negative part to that situation I was in. Doing an FP1 at the same weekend as a GP3 weekend for me wasn’t the best thing we could’ve done, ecause F1 and GP3 are two completely different cars and to be honest to go from F1 to GP3 in the same weekend has been very very hard to manage last year.
But working with an F1 team and working with people, drivers like Romain who has huge experience has been very helpful for me. To see how they work, to see the little details that maybe you don’t put much importance on when you’re younger actually seeing the F1 drivers mentioning it and taking a long time to analyse it in the briefings helped me usually to check every little detail and to try to improve absolutely everything. That has helped me massively.
But the plus is that it must have made you more adaptable, whcih is a really important quality in F1. The top F1 drivers all need to be adaptable.
Charles Leclerc: Right. I think it also made me a bit weaker in the middle part of the GP3 season when I did that because going from F1 to GP3 I struggled to come back from F1 to GP3. I think I could have done better.
That’s interesting; were you honest with yourself while it was going on and telling those around ‘I’m struggling with this transition?’
Charles Leclerc: Oh yeah completely, I said to the team in GP3 that I wasn’t taking 100% of the car and I still believe that I didn’t, in this middle part, I didn’t show the best of myself and it’s a shame. But I think we have learned from it and yeah, this year if we have the possibility to do some FP1s at the middle of this year I wouldn’t take it. I’m very happy to be in this position I’m in now.
I bet you are. Just 100% focused on winning the championship.
Charles Leclerc: Exactly, and I’m very happy about this to have managed to have a fully focused season middle of the season, for now here in F2 and don’t think about anything else apart from F2.
How would you describe this championship that you’re in? There’s some pretty good drivers around, there’s a few that have been here for a few years. Not that many rookies apart from you, how would you describe driving in this championship?
Charles Leclerc: I think obviously the drivers in F2 are very talented I mean drivers like Oliver Rowland or Alex Albon are very talented and in F2, (formerly GP2) I think we are seeing many times that experienced drivers are taking a bit the upper hand off the talented drivers in this category because obviously with the tyres, it’s quite difficult to understand them.
Pirelli is quite a huge step compared to every Formula we’ve had before and yeah to a driver it’s quite hard to learn all of this very quickly. Luckily I have a great team this year who are helping me to learn the car very quickly and yeah, to be honest it wasn’t my weakest point of adapting to cars quickly. I’ve always been quite OK with this. [Adapting to the tyres]
In Bahrain I remember you’d learned a lot in the first race about how to manage the tyres as you had not quite got it right and since then you’ve really got it right pretty much every time
Charles Leclerc: I’m still learning right now but the first two weeks I’ve learned a huge amount. For the degradation, in Bahrain it was the worst track of the season for the tyre degradation, so to start for this one as the first race was very hard. But I think we managed quite well with the third place and then a nice strategy in the sprint race to win. It’s definitely part of the learning programme of this year and we knew it would be so.
Obviously quite a few drivers have been in your position, won the final step of the ladder and not got further. You got on the radar with a lot of people in F1, the Ferrari driver academy and the right manager. Do you worry a little bit about whether the journey continues or do you feel like you do the best you do on the track and leave the rest of it to the people around you to make it happen?
Charles Leclerc: I think I’m in a lucky place and I’m lucky enough to have very good surroundings that are taking car e of my career, Ferrari obviously that are amazing and are supporting me and trying to find solutions for me next year and I have an amazing manager that is Nicolas, helping me since 2011 and I’m giving my- I never know this word in English – confiance.
Charles Leclerc: Yes, exactly. I’m giving my total faith to them for them to find me a place, which is very good because I just have to focus on driving and I feel very lucky to be in this position because I believe not many drivers are in this position to be able to fully have faith in their surroundings.
Would you say from your experience, your journey, you’re looking at people coming up behind you that F2 is an important step. Lance Stroll and Max Verstappen have jumped it, quite a few people have, but is this an important step for you?
Charles Leclerc: Yeah definitely, I think the F2 cars are definitely the closest to F1, the drivers are a lot more experienced as I said and you can always learn anyway but obviously I think in this category it’s one of the categories I’ve learned the most. Especially with the degradation of the tyre you don’t have anything similar before it and yeah I think the biggest aspect is the degradation of the tyre that is very helpful for the future because in F1 it is a big factor and to learn and to make experience with this car, this year, is very important.
Finally, I have noticed that you don’t make very many mistakes. I didn’’t watch all of your races earlier on, is that something you’ve always had or something you’ve had to work on as you’ve gotten higher up in the category
Charles Leclerc: I think that came a little bit with the mentality, to stay calm in the difficult situations, to avoid stupid errors in the difficult situations, that helped me to be a bit stronger and obviously during the last two years I became a lot more strong mentally and that helped me to avoid making stupid mistakes as I was doing before.