In Australia, Bahrain and China you qualified 18th, 19th, 19th respectively but at the following races it was 13th, 14th and 14th – a five place gain. Where did that come from? What changed?
Charles Leclerc: “I think this was something that came from me. I think I had the potential to do this in the first three races, but I was just not at the right level to do it. I was not driving well and I was telling the engineers there was something wrong with the balance of the car. But I think we learnt from the experience and in Baku I immediately felt a lot comfortable with the balance of the car, in fact I felt better about it generally. I could feel the weight of the car and that was a massive help.”
How did you eventually solve the problem and end up with a better result?
CL: “I think it was just an ‘oversteery’ car and at the beginning I was happy with that but then I realised that it was way too much and it wasn’t how the car should be driven. After that, we really made a step forward. I think we were quite lucky that the season began with a street circuit, because obviously for Baku we went with a lot more understeer in the car. It is always a lot trickier with the walls and I believe every team does this. I realised that this was the car I wanted for the other races too.”
Did you carry that love of oversteer through from your time in junior categories?
CL: “I believe I still like it like that but in Formula 1 it is probably a bit less than how things are in the lower categories. I don’t know where it comes from, but I’ve always felt more comfortable with this kind of car.”
It’s quite a mature decision, to reprogramme the way you drive a car and adjust your approach. Many drivers would try to bend the car and team to their comfort zone, but you didn’t do that. Is that a fair analysis of the changes you made?
CL: “I think so. That has always been my approach. Once there’s a problem, once I make a mistake, I will always put my hand up and tell them. I have no problems with that. At that time, what I was asking of the car was just not right, so we altered things and since then, it’s all been a lot better.”
That honesty with yourself seems to thread through your whole approach. You’re a fairly harsh critic of your racing and of your expectations and achievements. Is that a positive trait? Do you believe a driver has to possess that honesty?
CL: “I think it is very important and I also think it helps me. It’s taking pressure off my shoulders and I just accept it whenever I make a mistake. Everyone makes mistakes from time to time and it’s better to accept that, it’s just easier to be honest. That’s how I’ve always worked and I’m going to stick with this approach. I think it’s a good quality to have because when you are objective with yourself and realise that you have made an error, the only thing left to do is to understand why you made that mistake and learn how to solve it. If you are never objective with yourself then it’s going to take you a lot longer to improve.”
Success in Formula 1 is all too often being at the right place at the right time, in the right car. So this year, would you say you have been fortunate to have arrived at Sauber with the car the team has at the moment, with the funding and the new senior personnel the team has taken on?
CL: “Of course! If I had found myself here last year, objectively it would have been a lot more difficult, obviously Alfa Romeo was not here and they are a big part of the restructuring of the team. With those changes in place, the team has the funding to attract whatever they want. Last year, it wasn’t that the engineers were not good enough to bring in what was needed, it’s just that they did not have the resources. It would have been a very different story last year, I have definitely been lucky in all of this and I am very happy to be with them.”
When you find yourself in the right place at the right time and the results start to flow, there’s immediately a level of hype that builds up around you. Has that been too soon for you and do you feel the pressure of being F1’s new golden boy?
CL: “I find myself going ‘whoa, whoa, hang on’. Of course it is always nice to read positive comments, and luckily for me I’ve had quite a few of those over the past three years because everything has gone to plan. But I am also completely aware that you can go from hero to zero very quickly in this sport – which is something I think is probably unfair. Obviously things are going a lot quicker than they should. So I’m just trying to focus on myself, on trying to do my best every weekend and on trying to have some sort of consistency. That’s something I think is extremely important. I’m also working on myself, looking at the negative sides. I’m basically focusing on the aspects that I need to improve – this is a positive step for me.”