Monégasque racing driver and Ferrari Driver Academy member Charles Leclerc will graduate to Formula One with Sauber this year, stepping up to the series off the back of successive titles in Formula 2 and GP3; Motorsport Week caught up with the 20-year-old to discuss his journey to this point.
At each level of competition, Charles Leclerc’s star has been on the rise. In Formula 3 he excelled, in GP3 he amazed, in Formula 2 he astonished. 2017 was Leclerc’s junior zenith, not merely in winning Formula 1’s feeder series, but the manner in which he accomplished it. It is possible to reel off Leclerc’s plentiful exploits in the manner of reading a shopping list, but surely the most impressive display came in Azerbaijan, when he scored a dominant pole, mastered the Feature Race and triumphed on-the-road in the Sprint encounter, just days after the passing of his father, Hervé. To race, and succeed, in such dreadful circumstances earned him immeasurable admiration, and cemented the view that he was F1-bound.
It was Hervé, an amateur Formula 3 racer in the early 1990s, who ignited the passion in young Charles Leclerc, aided by their home being in Monaco, and regular trips along the Riviera to the kart track at Brignoles, owned by close family friend Philippe Bianchi.
“I started at four years old in the south of France.” – recalls the softly-spoken Leclerc as rain batters the roof of Sauber’s hospitality tent at a chilly Barcelona – “There was a track, actually the track of the Bianchi family, they had a track at Brignoles, I started there at four. [In Monaco] a friend of mine had a balcony just after the first corner, so we used to watch the race from there, playing with the small cars when I was very young. They are probably my first memories of the Monaco Grand Prix. I always wanted to be in one of those cars and to know that this year it will happen is something quite special.” – he explains.
Charles Leclerc took the tried-and-tested karting route, regularly competing against Pierre Gasly and Esteban Ocon, now both plying their trade in Formula 1 with Toro Rosso and Force India respectively: “I remember that at that age we always were quite friendly, us three.” – Leclerc says, glancing at a mid-2000s photo of the trio. I remember us saying once while watching Formula 1 that if we work and we hope [that] one day we’ll be all together in Formula 1 but obviously I think we never believed that this will happen! To finally find all of us three here is quite crazy because we all started together, during my first [year] in the French championship they were here also, so it’s quite funny to be all in the same paddock now.”
Through his friendship with Jules Bianchi, he was put in touch with Nicholas Todt, and joined the Frenchman’s All Road Management, providing Leclerc with the financial backing and guidance to fully focus on racing, as he made the switch to single-seaters. Prior to 2016, he joined Ferrari’s young driver scheme, of which his late friend had previously been a member, and switched from Formula 3 – in which he finished fourth – to GP3: “It is very important because the FDA [Ferrari Driver Academy] developed me a lot as a driver, it has helped me a lot. I had the chance to train on the Ferrari simulator, they have big experience in Formula 1, they have taught me many things; Formula 1 is quite a closed court if you don’t have any contacts in it, and to have the help of a Formula 1 team is huge, as it opens doors that won’t open if you aren’t with them. I’ve been lucky to be in the programme, and they’ve helped me grow until I am here with Sauber.” – the young Monégasque racing driver explains.
Charles Leclerc’s ascending reputation, and title-leading GP3 form, led to mid-season F1 runs with Scuderia Ferrari (in testing) and Haas (in practice) but he “knew it [F1] was quite a long way to go. It is nice to be driving in Formula 1 but you need to realise that there’s still a lot of work to do to arrive there. This helped me a lot to keep the feet on the ground at these moments.”
Leclerc beat ART team-mate Alexander Albon to the GP3 title, as both had an uncharacteristically messy weekend in Abu Dhabi. Leclerc’s Formula 2 programme with Prema was confirmed mere hours later; the Monegasque was immediately appointed as one of the pre-season favourites, but no-one could have foreseen that he would capture the crown in such a dominant fashion. Not since 2009 had a driver claimed the title in their rookie season as he displayed superb pace in an array of conditions, spellbinding racecraft and expert tyre management – the mastery of which proved crucial, following an initial setback: “It was a difficult start as at the beginning of testing, and then not winning the first race, I had a lot of things to change,” he recalls. The first race didn’t go as we wanted but we did a big pole, which obviously we expected to be quick in qualifying as we knew that was my strong point, but the management of the tyres was something… During the test on my side it had not been easy to improve it as the testing was limited, so you need to improve very quickly; Bahrain was definitely the hardest race of the year so I had to get used to it very quickly, but after that everything went perfectly. Before the season I would never have said I’d have won the championship like that.”
At times it is startling to remember Leclerc is still only 20, a mature and down-to-earth figure, now regularly commuting to Hinwil from his family home in Monaco. He jokes about his loves, “racing, my family”, and his hates, “snakes, spinach”, explains his tri-lingual approach (conversing with Sauber in English, Ferrari in Italian and his compatriots in French, while also having an understanding of Spanish), conveys his amazement at MotoGP riders, “I’m not sure if I can say that but they have very big balls! It’s quite impressive”, and expresses excitement at being “invited by the football club of Monaco to one match, and since then I’m starting to follow the football!” Leclerc’s Ferrari connections have left him the obvious and widely touted candidate to one day line up alongside Sebastian Vettel at Maranello, but for now he is simply getting prepared to take his first steps in the top echelon with Sauber: “I never really thought about Formula 1 before actually signing for the contract. Formula 1 feels quite unreal until you get to it.”