And what if this were the right year? After so many missed opportunities and accumulated frustrations since 2017 in Formula 2 and then in Formula 1, what if the little prince of Monaco finally becomes sovereign in front of his own fans? Under the banner of the Prancing Horse, Charles Leclerc, at 25 years old, already has two pole positions at home (2021, 2022). All of this for meager spoils: just 12 points (4th in 2022). Will the wheel of fortune turn at a time when Ferrari suffers more than ever in comparison to the Red Bull behemoth?
The vice-world champion, who held his traditional French-speaking video conference this Tuesday afternoon, knows that nothing is ever written in advance here. So, he doesn’t close any doors.
Charles, before tackling the home race, you currently occupy 7th place in the standings, 85 points behind Max Verstappen. What is the reason for this difficult start to the season?
Charles Leclerc: “Unfortunately, problems have piled up in the first three races. A mechanical failure right from the start in Bahrain, a penalty that pushed us back ten places on the grid in Jeddah (12th instead of 2nd due to a third replacement of the electronic box, editor’s note), and the collision with Lance (Stroll) shortly after the start in Melbourne. That’s a lot! Many points lost. In moments like these, you have to keep your head up. Work hard, tirelessly, because there is still a long way to go.”
A year ago, in the spring, Ferrari was on par with Red Bull. Why has the gap widened so much? Is it a problem of design or development?
Charles Leclerc: “I think the objectives set for the engineers last year were simply not good. During 2022, Red Bull made a huge leap forward. They progressed much more than us, especially in race pace. In my opinion, it’s more of a problem of philosophy than development.”
What changed for you with Frédéric Vasseur taking the reins of the Scuderia last winter?
Charles Leclerc: “Fred and I have known each other for many years. We have a strong bond. He has always been very honest with me. He is not afraid to speak his mind. It’s a rare quality in Formula 1 that I appreciate above all. Furthermore, he has an excellent vision of competition. During every discussion, regardless of the topic, I realize that we are on the same wavelength. We share the same opinion. So, it’s easier to set priorities, to encourage the whole team to pull in the same direction. And it gives me confidence for the future.”
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Until now, your best weekend took place on the street circuit of the Azerbaijan Grand Prix, where you secured pole position and a podium finish (3rd place). Can the Ferrari SF-23 achieve a similar performance in Monaco?
Charles Leclerc: “Baku is a very tricky track. There, driving skills and taking risks can make a difference, just like in Monaco. I felt comfortable in the car, which allowed me to claim pole position in qualifying. But we quickly came back down to earth during the two races (the sprint and the Grand Prix). On Sunday, I finished about twenty seconds behind the two Red Bull cars. That’s huge. Today, their car operates on a different level. However, ours is quite good in slow corners. As you know, there are plenty of those in Monaco. So, there is hope.”
Let’s imagine that you start from pole position again this Sunday. If the mechanics and strategy don’t hinder you, is it conceivable to keep these faster Red Bulls behind you for 78 laps?
Charles Leclerc: “Anything is possible here. First, you have to secure pole position, which is a serious challenge. I expect a fierce battle with the Red Bulls on Saturday in Q3. Also, watch out for Aston Martin, which seems capable of pulling off a stunning performance. In Monaco, on paper, it’s less challenging to stay in the lead than in Baku because there are no long straights. However, the Red Bulls are so superior. They could easily regain the advantage through pit stops. We’ll have to keep an eye on them, resist. But well, let’s first try to get the pole. Easier said than done. If we start in front, we will definitely have a good chance.”
As the 2022 vice-world champion, you were aiming for the title before the start of this season. What is your goal now?
Charles Leclerc: “For the immediate future, it’s to work together with the team to improve our car. To make it more consistent, versatile. To have better visibility. Today, when we arrive at a circuit, we don’t know what to expect. Will we be ahead of Aston Martin or behind Mercedes? From there, it’s difficult to progress effectively and calmly. The SF-23 needs to perform in all conditions, not just in a very narrow operating window.”
There’s a persistent rumor about Mercedes showing a keen interest. Toto Wolff is said to have launched a charm offensive… What do you make of these paddock rumors?
Charles Leclerc: “No comment. Except that this situation is new to me. At the beginning, I was immediately linked to Alfa Romeo (2018), and then I quickly joined Ferrari (2019) with a long-term contract. Since that contract expires at the end of 2024, I can understand why people are talking. The rumor exists, okay. But it doesn’t disturb me. No negotiations have been initiated. Just ask Fred when he plans to start the discussions! I am fully focused on the track. I love Ferrari. The current situation is not ideal, let’s not lie about it. Ferrari should be at the top. I hope we can achieve that together.
Your younger brother Arthur is going to experience his first at home in F2. Did you give him any advice?
Charles Leclerc: “I just told him to protect himself as much as possible from external pressures. In Monaco, you can quickly be overwhelmed. He should also get comfortable and gain confidence during the practice sessions. And then, he should enjoy it to the fullest! Especially during the fast laps in qualifying. Arthur is going to experience a thrill like no other.”