The Ferrari driver talks about the sometimes traumatic personal history behind his development into one of the fastest-rising young stars in Formula One
Charles Leclerc’s tousled hair and boyish looks are disarming, his youth and softly spoken manner belying a motivated and talented driver who is surely a future world champion in waiting. Only 21 years old and in his second season in F1, Leclerc occupies the most sought‑after seat in motor racing.
Driving for Ferrari carries intense pressure and expectation. Yet Leclerc wears it like a veteran. Forand for F1, Leclerc is the future. It was tragedy, however, that brought perspective and maturity to this naturally attacking driver.
His character is tempered with a strong grounding in family. “I really switch from out of the car to in the car,” he says. “In the car it is really good to have a killer instinct where you need to be aggressive. Out of the car I am normal, calm. In the car I want to give my best. It is passion, when you are passionate about something you give everything. I change quite a lot when I am in the car.”
As the Monegasque prepares for his home grand prix next weekend, change comes to mind. Two years ago, speaking to him at the Hungarian Grand Prix when he was driving in Formula Two, he was pleasant and personable but still a teenager dreaming of F1. Now he is a man making his mark.
After an impressive start to his first season with Ferrari, Leclerc has grown into the role. An aura of confidence contributes to an imposing presence. There is no sense of ego but instead the assurance of one at home with the pressure. Drivers many years his senior have failed to wear the Scuderia’s red with such ease.
His first experience of motor racing came when aged four. He told his father, Hervé, he was ill and did not want to go to school. Instead they visited the karting track of his godfather, Jules Bianchi, where Leclerc lapped until the fuel ran out. Bianchi was his mentor and friend., having spent nine months in a coma as a result of his crash at the Japanese Grand Prix the previous October, Leclerc was devastated but there was no thought of stopping. He raced on to honour his godfather.
He took the title in his first season in GP3 but in 2017 in F2, tragedy struck again. Hervé died three days before the fourth round in Baku. Leclerc responded with a win in the feature race that weekend.
“There have been moments that I wish never happened but they have made me grow as a driver and helped me,” he says. “The loss of my father and Jules. Two incredibly hard moments in my life that made me stronger as a person and a driver. Mentally I am stronger than I used to be. They definitely stay with you forever. Unfortunately I lost my father quite early, it changes you. It changes you forever.”
What emerged from this emotional crisis was raw talent married to an astute driver. He won F2 at his first attempt. Ferrari’s partner team, Sauber, took him into F1 last year and after a difficult opening, he shone. With a high point of sixth in Baku, he trounced his more experienced teammate, Marcus Ericsson.
Ferrari promoted him this season to partner Sebastian Vettel, four times a world champion. Since then Leclerc has made not only a step up but a leap forward. At the season-opener in Australia, Ferrari were off the pace but Leclerc was almost immediately very close to Vettel.
“He is very fast, even surprisingly very fast in the start of the season,” Ferrari’s principal, Mattia Binotto, told the BBC. “But more than that, he is a very mature driver.”
This season Leclerc has again showed strength in adversity. In Bahrain he was the quickest driver on the track and would have won the race but. A crushing blow but one from which he moved swiftly on. A vital skill in F1 is owning only what you control, something Lewis Hamilton has developed exceptionally well in recent years.
“Sometimes it happens that nothing is in your hands, like Bahrain,” Leclerc says. “Nobody could do anything to make it better, so that was really easy to forget. We lost a win but 20 minutes later it was forgotten and I did not think about it. It is more difficult to forget about a mistake.”
Such errors as he has made have also been instructive. After crashing in qualifying in Baku, he was furious, decrying his mistake as “stupid” and “useless”. Yet such errors have become a learning experience, driven by a fierce self‑criticism. In F2, after taking the title in the first race of the weekend at Jerez, he was still angry and disappointed to secure only seventh in the second. “Being honest with myself is something I like,” he says. “I am happy that I don’t make excuses when I make a mistake. This is a good way to improve in the fastest way. I try to look at the bigger picture when analysing a mistake. It happens when you are on the limit but I can learn from the experience.”
After Bahrain the Mercedes principal, Toto Wolff, was impressed. “I know many other drivers who have the lion in them, as he has, would have reacted in a different way and been angry and would have displayed that. And we didn’t see that.”
Leclerc trails Vettel by seven points and has had to accept team orders from Ferrari in the German’s favour repeatedly this season, anathema to any racing driver. He has taken it on the chin, playing a long game, yet believes he can turn it to his advantage.
“It is frustrating but I understand that F1 is a very big sport and does not depend on only one person and if I can help I will do,” he says, tactfully. “I also want to win a lot and sometimes you need to show your character, which I will do when I have the opportunity.”
He will be hopeful of doing so in Monaco but Ferrari’s struggle with low-speed corners will likely put it beyond him. He still rates his failure to win at Monaco in F2 after a suspension failure as more disappointing than this year’s heartbreak in Bahrain but a win on the streets of Monte Carlo will surely come. In the meantime this young driver sits amid the sound and fury of F1 with an impressively healthy outlook beyond his years.
“My values are that family is extremely important, a lot more than all of this,” he says, gesturing at the paddock. “I learned this partly when I lost my father and Jules. When your life is going well, motor sport is everything but after this I understood that family is the most important thing in life.”