The next big thing? - Exclusive F1 interview with Ferrari's rising star
Charles Leclerc is a name that you will be hearing a lot in the next few months.
Charles Leclerc is a name that you will be hearing a lot in the next few months.
He is 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 F1 testing with Ferrari after the Hungarian Grand Prix. Leclerc will drive for the Scuderia 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, so JA on F1 took the opportunity - before the stampede - to visit the F2 paddock to get some exclusive time with the next big thing to find out more about the man behind the name.
Leclerc is from Monaco, his father used to race F3 cars not terribly succesfully, but he was mentored by Jules Bianchi, who passed away after a serious accident in the 2014 Japanese Grand Prix.
Leclerc has lost two people close to him recently, as his father died shortly before the Baku weekend. Leclerc went out and won that race, demonstrating a strong mentality.
Apart from his speed, what catches the eye about Leclerc in the car is his calmness and racing brain. He makes few mistakes and is capable of overtakes like a Hamilton and a Verstappen, but more driven by calculation than aggression. He is not the finished article, of course, but the raw materials are there for a different kind of driver.
So, let's go back a little bit to the origins, how did you start racing?.
Yeah my dad used to race in F3 but his best friend was also the father of Jules. So every time we had free time we were going to the track so that's how I actually started when 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 and he brought me to Phillippe's track and there Jules' dad was driving, obviously, and I did my first lap behind Phillippe with a rope attaching his go-kart to my go-kart, to be sure that I knew the basis before. 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?
Well my father has always been there. My mum then married my father and became Monegasque also.
Your grandparents were as well?
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?
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?
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?
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.
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 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 since then he has helped me hugely. Then in 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?
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 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.
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?
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?
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.
With Formula Medicine [an organisation 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?
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'm 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.
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?
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,b 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 [Grosjean] 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.
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?'
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.
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?
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 [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
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?
I think I'm in a lucky place and I'm lucky enough to have very good surroundings that are taking care of my career. Ferrari obviously 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.
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?
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've 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
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.
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