The rise and rise of Charles Leclerc! Tragedy and technology behind young F1 star who has put the wind up Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel
- The 21-year-old has enjoyed an impressive start to his Ferrari career
- He was fifth in Australia and denied victory by a late engine problem in Bahrain
- He is seen by some as the man who can dislodge Vettel as the Scuderia’s No 1
Charles Leclerc is the new boy wonder of Formula One who was born into the plutocrats’ playground of Monaco. His runaround is a Ferrari 488 Pista.
But if those bare facts suggest it has all been silver spoons and honey, they hide the heartache of losing his father, Herve, and his godfather, the Formula One racer Jules Bianchi.
Nor do they reflect the sheer graft behind the 21-year-old’s rise, which, as he revealed ahead of Sunday’s Chinese Grand Prix, includes having sensors fixed to his head in a scientific attempt to hard-boil his mind.
Charles Leclerc is the new boy wonder of F1 after impressive start to his Ferrari career
Leclerc showed fortitude two weeks ago in Bahrain when an engine problem denied him certain victory. He took the positives out of the experience, namely the indication that he might have a say in this year’s title destiny — not bad for a Ferrari career only two races old.
The brain tests, described by Ferrari as a type of ‘physiological lie detector’ were performed at the Mental Economy Gym at Formula Medicine in Viareggio between the ages of 13 and 18.
Leclerc said: ‘It is pretty difficult to explain in words but basically you train in front of a computer and you try to understand what is happening in your brain, how you react to certain stresses, from the readouts on the screen.
‘I thought I knew what was happening in my head anyway but actually I was not understanding anything. You learn how to control yourself a lot better and you take the findings into the car. My mental control is now a strength, whereas in karting it was a weakness.’
The 21-year-old was fifth in Australia and then denied by a late engine problem in Bahrain
Leclerc qualified fourth for Sunday’s race, behind pole-sitter Valtteri Bottas, Lewis Hamilton and the other Ferrari of Sebastian Vettel.
A product of Ferrari’s driver academy with a stellar junior career and a season with Sauber behind him, Leclerc is seen by some as the man who can dislodge Vettel as the Scuderia’s No 1. It is too early to be sure of that. Yes, Vettel has spun four times in the last 10 races and gone eight months without a victory but he remains a quadruple world champion. Leclerc still has L-plates on by comparison.
His junior status, however, did not stop him refusing to accept a team order to follow Vettel round for a couple of laps in Bahrain. Leclerc knew he was faster and swept past the German.
Ferrari are not rigid in favouring Vettel. If Leclerc can prove himself more competitive, so be it. If he ends up being the red threat to Hamilton, they will back him. Vettel’s career would be over.
Leclerc is seen by some as the man who can dislodge Sebastian Vettel as the Scuderia’s No 1
The wiry Leclerc who sports little more than bum fluff — in contrast to his older team-mate’s veritable Mansell-style thatch above his top lip — has an air of humility and is a notably fine linguist. He turns from Italian to French to English with barely a misplaced pronoun.
His tastes are catholic — he is developing a clothing range, though not in the role of designer à la Hamilton — and would have become an architect if his racing career had not blossomed.
The sad stories of his father’s death and that of Bianchi, the last F1 driver to die through racing, aged 25 in 2015, are entwined. For Herve, a former F3 racer, started Charles’s karting life by taking him to the track of his friend Philippe Bianchi, father of Jules. It was then Jules who suggested that Nicolas Todt, the son of FIA president Jean Todt, should manage Charles. The two families are close.
Herve lost his fight against a long illness in June 2017, a few days before his son’s F2 race in Azerbaijan. With composure, Charles took pole position and won the feature race. Aged 19, he continued to churn out the results to add the F2 title to his honours as karting, F3 and GP3 champion.
Speaking last year about his brave victory in Azerbaijan, he said: ‘It felt amazing but also tough because everything was so raw. The hardest moment emotionally was the pole position. It was the first time I have cried for anything. I was crying in my helmet because I couldn’t believe we did pole.
‘I became a lot more mature after my father’s death and now I see things completely differently. The pressure, I feel it, but 20 times less. It put all of life into a different perspective. You realise what are the really important things.’
Even those who thought Leclerc was being promoted to Ferrari’s ranks too early and that they should have stuck with Kimi Raikkonen as Vettel’s obliging No 2 for another year are changing their minds.
One of them is Bernie Ecclestone, who attended the first ever F1 race at Silverstone in 1950 but will miss the 1,000th here in Shanghai because of a stomach upset, is among the converted doubters.
‘I still think Seb will win the title,’ said the 88-year-old former supremo. ‘But it won’t be easy with Charles. He’s good, I must admit.’
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