Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past two years, you’ll have heard the name Charles Leclerc. Leclerc is, without question, one of the most exciting young drivers of his generation. As he becomes the first person to win the GP3 and F2 titles in consecutive years, we take a look at the Monegasque driver’s rise through the junior categories and examine where the future could take him.
It’s 2001 in Southern France. A four and a half year old Charles Leclerc decides to take the day off school and instead goes with his father, Hervé Leclerc – former Formula 3 driver, to a karting track in Brignoles, near Marseille. The track is managed by Philippe Bianchi – the Bianchis being family friends of the Leclercs, and their son, Jules, being the godfather of the skiving schoolboy. Charles has been promised his first opportunity to jump in a go kart, and it’s an experience which will set the course of his life.
Motorsport was a major presence in Leclerc’s early years. He was born and raised in a place synonymous with Formula One – Monaco. Charles watched videos of Senna’s incredible pole laps set on the very streets he himself walked every day and very quickly became hooked on Formula One as a result of watching the Brazilian’s mastery. The first time he watched a Grand Prix in person was from an apartment window, situated just after the first corner of the Monte Carlo track. And where did he learn to swim? At the swimming pool which makes up Monaco’s famous Swimming Pool Complex, of course.
Leclerc’s karting career began in 2005, four years after his first karting experience, and he won the French PACA Championship three times over the next four years. As he progressed through the karting ranks between 2010 and 2013, Leclerc won multiple national, European and global karting titles. It was at this time that he was also taken under the wing of Nicolas Todt. It was Jules Bianchi who brought Charles to Todt’s attention, with Bianchi himself already being on Todt’s roster. In 2013, Leclerc competed in one final year of karting and finished runner up in the CIK-FIA World KZ Championship. The champion? Max Verstappen.
Leclerc graduated to single-seaters in 2014 and completed a season in Formula Renault 2.0, where he scored seven podiums and an impressive double win at Monza. In 2015, he moved up the ladder to the Formula 3 series, inheriting pole at his first race and finishing the season fourth in the championship. He also made an appearance at the well respected Macau Grand Prix, where he finished in second, and only half a second behind the winner, Felix Rosenqvist.
Charles stepped up to the F1 support bill in 2016, winning the GP3 title on his maiden attempt and impressively winning his debut race in the series. He followed the logical path in 2017 by moving to the Formula Two series with the Prema team.
After setting pole on his first F2 appearance, Leclerc well and truly arrived in the series at the Sprint Race in Bahrain. He pitted from the lead on Lap 14 of 23, an unheard of strategy for a Sprint Race, which is usually lights to flag with no stops. Commentator, and former series champion, Davide Valsecchi said the strategy was ‘impossible’, and yet Leclerc scythed through the field in the remaining nine laps as though he was playing a video game and the AI difficulty was set to ‘Super Easy’, setting lap times three seconds faster than anyone else on track. Charles did the impossible, clinching the lead of the race on the final lap and taking a well earned first series victory.
From there, he went from strength to strength and set the fastest time in Qualifying for an unprecedented eight rounds in a row – doubly impressive and extremely tough to do considering F2 cars are all identical. Despite being excluded from the qualifying session at the Hungaroring for a technical infringement and starting from the back of the grid, he still fought through the field to finish fourth in the Feature Race.
Perhaps his most difficult weekend of the season came in Monaco, when he was forced into retirement in both the Feature and Sprint races on the streets of his home town. Leclerc described the events as the ‘worst moment of my career’, but remained magnanimous and refused to point the blame at any of his team. From on-track disaster, personal tragedy followed as three days before the next round of the championship in Azerbaijan, Charles’ father died. The strength and determination which Leclerc displayed over the Baku weekend therefore was nigh on unbelievable. He set the pole time by over half a second and would’ve taken a double win, if not for a somewhat unjust time penalty he received in the Sprint race which dropped him to the runner-up spot.
Leclerc played an arguably calculated game in the latter stages of his championship bid. He didn’t win any races between the British Grand Prix weekend and the championship deciding Jerez round, but he did enough to maintain a comfortable lead in the championship. He had taken a dominant win in Spa, but was excluded for excessive plank wear hours after the race finished. It was a similarly dominant performace in the Feature Race in Jerez which saw him seal the deal and become the first Formula Two champion of the modern era. The win didn’t come easily, though. After what looked to be a runaway victory throughout the afternoon, a late Safety Car saw him come under immense pressure from championship rival Oliver Rowland over the last few laps of the race. Leclerc held his nerve to deservedly win the race and take the championship, wearing his father’s helmet design as he did so.
No rookie had won Formula One’s main support series since Nico Hulkenberg in 2009, and very few – even the likes of Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg – have set the records which Charles has this season. Leclerc more than deserves a seat in F1 in 2018. If he doesn’t get one – like the two previous series champions Stoffel Vandoorne and Pierre Gasly, who were forced to make a stopgap year in Japanese Super Formula – it makes a mockery of Formula One’s junior ladder. Thankfully, the main speculation is not whether or not Leclerc will take a seat in F1 in 2018, but rather who his team-mate will be. It is expected that Charles will soon be announced as a full-time race driver for Sauber, given that the team are preparing him with four outings in Free Practice over the remainder of the season.
Charles’ place at Sauber next season will be partly thanks to his involvement with the Ferrari Young Driver Academy, which he has been a member of since 2016. He made his first F1 appearance for the Ferrari-powered Haas team during FP1 for the 2016 British Grand Prix. He made three further Friday appearances for the American team throughout the rest of the season and he had been considered for a drive there in 2017, but the team felt the Monegasque driver needed another year to hone his craft – something which Leclerc himself agreed with. When Charles had the opportunity to test for Ferrari just after the 2017 Hungarian Grand Prix weekend, he commented that he now felt ready to step up to F1. He proved so by setting the fastest time of the day at testing on a tyre two compounds harder than his closest competitor. There were even rumours flying around for a short while that he’d replace Kimi Raikkonen in 2018 – and the rumours weren’t scoffed at, he really is good enough to be considered a risk worth taking, even for a top team such as the Scuderia.
At the test, Leclerc says he kept in mind the advice given to him by Bianchi in years previous. There are lots of parallels to be drawn between the two and it seems as though Leclerc will carry Bianchi’s legacy through his time in the sport, being regarded in a similar vein as Ferrari’s best ‘home grown’ talent. Charles often speaks of the support he received from Jules: “He helped me with most of things in racing. Obviously now it’s hard without him because he always helped me, and I miss his help.”
Leclerc has the self belief, without the arrogance of some drivers. He believes he’s good enough for the top tier of motor racing but, as his Prema team have commented, wants to know how to improve even if a weekend runs perfectly. He is entirely focussed on pushing himself and getting better. He regularly works with psychologists from the Ferrari Driving Academy to better himself on track. All of these qualities are likely to see him go far in Formula One. He’s a likeable person too, and has plenty of time for his fans, regularly taking time out of his day to like and respond to tweets.
A Charles Leclerc and Antonio Giovinazzi pairing at Sauber in 2018 would be one of the most exciting on the grid. If Charles impresses at Sauber next year, it’s not entirely out of the question that we could see him make the step up to Ferrari when Raikkonen’s contract expires at the end of 2018. It will be fascinating to see what he can do with that car comparative to what this year’s drivers have done. Sauber will have the current-spec Ferrari engine next year, so an increase in performance can be expected. If Marcus Ericsson stays with the team, I’d expect the Swede to be beaten in Qualifying every weekend by Leclerc. If Giovinazzi is alongside Leclerc, Sauber will be more than worth watching on Saturdays next year, given Giovinazzi’s excellent form in GP2 in 2016.
We’ve seen exciting drivers come through the ranks before and had careers which amounted to very little in Formula One, but there is a real air of excitement around Leclerc, and there seems to be the belief that this is a driver who could define his generation. When you consider what Charles Leclerc has achieved before reaching the age of twenty, it raises the question: how far can he rise in Formula One?