If there was any remaining doubt over Charles Leclerc’s driving talent, it evaporated around lap six of the Bahrain Grand Prix. In a single race weekend, he made his four-time championship-winning teammate, Sebastian Vettel, look ordinary and was only deprived of his first Formula One victory by an engine problem.
Perhaps even more impressive than the blistering pace on track was the maturity he showed off it. From his pole position on Saturday to the moment victory slipped through his fingers on Sunday, the 21-year-old remained unflustered and focused. It’s a quality you can’t teach, but one that runs deep in almost every F1 world champion.
After finishing the race in third position, Leclerc’s slowdown lap was a perfect example. It would have been understandable if he’d let his emotions overflow on the pit-to-car radio, but remarkably he focused on the upside of a late Safety Car that froze the order and ensured he secured the first F1 podium of his career.
« I think we always need to see the positive, » he said. « It’s not much, but we had the pace today. I probably have some lucky stars from up there because of the Safety Car at the end. We have been pretty lucky in an unlucky situation. »
Speaking to ESPN ahead of the Bahrain race weekend, Leclerc answered questions in an almost identical tone of voice. At that point he had only taken part in one race with Ferrari — F1’s biggest team — but the quiet confidence and assured tone was the same.
« Nobody believes me, but to be honest the pressure is not something that I feel, » he said. « And for me, on this side, it is exactly the same as it was when I was in karting. I don’t care about all these things around F1, I just focus on driving and enjoying driving.
« Somehow when I am at the race track I don’t really realise what is happening and I just focus on the job. »
For anyone who knows Leclerc’s backstory, his maturity will come as no surprise. While racing in Formula 2 in 2017, Leclerc lost his father, Herve, to illness just ahead of the fourth round of the championship in Azerbaijan. He went on to take pole position and win both races (although he was demoted to second in the sprint race due to a yellow flag infringement) and has since talked about the death of his father as an event that helped put his racing in perspective.
Herve had been instrumental in his son’s early career, first taking him to the kart track of his good friend Philippe Bianchi when Charles had complained he was too ill to go to school. Bianchi was the father of F1 driver Jules Bianchi, who died at the age of 25 after suffering severe head injuries racing at the 2014 Japanese Grand Prix, and the two families are close. Jules was Charles’ godfather and was the one who suggested driver manager Nicholas Todt, son of the FIA president Jean, take a look at the young Leclerc when he was still in karts.
But Leclerc says he has also applied a degree of science to attain the mental strength that looks set to be a corner stone of his burgeoning F1 career.
« My mental strength was definitely a weakness back in the karting days and I’ve worked hard on that to be as ready as possible for whenever I had the chance in F1. I feel like now it’s probably my strength and I am very happy to have worked so hard on this.
« It’s very difficult to explain [how I did that], because you train with sensors on your head which tell you what is happening in your head. So it is pretty difficult to explain into words but basically you train in front of a computer and you try to understand what is happening in your head. I was pretty confident before with what was happening but I was actually not understanding anything about what was happening! You just discover yourself and manage to control yourself a lot better. »
The result of that hard work is remarkable. Looking back on his first race as a Ferrari driver — the moment his whole career had been building to — he says nothing fazed him.
« Nothing really surprised me because we have prepared quite well during the winter and I went quite a lot in Ferrari to understand how the team worked, » he said of his Ferrari debut. « The biggest shock, more in testing than in the race, was to work with so many people, because there are more people than at a small team. You need to get to know who you need to talk to and these things take a bit of time, so this is the thing that surprised me the most.
« I think the first two races last year were a bigger shock for me, moving from Formula 2 to Formula One, » he said. « I was saying yes to everything and I was really tired by the end of the weekend. Now I have found the right compromise, I know where the limits are and I know where to put the limits to still perform on track. »
As a Ferrari driver the attention on Leclerc has stepped up again this year, but if it’s taking its toll, he doesn’t show it.
« When you are young you are always looking up to F1, and also these types of things [media interviews] are things that I wanted to do. Now that I am here, I see things as a bit different and I prefer only driving. But at the end of the day, I have to do it and it’s not like it’s a negative and most of the time I like it. Obviously, sometimes it becomes too much and it’s quite heavy to take, but it’s life and it’s like this, so I need to make it work anyway. »
But for all his maturity and composure at the race track, Leclerc insists he is still a normal 21-year-old away from it. The word ‘normal’ requires some caveats when you’ve grown up in Monaco and have a Ferrari 488 Pista as your road car, but he insists he has always had a clear divide between Charles at the race track and Charles at home.
« I can do very stupid things also when I’m at home. So I catch up with the normal things when I’m at home, maybe! But, yeah, obviously on a track somehow it’s not like I am very young. Also when I was six or seven I was always very serious and trying to do the best job possible.
« Back then, I was taking it as a passion and as something that I enjoyed, but I was taking it very seriously. But when I go back home, like I was when I was seven, I am a normal guy when I’m at home. »
Between races he has started dedicating some of his spare time to developing a fashion brand. If that sounds familiar, it’s probably because Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton has been working with Tommy Hilfiger for the past year to develop his own collection of clothes. Leclerc says his plans are not yet on the same scale, but he is looking to build his brand as a project alongside his racing.
« It’s only something that I enjoy doing when I’m at home with the small time I have, » he said. « I do it with the people who are helping me with this project and that’s it. For now, it is only the start. Lewis is doing an amazing job with his collection and it is getting bigger and bigger for him. But for me, for now, it is only a small project and it is only the beginning. »
But unlike Hamilton, Leclerc is not penning the designs himself.
« I tried for the first month, but I decided if I wanted a successful thing to leave it to someone who does it better! »
Other interests include architecture, and had he not made it as a racing driver his career options were « between being a race engineer and being an architect ». His passion for cars, both road and racing, runs deep and after driving a 1969 Fiat 500 in his youth, he takes great pride in his 488 Pista, which is finished in Rosso Corsa with two black stripes running the length of the car.
« People have started to [recognise me] with the Ferrari, » he says. « Also I have a special [number] plate on it, so people start to know it. »
But for all the trappings of being a Ferrari driver in Formula One, Leclerc remains down to earth. It’s a quality that makes him all the more likeable and, when combined with his talent behind the wheel, has the potential to make him one of the most well-rounded drivers on the grid.
Stood alongside Leclerc on the podium in Bahrain, eventual race winner Hamilton recognised the quality in his newest rival.
« He’ll bounce back, he’ll grow, » the five-time world champion said. « This will be another layer to his young greatness already and I’m looking forward to more battles with him. »
Turning to Leclerc, he added: « You have got a long, long career ahead of you, dude. »
It will be fascinating watching it pan out.