Fresh from being confirmed as a Scuderia Ferrari driver for 2019, Charles Leclerc is Formula One’s hottest property; a young man on a high, with his feet firmly on the ground, whose journey to the top of F1 has been one of triumph and tragedy. In an exclusive feature for Mobil 1 The Grid, Jennie Gow spoke to Leclerc about joining Ferrari and the influence of both his late father and his late friend, Jules Bianchi.
Charles Leclerc is a thoroughly impressive young man.
At just 20 years of age, he has won himself the ‘Golden Ticket’ of motorsport by being announced as a driver with Scuderia Ferrari. The second-youngest driver in the team’s history, Leclerc will next year race alongside four-time F1 World Champion Sebastian Vettel, thereby relegating veteran Kimi Raikkonen to a seat with Sauber.
My first meeting with Charles was back in Belgium last year, where we got together for a chat about his remarkable rise through the ranks during what was at the time a stellar season in the Formula 2 Championship.
“I started karting at 3 and a half years old, which is quite young,” Charles told me when we started talking. “I stayed in karting until 2013 and then, [in] 2014, I did the jump to Formula, and I’ve done Formula Renault, Formula 3, GP3 and now Formula 2.”
With his dark hair and dimples, Charles is already a marketing man’s dream. He has movie star looks and a back story that is heart-breaking. But more importantly for his future, he has incredible talent and the backing of a team widely regarded as an institution of the sport: Scuderia Ferrari.
“It’s something very special,” he said. “The red car is always special. Since [I was] a child, I have always looked at it more than any other car and it will be a dream for me… but it’s still a long way to go.”
As it turns out, Charles didn’t have all that long to wait after all. Just 14 races into his F1 career, the young Monegasque was told that he would be racing in red next year. It is a meteoric rise when you think back to the fact that he was racing in karts just 5 years ago.
In 2016, he won the GP3 Championship and then won the F2 title, winning 7 races and taking 8 pole positions along the way. The most impressive of all of these was in June, when he sealed a double victory in Baku just days after his father had died.
“It was definitely very hard because I lost him on the Wednesday before the race. It was very, very fresh,” Charles explained. “The thing I told myself was that [my father] seeing me racing was everything, and he would not want me to be destroyed before the race and do a bad race. The only thing he would want me to do was win for him and we won race 1 and we won race 2 on track, although we took a 10-second penalty that put us P2, but in my mind it will stay as a good memory, that weekend, and I’m very happy to have honoured him this way.”
I remember seeing Charles on the podium in Baku. It was one of the most moving moments of my career. Just 19 at the time, it was a lot for a young man from Monaco to deal with, but it wasn’t the first tragedy to befall Leclerc.
Charles’ Godfather was none other than the late Jules Bianchi, whose tragic death in 2015 had naturally had a huge impact on the young driver.
“The first time I started driving was with him at his track in Brignoles,” said Charles. “He has always been a massive help with me. When I started Formula [racing], he was always there. At the end of the first day, I would call him and say, ‘This thing I’m not so good [at]’, and he could explain it to me, and I’ve improved probably a bit quicker than the others thanks to him, because he helped me during my career when he was there, and he’s definitely truly missed, as a person especially, but also as a help.”
When asked if he thinks of these two special men when he is competing, Charles is unambiguous in his response.
“I think to them every time I win a race, and when things are going well,” he made clear. I’m sure that they are up there and looking at me, smiling.”
As of 2019, Charles will not be any old Formula One driver, he is going to be a driver with the great Scuderia Ferrari. I ask him, how would his Dad and Jules have felt about that?
“My father was definitely very proud when I told him I had signed in Formula One, even though it was a bit earlier than I had really signed, but at the end I didn’t really lie because I am here and now in Ferrari, which feels incredible,” said Charles, before going on to comment: “Jules probably deserved this place more than I do and I’m extremely happy to be the one that has his place. I will try to honour him in the way he deserves.”
Even though Charles is a young man who has had a turbulent life so far, it is clear that he is very grounded.
“My father was a fan of Ayrton Senna and, since a child, he kind of gave me his hero,” Charles explained. “He told me everything he achieved and I’ve been interested in his career, reading books and watching his movie. Senna was an inspiration but, at the moment, I don’t really have any idols. At the age of 12, I changed my mind. At 12, I wanted to be someone, but then I realised that there are no two people the same, so I’m just trying to work on myself and be the best of myself.”
Just hours after he was publicly announced as a Ferrari driver for 2019, I got to speak to Charles again, and he was clearly delighted.
“It’s been a dream. I cannot believe, when they announced me… I was checking my phone to make sure it wasn’t a dream. A good dream, but it is reality,” he said. “It feels absolutely amazing. Since I started racing, I’ve always dreamed to be one day in the red car and for it to already be happening next year feels amazing.”
With Sebastian Vettel as his teammate, and the weight of expectation coming from the Italian nation on his shoulders, Charles knows his challenge won’t be an easy one, saying: “There’s still a lot of work to do on my side, and I will try to be as ready as possible to try to have success there.”
But can he win races and even challenge for the title?
“I will be going there to try to do the best job from the start,” Charles stated. “It would be pretentious to say that now, but this is definitely the target. I don’t know whether I will achieve that but, one thing is for sure, I will give my absolute maximum. I’ve seen a lot of people that are doubting about this season and that is completely normal and I understand that, but I will just try to prove these people wrong and try to do the best job possible.”
Not everyone is convinced. And, as with anything in life, there are doubters and those who say that Leclerc’s elevation to Ferrari will be a case of ‘too much, too soon’, but only time will tell. Has Charles been rushed through the system? Or is he a star shining so brightly that there was no other option for Ferrari than to give him the seat for next year?
But Charles, with the hopes and wishes of both his father and Jules in his heart, will gain many fans along the way in his quest for an F1 World Championship title.
And with that, I’ll leave the last words to him, and the hopes that the young driver shared with his late father which, if nothing else, will give you an idea of what Charles Leclerc is like as a person. “I want [not just] to be in Formula One but to be a World Champion,” he says. “I haven’t done that yet but I will work to realise his dream from up there.”