Just before Charles Leclerc’s father died in June 2017, his son told him a little white lie.
Leclerc was in the middle of his Formula 2 season, a member of the Ferrari driver academy, and being widely tipped for a graduation to Formula 1 the following year.
He knew his father, Herve, was close to the end. So Charles told Herve that he had been guaranteed an F1 drive for 2018. Only he hadn’t.
“It was a bit earlier than I had really signed,” Leclerc recalls, “but in the end I didn’t lie because I am here and now in Ferrari, which feels incredible.”
He says his father’s ambition for his son was “to be in F1 and to be world champion. I haven’t done that yet but I will work to realise his dream.”
It might not be that far away.
This season will be only Leclerc’s second in F1, and already he has a seat at the biggest team of all. It’s about as strong an endorsement of his potential as it is possible to get.
It is very unusual for Ferrari to take a driver so early in his career. They normally prefer to employ experienced drivers, ideally with a proven winning ability. So to choose Leclerc – to replace the 2007 world champion Kimi Raikkonen – says an awful lot about both how impressive Leclerc was in his debut season with Sauber last year, and how good Ferrari expect this 21-year-old from Monaco to become.
In fact, Leclerc has been taken on by Ferrari earlier in his career than any driver since Gilles Villeneuve at the end of 1977. The Canadian went on to carve himself a place as one of the great F1 legends in four short seasons before his death in a crash at the 1982 Belgian Grand Prix.
Could Leclerc’s talent be in the same bracket? He has done enough in his short career so far to show that it is not a ridiculous question.
The battle with Vettel
Parachuting Leclerc into Ferrari for 2019 provides a chance to begin to answer the question, for he is team-mate to four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel. The German is one of F1’s elite, but Leclerc’s potential is such that many expect him to give Vettel a run for his money.
Their performances in pre-season testing only emphasised this point. Their fastest laps were just 0.01 seconds apart and, over race distances, their overall times were almost identical.
Ferrari have acted early to try to dampen down discussion on the issue of an internal battle between their drivers. New team boss Mattia Binotto, the former technical director who has replaced Maurizio Arrivabene after the errors that blighted Ferrari’s 2018, has said that in “particular situations our priority will be Sebastian”.
Binotto says: “When you have your intentions clear from the start, you do not make mistakes when you may have an ambiguous situation.
“The two will be free to fight. We will not ask Charles to be slow or Sebastian to be fastest. We need both of them to run to the maximum.
“But if there any ambiguous situations at the beginning of the season, Sebastian is the one with more experience (and has had) many years with us. He already won championships so he is our champion.”
Leclerc is easing himself into Ferrari and has been careful to avoid stoking any controversy. But at the same time he is not troubling to hide his ambitions.
“Obviously I will be happy if I get used to this car as quickly as possible, and that I’m straight on the pace,” he says. “I’m realistic, too. It’s only my second season in F1. I have a lot to learn, and there is a long road ahead.
“I can’t hide that I’m pushing to be as ready as possible for the first race, and if Mattia has the problem to manage two quick drivers, then it’s a good sign for me.
“But for now I’m just focusing on myself, trying to improve every lap I am doing in the car. It is a top team, and there are procedures that are quite different to the team I was in before. There is a bit of adaptation.”
Ferrari’s reluctance to promote young drivers has in the past at least partly been founded on questions about how they might cope in the highly pressured situation of driving for F1’s most famous team.
F1 is a merciless environment that brutally exposes any weaknesses, and some drivers wilt under the light upon them. Driving for Ferrari – effectively an Italian national team, with expectations high, and every nuance micro-analysed – magnifies the intensity of the situation by a considerable amount.
Even Vettel has proven vulnerable to this pressure, as the series of mistakes which unravelled his title campaign last year proved.
So Binotto’s remarks about the way the drivers will be handled, at least initially, are in many ways, a clever approach.
It works for Vettel, in that it acts as an overt, public statement that the team is behind him as their lead driver, potentially reducing the stress that might have been a contributory factor to some of his mistakes last season.
And it lessens the immediate pressure on Leclerc, by effectively saying, don’t worry too much about any desire you feel to beat Vettel from the off; take your time, this probably is not your year anyway.
Grace under pressure
It remains to be seen how Leclerc will cope with this new step up in his career, but so far the signs are that he has the mental fortitude and resilience to cope.
After a dominant career in the junior categories, Leclerc started his debut season with Sauber last year with very high expectations on him. But in the first three races he was unconvincing. He was not initially that quick, and he made a few unprovoked errors as well.
But a change in approach to the set-up of the car for the fourth race in Azerbaijan transformed his season. He drove a stunning race to sixth place in Baku, and never looked back.
Even before that, there had been signs that this was a man more than usually immune to the distractions of the outside world impinging on his professional performance.
Three days after his father’s death in that summer of 2017, Leclerc had to race in Baku in Formula 2. The personal torment can only be imagined, but he put his car on pole by more than half a second, and won the first race. That meant a start in eighth for the second race, which he also won, although a 10-second penalty demoted him to second.
“It was very hard to take,” Leclerc remembers, “because I lost him on the Wednesday just before the race so it was very fresh.
“The only thing I told myself was that seeing me race for him was absolutely everything and he definitely would not want me to be destroyed before the race and do a bad race.
“The only thing he would want me to do would be win the race for him, so I was very happy to have honoured him this way.”
His father is the not the only person close to him Leclerc has lost on the way up. He was also godson to the former F1 driver Jules Bianchi, who died in July 2015 of head injuries sustained in a crash during the 2014 Japanese Grand Prix.
Bianchi’s father and Leclerc’s father were best friends, and Jules, only eight years older, was more a big brother to Charles than a godfather.
If he is primarily out to win for himself, they are never far from his mind. Leclerc heads into the most important season of his young life wearing a helmet that carries tributes to both men.
“I think of them every time I win a race,” he says, “and I am sure they are up there looking at me smiling.”
Additional reporting by Jennie Gow
Just before Charles Leclerc’s father died in June 2017, his son told him a little white lie. Leclerc was in the middle of his Formula 2 season, a member of the Ferrari driver academy, and being widely tipped for a graduation to Formula 1 the following year.