Charles Leclerc is extraordinary by multiple standards. For starters, the 20-year-old driver has what many other drivers in the paddock will spend their entire careers chasing — a more than even chance of driving for Ferrari, thanks to being part of the Ferrari Drivers Academy.
Leclerc made his debut with Sauber this season and his talent is out there for everyone to see. In an age, when Max Verstappen has lifted the benchmark for a rookie driver impossibly high, Leclerc has managed to not just deliver, but shine. The numbers speak for themselves — he has scored 13 points this season, including some stellar qualifying performances. Leclerc has decisively beaten not just his teammate (Marcus Ericsson) race after race, but also several other more experienced drivers on the grid.
Even as all eyes are on Leclerc on track, there is tremendous interest in tracking his next move for 2019. It is almost certain that he will not continue at Sauber as Ferrari will be keen to reward him with a faster cockpit, thanks to this season’s results.
Firstpost caught up with Leclerc at the Belgian Grand Prix at Spa-Francorchamps for an exclusive interview. Here’s what he had to say:
Firstpost (FP): From being the driver in the centre of the silly season, everyone else is making their moves, when will you announce yours?
Charles Leclerc (CL): I wish, I could reply to that question. For now I have no proper answer. I just came back from holidays, relaxed a bit and did not speak about motorsport at all. We are now coming back to business — so we will speak and we will see.
FP: Do you mean to say that Charles Leclerc does not know where he is going to race in 2019?
CL: Yes, exactly. I am honest; I really don’t know where I am going to race. But I should be in the Formula 1 paddock. I really hope so. That would be a very bad surprise! But to know where exactly, I have no idea.
Leclerc’s honest admission comes as no surprise. We spoke to several other drivers (e.g. Esteban Ocon) who had little clue of their whereabouts in 2019. But let’s also remember, we still have half of the 2018 Formula 1 Season left.
FP: From all cockpits available for 2019, which one would you pick for yourself? There are 12 cockpits vacant yet, as we all know.
CL: If I was the one choosing, I would choose the red one, Ferrari. Since I have started in motorsport, I always have dreamed of becoming a Formula 1 driver and a Ferrari driver one day. So, if I had one seat to choose, it would be this one.
FP: And who would you choose as your teammate?
CL: To be honest, anybody! I have no preference at all. If I am in the red seat, then it’s all fine!
FP: Sebastian Vettel has said you need to be patient for your Ferrari drive. What do you make of that?
CL: Sebastian has always spoken about me in a very nice manner and has always said very positive things about me. It is always an honour for me to hear these things from such a driver. When he says that I can take my time, he is completely right. I am only 20 years old, which is pretty young. So, I have to agree with him.
We were hoping that Leclerc would have a slightly more interesting retort than that. But Formula 1 drivers these days are fine examples of well-oiled PR machinery. While it keeps their teams pleased, it is the fans who get boring answers!
FP: Jacques Villeneuve said that ‘Vettel would eat you up alive in Ferrari’. What do you think of that comment?
CL: To drive with such a driver next to me, it can only be good for me and I can learn from Sebastian. It will help me to understand how he works with a big team. In terms of performance, it is impossible to know anything. That’s because we have never been teammates and have never been in the same car.
Villeneuve’s comments are known to be controversial and attention-seeking. However, there might be merit in his statements regarding Ferrari needing to safeguard Leclerc’s talent against Vettel’s influence. Of course, we would hate to see Leclerc be reduced to the role of a wingman to support Vettel’s championship ambitions.
FP: So since you mentioned the word performance, we must talk about yours. You have made a phenomenal debut and this year with Sauber. If you had to describe your season with Sauber in one word, what would it be?
CL: The word would be ‘progression’. When we started the season, I was struggling to go to Q2 in qualifying. To be honest, I had a very poor pace in qualifying, not because of the car but because of myself. I worked quite hard (very hard, I would say) and then in Baku, I finally understood a lot of things - how the car works, how it has to be driven and more. We really took a big step forward. Since then, we have improved race after race, going into Q3, scoring points at races where we finished. It has been a very good season and that’s why it was over my expectations.
FP: We’ve seen Sauber have phenomenal debutants like Felipe Massa and Kimi Raikkonen - what is the one big thing that you’ve learned in your short but very successful time with Sauber?
CL: I have learnt so much that it is difficult to pick just one thing. Sauber is extremely good at knowing what the things are that you need to focus on as a rookie. You come from Formula 2 or Grand Prix 2 where things are very different; they are not as pushed as in Formula 1. Over the years the difference has become even bigger because the systems in Formula 1 are bigger. There are a lot of things to learn and they definitely know how to tell a driver where to focus. That has been the key for me this season - that I focussed on the right areas.
FP: You’re 20 years old; you’re still young. But, how are you dealing with all this fame & adulation that is coming your way?
CL: (Laughs) The fame for now is quite fine. I am not that famous yet!
FP: Do you get mobbed on the streets by fans?
CL: Oh yes, in Monaco - but it’s not like I am a superstar, so this is fine.
FP: There’s obviously a lot of pressure that you are facing . Wow are you dealing with it?
CL: I believe that you don’t get better at handling the pressure as you get older. Either you are good at it or you can’t handle it. It’s an error to think otherwise. You can definitely get better at other things but if you can’t handle the pressure once you arrive in Formula 1, you will not be able to handle the pressure anywhere. I think my mental strength was my weak point about 10 years ago. However, I worked really hard on it. Obviously, with the events that I unfortunately had to suffer in the last two years (he lost his father) made me grow immensely. I now think that my mental strength is my biggest strength, which is very important for Formula 1. Without this mental strength, you can’t really succeed because of the intense pressure all round and it becomes quite easy to fall down.
In an era where Max Verstappen has outright denied interest in working with a sports psychologist, Leclerc’s comments on nurturing the mental side of the sport are heartening. Leclerc credited Formula Medicine and the Ferrari Driver Academy for helping him work on building his mental strength.
At a time when we have stalwarts of the sport like Fernando Alonso quitting and others like Kimi Raikkonen are expected to retire sooner than later, it is great to know that talents like Leclerc are coming up the ranks. When you think about the fact that Leclerc is still only in his first season and will possibly go head-to-head with the likes of Max Verstappen (Red Bull Racing) and Esteban Ocon (Mercedes) at some point in the future, it is exciting to know that the future of the sport is in able hands.
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Updated Date: Aug 24, 2018 23:42 PM