Winning the Monaco Grand Prix is a prestigious accolade that any current or upcoming Formula 1 driver strives to achieve in their career. For Charles Leclerc, other than claiming the World Championship, it represents his biggest racing dream.
However, the Principality has not been a happy hunting ground for the current Ferrari star, often being the scene of anguish and pain as he prepares to return home for the sixth time as an F1 driver this weekend.
2018: Uneventful home F1 debut ends prematurely
Having initially struggled to get to grips with the increase in demands provided by F1 machinery in comparison to the feeder series cars he was accustomed to, Leclerc was finally beginning to show glimpses of his potential in the top tier ahead of his debut home weekend.
Leclerc had avoided chaos in Baku to bag his first F1 points with an assured drive to sixth in Azerbaijan before following that up with a ninth-place finish at the Spanish Grand Prix. But any hopes of maintaining his scoring streak on home soil were dashed early on when it materialised that Alfa Romeo Sauber’s C40 package was aerodynamically lacking the pace to challenge for points.
Although Leclerc was able to out-qualify then team-mate Marcus Ericsson by 0.4s, his time of 1:12.714s was only good enough to secure 14th on the grid for Sunday’s race.
From there, without an incident-filled day or profiting from a stroke of luck on strategy, a processional race outside of the points was in order. It materialised that way until the Monegasque native’s brakes failed on the approach to the Nouvelle chicane, resulting in a dramatic conclusion to a forgettable first home race.
It wasn’t the first time Leclerc had dealt with technical trouble in Monaco, though, having tolerated mechanical problems putting him out of both Formula 2 races the year before.
2019: Ferrari dream soon transpires into a nightmare weekend
Arriving back to Monte Carlo for a race weekend now as a Ferrari driver, Leclerc had looked in competitive shape throughout practice and established himself as one of the contenders for pole position.
However, his chance to fight it out for the top spot was wrecked before qualifying had properly begun to heat up when Ferrari made the rueful call to leave him in the pits at the end of Q1, relegating him to the drop zone.
Eager to make up ground from his lowly starting position, Leclerc was able to produce some awe-inspiring moves early on, including bustling his way past Carlos Sainz at the compact Lowes hairpin and an inch-perfect dive down the inside of Romain Grosjean’s Haas into Rascasse.
But his attempts to repeat that party trick the next time round on the Renault of Nico Hulkenberg ended in tears, as the home favourite tagged the inside of the barrier and suffered a right-rear puncture.
Leclerc’s ill-advised impatience to get back to the pits witnessed him shred the tyre to pieces and heavily damage his bodywork, forcing his car into a swift retirement.
2021: Heartbreak before the lights go out
After a year’s absence due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Monaco returned to the calendar for 2021 with Leclerc determined to enjoy a better time of things after an unpleasant previous two experiences.
And lots had changed since Leclerc last drove around his home streets in F1 machinery: the Monegasque had established himself as a two-time race winner, while Ferrari had regressed to being a midfield runner after reaching a settlement with the FIA on its dubious 2019 powertrain.
Despite having been winless for over a year, Ferrari was expected to thrive around the tight and twisty Monte Carlo vicinity, where straight-line speed has never been a crucial necessity for a car to excel.
During a closely fought qualifying session in which four teams had the prospect of taking top spot, Leclerc edged out Red Bull’s Max Verstappen to land provisional pole position.
Leclerc had long been recognised as a Saturday specialist after his run of pole positions in his maiden Ferrari year and he provided the difference during a closely fought final session to land provisional pole over Red Bull’s Max Verstappen. That effort would be enough to yield him a first pole position at his home circuit when, ironically, Leclerc himself brought out the red flags in the dying embers after crashing at the Swimming Pool chicane.
While concerns were alleviated over a possible gearbox change being required, Leclerc’s worst fears were realised when he reported a problem on his lap to the grid. The cause was identified as a left driveshaft failure, putting the lead Ferrari out of the race before it had even got underway.
The sight of a downbeat Leclerc being forced to stand alongside his other competitors to participate in the pre-race formalities provided a particularly sorry sight as his miserable Monaco run continued.
2022: Botched strategy calls costs probable win
The consecutive seasons spent miring in the unfamiliar territory of the midfield had enabled Ferrari to take advantage of the overhaul to the technical regulations to return to a more competitive standing for 2022. Subsequently, Leclerc arrived in Monaco as the championship leader for the first time, with the overwhelming consensus that Ferrari’s nimble and compliant F1-75 car would be the class of the field.
Qualifying followed the script with Leclerc delivering a stonking run in Q3 to land provisional pole, and Carlos Sainz slotting into second in the sister Ferrari. When Red Bull’s Sergio Perez crashed in the dying embers at Mirabeau and the red flags were waved Leclerc’s pole position was sealed.
The 78-lap Sunday affair is always one of the toughest tests of a driver’s concentration and skill in the dry, but that is amplified further when the rarity of wet weather conditions is thrown into the mix.
Following an extended delay as the rain pelted down severely, the race eventually got underway. Leclerc navigated the treacherous conditions expertly in the opening laps, dancing his way through the series of slow-speed corners with grace to open up a comfortable leading margin over Ferrari team-mate Sainz, who was inadvertently backing up the Red Bull pair behind.
However, as the rain eased and the track gradually dried, Red Bull committed to all the right strategical calls just when Ferrari didn’t. The Austrian camp’s strategists were quicker to react to switch its lead car – Perez – onto the intermediate tires, resulting in Leclerc relinquishing the net lead when he fell behind after boxing a lap later, and he was demoted to third when Sainz opted to take the gamble off staying out on his starting wet tires to crossover straight onto the slicks.
When that time came, Ferrari fumbled again to leave Leclerc double stacked behind the sister Ferrari, enabling Max Verstappen, his nearest title rival at that stage, to also leap in front, demoting the championship leader to fourth. With overtaking already a near-impossible task at Monte Carlo and offline still incredibly slippery, Leclerc was unable to recover any of the lost places.
Not only had the win evaded him but a podium appearance too, leaving Leclerc angry and demanding answers, while question marks surrounding Ferrari’s ability to make the right calls in high-pressure situations provided the hot topic of discussion.
2023: Leclerc’s best chance for victory this season?
Although Ferrari will hit the track for this weekend’s edition of the Monaco GP undoubtedly less favourably than it did a year ago, on a circuit where the margins can be narrow and the driver can make the difference, Leclerc’s qualifying expertise could yield the highest of rewards if he can repeat his Baku qualifying exploits.
With overtaking historically proving scarce in Monaco, landing pole position on Saturday certainly provides Red Bull’s rivals with the best opportunity yet to end the reigning champion’s winning run. Unlike in Azerbaijan, the Austrian camp would be unable to make use of its substantial race-day advantage to overhaul any qualifying deficit.
While Leclerc came in for vast criticism after his series of high-speed shunts in Miami, the Monegasque racer has vowed not to change his aggressive approach in pursuit of achieving success.
Will that enable him to capture an elusive Monaco GP win, or will more misery follow for the home hero this weekend?