Insight: How Charles Leclerc is emerging as Ferrari's future

Ferrari F1 driver Charles Leclerc

Charles Leclerc's move to Ferrari provided the 2019 Formula 1 season with one of its most intriguing stories; as the sport nears the mid-point of the campaign Motorsport Week takes a look at how Leclerc has grown through the first half of the year.

If Charles Leclerc’s career progression was plotted on a graph it would be exponentially positive. In 2015 he was in Formula 3, in 2016 he emerged as GP3 Champion, in 2017 he stormed to the Formula 2 title, and in his rookie Formula 1 season with Sauber in 2018 he was sufficiently impressive to convince Ferrari of his suitability for a 2019 seat. It is, sometimes, easy to forget – particularly in the post-Max Verstappen trajectory era – that Leclerc’s rise has been quick. Very few drivers in history have had such growth in such a short spell.

After 10 rounds – almost the mid-point of the campaign – Leclerc has five podiums, two pole positions, has led the second-most laps, and is three points down on team-mate Sebastian Vettel. He should have won one race. He could have won two. Of greater interest than pure numbers has been the manner in which he has acclimatised among the front-running group and the progress, on- and off-track, that he has made through the year.

One big factor has been in qualifying. Leclerc spent 2018 competing with a team that gradually progressed – thus aiding his own personal development – but which still had limitations. It was a team that had Q3 aspirations but typically Q1/Q2 exits. When Leclerc did make it through to Q3 he was often on the backfoot on account of tyre restrictions. It meant he entered 2019 with little experience of the high-pressure Q3 and also the manner in which the track ramps up. Leclerc did take pole position in Bahrain, but his Saturdays included a Q2 crash (Baku), a Q1 exit (Ferrari’s fault), and after Canada he trailed Vettel 6-1. Baku and Montreal provided two important lessons for the youngster. Baku was the location of his 2018 turnaround and in 2019 he was again on form, but a crash at Turn 8 in Q2 proved costly.

Leclerc's Baku Q2 error provided one important lesson for the youngster

“I [realised after Baku] that I was pushing too hard in Q2”, said Leclerc. “We definitely had an easy potential to go into Q3 with the car we had. To crash at that time was probably a bit stupid. Compared to a year like in 2018, when you have to give it all from Q1 to Q3… in Baku maybe it was not very important to give everything in Q2.” In Canada he was a front-runner in Q1 and Q2 but a similar theme reared its head in Q3: that of Leclerc drifting away from contention. Leclerc was 0.014s behind Vettel in Q1, 0.063s down in Q2, but 0.680s in Q3 as he found only minor gains. At the next race in France, while Mercedes dominated, Leclerc was third – ahead of Vettel for the first time since Baku – and in Austria he was fastest when it mattered. In Britain he comfortably bested Vettel and came close to pole position. “Overall, I think [I changed] the approach for the set-up to try and [to] anticipate the track evolution,” said Leclerc in Austria. “On some tracks, it's bigger than others, and I think most of the time when the track evolution was quite big, I was not in the best place, or not in the place I wanted to be for Q3. I felt quite good in Q1, Q2 was worse, Q3 was even worse. So now I just tried to analyse that to understand what I have to live with in Q1 to have the car I wanted in Q3, and it worked.” Considering the importance of track position the Q3 improvements, and pure experience, have been a key part in his recent run of results.

Leclerc has been with Ferrari's Driver Academy since 2016, but 2019 was still a big step up

Familiarity within the Ferrari environment has also been important; while his years as an Academy member, and running test days, provided a useful foundation Leclerc still had to get used to a different way of working, while forging and developing new relationships. Speaking fluent Italian ostensibly assisted this cause. Lewis Hamilton has been with Mercedes for seven years but still regularly talks about how the team can improve relationships, communication and approaches. It is the same as in any situation, be it personal or professional; the human element – particularly in sport – remains undervalued. Leclerc is also exceptionally mentally strong, having previously recognised that aspect as a potential weakness in his karting and nascent junior single-seater days. In an interview with ESPN earlier this year he explained how he and his team took a scientific approach to mental strength, using sensors and computers, which detailed how he could better control his emotions. He is not unflappable, as his aggressive Monaco race approach depicted, but in the spotlight of the high-pressure Ferrari environment he has thrived. There are plenty of examples of promising youngsters, or highly-rated veterans, failing to live up to expectations upon receiving their golden opportunity.

“I think first he is getting more used to the team, our way of working, knowing better his own engineers and mechanics, he's certainly fitting more into the team itself,” said team boss Mattia Binotto at Silverstone. “I think at the start of the season certainly everything was more new around him, his second season in F1 but with Ferrari, with the pressure to manage [the situation], with the strong drivers around him and in the same car. So it's a lot of things around him to manage and to understand and also not to distract him as well, and to focus on himself, and after several races he is getting more comfortable with the team.” Leclerc has perhaps, in a manner that seems contradictory, been aided by Ferrari so far missing its targets. There is – not yet anyway – not a title fight to get embroiled in, while the SF90 does not offer Vettel the rear stability his narrow driving style window craves. After 10 rounds of 2019 Vettel is 48 points down on his 2018 total; Leclerc, meanwhile, is four points up on where predecessor Kimi Raikkonen stood. As much as Leclerc has impressed, Vettel and Ferrari have also underperformed and underdelivered.  

The second round in Bahrain should have yielded victory

Leclerc emphatically answered questions about how he would cope with the pressure in just his second start for Ferrari, delivering a dominant display – which included a fantastic battle with Vettel – that was wrecked by an engine glitch. But it was in Austria that another lesson was served up and taken onboard, given out by ex-karting rival Verstappen. The Dutchman has been through the school of hard knocks in Formula 1 but has been exceptional for the last 12 months. He re-wrote the rule books with his racecraft and in Austria he out-foxed Leclerc with a move that was deemed robust but fair, much to Leclerc’s frustration in the immediacy. But Leclerc contemplated the situation, and on Thursday at Silverstone said: “As drivers, we always try to be as close as the rules limit us, so I will definitely change a little bit and adjust a little bit my aggression. If we can race in that way, then I’m more than happy to race that way. I think it’s good for Formula 1.” In Britain he and Verstappen were the architects of one of the hybrid era’s best wheel-to-wheel battles. Leclerc put up a full-bodied defence against the faster Red Bull car and, when Verstappen got ahead, banged wheels with his rival at the restart. Leclerc called the racing “borderline” but always acceptable, a stance with which Verstappen agreed post-race. “After Austria as I said I think if the stewards accept us to race that way I’m more than happy to race like this and that’s what I did for this weekend,” reiterated Leclerc. “Nothing special, I just raced harder than normal just because I feel like in the last two races, or maybe a bit before, Formula 1 wants hard racing. I think we are pushing as drivers to have hard racing, that’s what we enjoy the most to be like that and that’s what I did.” Leclerc also executed a sublime move around the outside of Pierre Gasly through Village that ultimately sealed his spot on the podium. Since 2016 Verstappen’s rivals know he is a tough cookie to pass; in Silverstone Leclerc’s opponents will have noted that he too is no pushover.

Leclerc changed his approach for Britain and had a fierce fight with Verstappen

Leclerc’s arrival at Ferrari raised questions about the balance of power within Ferrari, and early on the team instructions – some might sway towards using the oft-maligned ‘team orders’ phrase – usually favoured Vettel. Leclerc was also on the receiving end of some less-than-stellar strategies, was embarrassingly shuffled out of Q1 in Monaco, while in Canada the team “forgot” to inform him of Vettel’s penalty, a situation for which Binotto apologised. On Friday at Silverstone Binotto stressed “we are here to get maximum points for the team. I think the team is first. The 50-50 situation really needs to happen and as I said Sebastian was in that case the one with priority.

“But I think as the championship is going on, Charles is certainly proving that he is a very fast driver, he’s been on pole and he had plenty of opportunities to win races. We will never stop him.”

Leclerc is only 10 grands prix into his Ferrari tenure – and just 31 races into his Formula 1 career – and the talent and ability of Vettel means the four-time World Champion cannot be dismissed. But Leclerc is already firmly on the path that the team anticipated when it snapped him up in 2016.