At the start of the 2019 season, Charles Leclerc’s phenomenal talent was confirmed when it came to the fore in the Middle East.
The Monagasque dominated at the Bahrain Grand Prix where Ferrari were streets ahead of the competition, taking pole by 0.3 seconds before an unfortunate loss of power kept him from storming to a first Formula One win though he still made the podium.
He returns to the Middle East though as an established star. Having settled in at the Maranello team, he arrives for the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix with two wins and nine podiums under his belt. There’s also enough to suggest that he will add to his tally in the United Arab Emirates’ capital.
Here, we explain why Leclerc is a frontrunner for victory at the Yas Marina Circuit where he will be on time with Hublot, the Official Timekeeper and Watch partner of Ferrari.
The Prancing Horse has never crossed the finish line first in Abu Dhabi but that drought may just end on this occasion.
It’s a daunting task of course, especially given Mercedes’ dominance at the track where they have won six out of the 10 editions so far and every race during the hybrid era since 2014.
However, Ferrari have of late proved capable of not just challenging the Silver Arrows on circuits that require high downforce, but beating them outright for pace.
The latest and final upgrade for the season was made ahead of the Singapore Grand Prix with the aero package being radically improved. Where Ferrari were lacking against Mercedes and even Red Bull on circuits with slow corners, they now turned the tables dramatically and Singapore was the ideal litmus test.
Ferrari’s updates included a new floor, diffuser and rear wing but the biggest alteration was on the nose which sported ‘nostrils’ to draw air inwards. The new package generated substantially increased downforce, offered the car greater balance and grip, affording the drivers an advantage through sharp turns while maintaining its extraordinary straight-line speed.
No circuit marries these factors more than Yas Marina. The track features 21 corners, many of which are slow, tight manoeuvres. Drivers encounter a tricky hairpin at Turn 7 that abruptly arrests a rapid build up in momentum from the first corner. The hairpin is quickly followed by a massive straight – the longest on the F1 calendar (1.14 km) – where the raw pace of Ferrari’s SF90 is unleashed in all its glory.
Another long run between turns 10 and 11 follows before a series of corners in the third sector brings the drastically improved aero package back into play. It all promises to extract the best out of Ferrari’s car and establish it as the class of the field.
With Ferrari providing state of the art machinery to tackle the demands of the Yas Marina Circuit, the rest comes down to the talent of the driver in the cockpit. And you’d be hard-pressed to find one more talented that Charles Leclerc.
The 22-year-old has long been touted as a future F1 world champion and super star while his maiden season with the Italian outfit has seen him live up to his billing.
Misfortune plagued the youngster’s start to the season beginning with huge disappointment in Bahrain and it reached its peak when he was again denied a first F1 win in Austria where Max Verstappen’s controversial overtake in the final laps snatched the chequered flag.
Leclerc has been a different driver ever since, one with a distinct edge. He responded with a gutsy third place in Silverstone and then grabbed a series of pole positions, taking four on the bounce from Spa – where he earned his first win – to Sochi. He became the first Ferrari driver after Michael Schumacher to registered four consecutive pole positions. Along the way, he also handed Ferrari their first win at home in Monza since 2010.
The Monaco man has consistently been quicker in qualifying than team-mate and four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel this season, blurring the line between the team’s first and second driver.
The Abu Dhabi GP is a final shot at glory in the season and Leclerc is the sort of driver that thrives on a late assault.
He’s built a reputation in Formula One as a fierce competitor who pushes hard in the final laps whether there’s a threat from the chasing pack to fend off or a sniff of an overtake.
One of his more memorable last-ditch surges came in Abu Dhabi itself during his final F2 race for Prema before he stepped up to F1. Despite having already won the championship, his final-lap hunt of Alex Albon was legendary.
He launched into attack on Turn 8 before slip-streaming his way past Albon on the long straight down to Turn 11, eventually crossing the line 1.2 seconds ahead.
The track is one Leclerc has seemed to favour in F1 as well. During his rookie season last year, he pulled off a remarkable seventh-placed finish for Sauber in his final race before moving to Ferrari.
With a maturity that has developed over the course of the season, a fondness for this circuit and the finest equipment at his disposal, Leclerc will be the man to beat in Abu Dhabi.
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