It is not often a young driver comes into the balmy parameters of Formula One and sparks into life so early in their career. Max Verstappen showed signs of his class with Toro Rosso in 2015, but a young Monegasque named Charles Leclerc emerged as the real jewel of the sport in 2018.
The 21-year-old Ferrari driver grew up in a home steeped in motorsport and was even the godson of the late F1 driver Jules Bianchi who tragically died after crashing in Suzuka five years ago.
It was Leclerc’s father Herve – an F3 driver in the 1980s – who first brought his son to a kart track owned by Bianchi’s dad Philippe at aged three.
Around the sweeping circuit in Nice, Leclerc honed his skills on a daily basis, making mistakes, gaining confidence and falling in love with a sport in which he would establish himself as a real star in the years to come.
From as early as the age of five, it was clear that Leclerc was a determined and gifted young man with immense talent.
Growing up in the tax haven of Monaco, most people would have had the initial impression of a youngster who enjoyed a privileged upbringing and endless amounts of money, but for Charles it was quite the opposite.
While the Monaco residents of today have deep pockets, the old locals like Leclerc’s parents are just your average working people. His mother, for example, is a hairdresser.
His parents lived in the Principality long before he was born in 1997 and, in his own words, they had little money and relied on sponsors to help him with the travel costs needed to fund his burgeoning karting career.
Under the inspirational guidance of Herve, Leclerc began karting competitively at aged eight and went on to win the French PACA Championship, KF3 class, Formula 3 and GP3 titles, with each success better than the last.
There were many promising days during the early stages of his career and none more so than winning the GP3 crown in 2016. A triumph that confirmed his graduation to compete in the Formula 2 series – the feeder competition for F1.
And it was his domination of the F2 Championship in 2017 that really made people step back and take notice of his sparkling talent. He may have been quiet and respectful off the track but he was an assassin on it, chalking up seven wins during his rookie title-winning season.
But it wasn’t all rosy for the rising star. Days before round four of his F2 championship-winning campaign, his father Herve passed away after a long illness.
In between all the other impressive things Leclerc had achieved at such a young age, he demonstrated maturity beyond his years in dealing with the loss of his dad and went on to produce an extraordinary victory at the Azerbaijan race despite the grief.
He signed with Sauber, a team affiliated with Ferrari, shortly after his F2 glory. This would be his springboard to the big league.
In his maiden season in F1, he struggled at first and made some rookie errors, which is expected in any drivers’ maiden season among the elite.
But it was his scintillating drive to finish sixth in Baku which made people take notice and he backed it up in round five with 10th place in Barcelona.
Both times he was mixing it with double world champion Fernando Alonso, beating him in Azerbaijan and losing out for ninth place in Spain. An achievement in itself taking on and challenging a veteran of over 300 grand prix races.
Eight races into his first season, whispers began to circulate around the paddock about Ferrari replacing Kimi Raikkonen with Leclerc at the end of the 2018 campaign.
His talents were clear, but was it too early to be promoted to one of the top teams? Especially shifting away from Ferrari’s policy of recruiting well-known, experienced names and swap a veteran driver like Raikkonen for a young man who was only preparing for his ninth GP.
Nevertheless, a dream was achieved and the move was confirmed two months later. It was a statement of intent from the Italian marque to promote Leclerc so early, but with it would come the pressure and expectation to deliver every week instead of sporadic strong finishes.
Although he endured a mixed end to his first season with Sauber, Leclerc still blew away his team-mate Marcus Ericsson – a veteran of 100 races – and didn’t seem fazed at all by the attention and hype around his brilliance.
Tough work in the off-season followed and he was put through his paces by trainer Andrea Ferrari in a bid to stay fit for the new year.
A strong pre-season for Ferrari dominated the column inches leading into the 2019 campaign. The car looked sharp, well-balanced and quick around the corners during the two weeks of testing in Barcelona.
And without a constructors championship since 2008, the pressure was on both Leclerc and his illustrious new colleague Sebastian Vettel to topple Mercedes’ dominance in the new season. Early advantage was going to be key for the Scuderia.
Ferrari were most experts’ tip to show their pace in the season-opener in Melbourne but their race weekend fell flat, with Vettel and Leclerc finishing fourth and fifth respectively. A minute behind race-winner Valtteri Bottas.
In Bahrain two weeks later, Leclerc showed signs of improvement, snatching a remarkable pole position, and led for most of the race before a mechanical issue late on denied him victory.
Had the Monaco man won, there could have been a different feeling around Maranello as Mercedes stormed to a second successive one-two.
Still, a first F1 podium on his third competitive drive for Ferrari was an extremely positive result.
Morale did increase for Ferrari after the Gulf race, but they were average in China, where Mercedes sealed victory by a considerable distance, with Leclerc again finishing fifth.
Fastest for large sections of the weekend in Baku, Leclerc crashed during Q2 and was forced to start from eighth on the grid.
Despite showing searing pace for much of the race, he attained fifth place with Vettel in third.
For all the fresh motivation and optimism leading into the new season, the Prancing Horse were looking off the pace and devoid of confidence.
In the last round in Spain, Leclerc drove solidly but poor strategy and a slow pit put him on the back foot for the second half of the race and he crossed the line in fifth for a fourth time this season.
Leclerc’s inability to challenge for consistent podiums at present aside, one significant positive is that he has proven to be a real threat to four-time world champion Vettel, a vast contrast to previous years when Raikkonen seemed content to play second fiddle to the German’s prospects.
As it stands, Vettel is shading their duel, sitting fourth in the drivers’ championship, seven points ahead of Leclerc.
It might not fully come together for Leclerc this year, but he looks a future world champion in the making. He just needs time to get comfortable in his new surroundings and adjust to being a central figure in one of the top teams.
He is young, at the start of his sporting journey and has plenty of promise. He has his best years ahead while Vettel, who will turn 32 in July, has most of his best drives behind him.
Still, four top-5s and a podium is decent in a car that he is still very much getting familiar with, but others will suggest he should be challenging the Mercedes better in the reliable SF90.
With the Monaco Grand Prix taking place this weekend, the buzz of racing in front of his home crowd could inspire him to a maiden triumph.
Every driver wants to win on home soil, but when it comes to Monaco only one Monegasque has ever achieved that feat, and not since 1931 when Louis Chiron drove a Bugatti to victory around the crowded streets of the Principality.
The popular Leclerc doesn’t expect to emulate Chiron with his Ferrari this weekend based on current form. But you wouldn’t bet against him such is his class.
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