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.
The world of Formula One will be remembering Niki Lauda in Monaco this weekend following his death on Monday.
The Formula One paddock parks up on the French Riviera this week for the Monaco Grand Prix.
Lewis Hamilton holds a seven-point lead over Mercedes team-mate Valtteri Bottas in the world championship, while their Mercedes team is 96 points ahead of Ferrari in the constructors’ standings.
Here, Press Association looks at the key talking points ahead of the sixth round of the season.
The race on Monte Carlo’s famous streets will be played out against the backdrop of Niki Lauda’s death. The three-time Formula One world champion and non-executive Mercedes’ chairman died in Vienna, aged 70, on Monday. Mercedes are set to pay tribute to Lauda with a re-branded livery this weekend, while a moment of silence is expected before Sunday’s race. Lauda, who won titles at Ferrari and McLaren, underwent a lung transplant last summer and was absent from the grand prix paddock for almost a year until his passing.
Will Mercedes’ perfect start end?
In Lauda’s absence, Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes wrapped up the drivers’ and constructors’ honours last season. This year, they have recorded five one-two finishes in as many races – unprecedented for the start of a season in the sport’s history. Yet the Silver Arrows will face the fiercest challenge to their perfect start at the unique Monte-Carlo street circuit. The slow-speed track is the least engine-dependant venue on the calendar, and Hamilton has won just once here (2016) for Mercedes.
Could Verstappen be Mercedes’ biggest threat?
Red Bull’s strong chassis has put them in the driving seat to win in two of the last three years. A pit-stop blunder ruined Daniel Ricciardo’s chances in 2016 before the Australian held off Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel to win last season. Max Verstappen was the favourite to take the victory before he put his Red Bull in the barriers in final practice, meaning he was forced to miss qualifying, starting the race from last. The Dutchman, third in the standings after an impressive start to the year, will be desperate to make amends this week.
🗣 "Monaco has a lot of history but it’s not been the best one for me over the last few years. Hopefully it’s time to turn this around." 👊 @Max33Verstappen previews the #MonacoGP 🇲🇨👉 https://t.co/06ALoyDkp3 #F1 pic.twitter.com/lT9LF2LBbH— Aston Martin Red Bull Racing (@redbullracing) May 22, 2019
McLaren in the dock
An embarrassed McLaren will be keen to brush their miserable Indy 500 outing under the carpet after Fernando Alonso was too slow and failed to qualify for Sunday’s showpiece race. McLaren’s American chief executive Zak Brown will be in the firing line this week following their disastrous return to arguably the world’s biggest motor race. Brown has poured huge McLaren resources and investment into the Indy 500 but following Alonso’s horror show, admitted his team were under-prepared. He will have some explaining to do when thrust in front of the world’s media on Thursday.
Pressure on Monaco to deliver
The Monaco Grand Prix is one of the biggest sports events on the planet – the rich and famous descending on the principality for the blue-riband race. But the track is not conducive to a good spectacle. Indeed, last year, Hamilton described the race as boring. Rain is on the radar this weekend which could be the obvious saviour to spicing up Sunday’s show.
Nine months after a lung transplant and following complications from influenza he contracted while on holiday in Ibiza in January, Lauda died with his family at his bedside in Vienna on Monday. He was 70.
The grand prix roadshow will mourn the loss of its triple world champion, and the non-executive chairman of Hamilton’s Mercedes team, when it arrives in Monaco on Wednesday.
Alongside an image of the pair embracing, five-time world champion Hamilton wrote on Instagram: “My buddy, I am struggling to believe you are gone. I will miss our conversations, our laughs, the big hugs after winning races together.
“It’s truly been an honour working alongside you over these past 7 years. I wouldn’t have even been in this team if it wasn’t for you. God rest your soul. Thank you for being a bright light in my life.
“I’ll always be here for your family should they ever need me. Love you man. Your friend always, Lewis #oneofakind #gonetoosoon #youliveoninourhearts #restinpeace.”
Lauda has been a virtual ever-present in the F1 paddock for five decades. Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff, who used to travel to races with his Austrian compatriot, described him as irreplaceable and said the death will leave a void in the sport.
Lauda won two championships for Ferrari and another for McLaren – but he will be remembered for surviving a fireball inferno while racing at the Nurburgring in 1976.
So devastating were Lauda’s injuries that he was read the last rites by a priest on his hospital bed. Yet just 40 days on from the near-fatal crash, Lauda returned to his Ferrari cockpit to contest the Italian Grand Prix. It is considered one of the greatest comebacks in sporting folklore.
“Niki had a degree of bravery that I had never seen the like of before,” Sir Jackie Stewart, 79, told Press Association Sport.
“After his tremendous accident, he was back just six weeks later. I remember seeing Niki put his helmet on, and his wounds were still absolutely obvious.
“I thought to myself that with all the vibrations you get in a Formula One car at Monza, one of the fastest tracks in the world, that this can’t be right.
“To be brave enough to put on the helmet was amazing, but then he went out and qualified fifth. When he returned to the garage, he took his helmet off and I could see he was bleeding. Yet, the very next day, he raced.
“He was such a brave man to get over that accident. He will not go down as just one of the best drivers of all time, but one of the most courageous, too. Niki Lauda will be remembered forever.”
Former F1 chief executive Bernie Ecclestone, whose Brabham team Lauda joined from Ferrari in 1978, told BBC Sport the Austrian was “loved all over the world”.
Lauda was appointed non-executive chairman of Mercedes in 2012 and convinced Hamilton to sign for them from McLaren.
Hamilton has now won five titles, while Mercedes are this season on course to record an unprecedented sixth consecutive drivers’ and constructors’ championships.
View this post on Instagram
My buddy, I am struggling to believe you are gone. I will miss our conversations, our laughs, the big hugs after winning races together. It’s truly been an honour working alongside you over these past 7 years. I wouldn’t have even been in this team if it wasn’t for you. God rest your soul. Thank you for being a bright light in my life. I’ll always be here for your family should they ever need me. Love you man. Your friend always, Lewis #oneofakind #gonetoosoon #youliveoninourhearts #restinpeace 📷 @motorsport.images
Mercedes are poised to pay tribute to Lauda at this weekend’s race. On Tuesday, Wolff addressed the team’s staff at their Northamptonshire bases in Brackley and Brixworth, while McLaren held a one-minute silence in memory of Lauda at their Woking HQ.
Formula One is also set to honour him in Monte Carlo, with a series of tributes under consideration.
Lauda’s close friend, Red Bull team principal Christian Horner, Hamilton’s former Mercedes team-mate Nico Rosberg, and Britain’s 2009 world champion Jenson Button were among a number of stars to acknowledge the Austrian’s death on social media.
In a statement, Lauda’s family said: “His unique successes as a sportsman and entrepreneur are and remain unforgettable.
“His tireless drive, his straightforwardness and his courage remain an example and standard for us all.
“Away from the public gaze, he was a loving and caring husband, father and grandfather. We will miss him very much.”