A strong junior record supported by his influential contacts drew him to Ferrari’s attention. In 2017, Leclerc became the youngest-ever champion of F1’s chief support category, Formula 2, but the backdrop made his achievement all the more remarkable. Hervé Leclerc was terminally ill with cancer. One of his life’s ambitions was to see Charles race at Monaco but, four days before the F2 series was due in the Principality, he was put into a coma. A month later, Hervé died, aged 54. Almost immediately, Charles had to board a plane for Baku. On the same flight was (now former) Ferrari team principal Maurizio Arrivabene.
“I asked him what he was doing flying considering what had just happened,” Arrivabene recalled. “He replied ‘I have to win this race, then I’ll go back and bury my father.’ Right there, I understood that he knew how to take his responsibilities.”
Leclerc produced a truly remarkable performance. He took pole by more than half a second, won the feature race and dedicated it to his father. He also won Sunday’s reverse-grid race by more than eight seconds before copping a 10-second penalty for a yellow flag infringement. “If someone manages to concentrate like that in such a personal situation, what is an F1 grand prix by comparison?” Arrivabene said.
In his maiden F1 season with Sauber, the average qualifying gap between Leclerc and team-mate Marcus Ericsson was the biggest on the grid. Team principal Frédéric Vasseur says of him: “As well as the raw speed, he learns quickly and is always honest. There is no bull…” The late Ferrari chief Sergio Marchionne rapidly became a fan and it was his wish that Leclerc was fast-tracked. And hence, before the age of 21, he had himself a Ferrari race contract. To call it a relief might sound presumptuous, but Leclerc had his own, very personal reasons.
“Just a week before my dad was gone, I lied to him that I’d signed for Ferrari,” he admits. “Not for 2018, but ’19. I hadn’t, but I’d promised myself that I absolutely wanted to achieve that. My mum told me: ‘That’s not good, Charles – you shouldn’t lie to him…’ But I knew it was going to end for him in the next week. He also knew it was the end. To put a bit of happiness in it all, I told him I did it. I remember the tears in his eyes. “From that day, I regretted saying it. Then, when I actually signed, it was the first thing I thought of: I didn’t lie! And that’s what I said to my mum.”
The first highlight was the race in Bahrain, a track suited to the Ferrari and one where Leclerc truly arrived. He took pole and made up for a poor start before quickly dispatching Valtteri Bottas and Vettel. He led convincingly until he lost power in the closing stages and was cruelly overhauled by the two Mercedes. A podium and fastest lap was scant reward for a weekend he dominated. As soon as he climbed from his car, Hamilton went straight to Leclerc, shook his hand and put an arm around his shoulder. “This guy’s time will come,” he said.