There was a huge sense of anticipation over Charles Leclerc’s promotion from Sauber to Ferrari to partner Sebastian Vettel this year.
How often does such a young talent get an opportunity in a front-running Formula 1 team? The last time it happened was Lewis Hamilton joining McLaren to partner twice world champion Fernando Alonso in 2007. And look what happened there.
Leclerc, 21, became the youngest driver to race for Ferrari since Ricardo Rodríguez at the 1961 Italian Grand Prix. He grew up in Monte Carlo, where father Hervé finished just behind Damon Hill in the 1988 Monaco Formula 3 race. Together, father and son watched F1 on TV, both supporting Ferrari.
Hervé Leclerc was a close friend of Philippe Bianchi, father of the late Jules. Bianchi Sr ran a kart track at Brignoles and it was not long before the young Charles was spending all his time there. Bianchi became his karting mentor and when funds ran low, Nicolas Todt, son of FIA president Jean and manager of Jules, took young Leclerc under his wing and guided the transition into cars.
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.