Charles Leclerc: F1’s next new World Champion
As Charles Leclerc crossed the line in fourth place at the Turkish Grand Prix, you could see the anguish written inside his cockpit. Losing a podium on the very last lap to teammate Sebastian Vettel after making a move for P2 on Sergio Perez made Leclerc feel like a failure.
But the Monegasque was anything but a failure that day, putting on a show stopping display to come from the back of the field all the way towards the podium places, all whilst gaining time on race leader Lewis Hamilton.
However, Leclerc will only settle for perfection, and his late slip heading into Turn 12 meant that the ultimate result wasn’t quite achieved by his Ferrari. That’s why Charles was so furious with himself.
Many might argue that Leclerc was too harsh on himself in Istanbul, however his strive for improvement is arguably the elite mentality needed to become the best in the business.
His Junior Series Rise
Leclerc was renowned in the karting ranks as the second best karter in his generation, behind the enigma that is Max Verstappen. Charles improved year-on-year before rising into single seaters in 2014.
Progress is the name of the game with Leclerc and each season on his rise to F1 was more and more impressive.
A solid Formula Renault campaign in 2014 was followed up by 3 wins in a star studded European F3 line-up as Leclerc fought for the title for much of the year.
Leclerc’s improvement earned him a place in Ferrari’s Driver Academy in 2016, and it’s from there that his career really began to take-off.
The then teenager won his first senior championship that year by conquering teammate and future F1 rival Alex Albon to the GP3 crown before absolutely dominating his rookie season in the newly rebranded Formula 2 in 2017.
READ MORE: F1 2020: THE YEAR OF THE HONEYBADGER
The first real glimpse of Leclerc’s F1 superstar potential came in that season’s Bahrain sprint race. Having destroyed his tyres early on in the race, Leclerc gambled on an unheard of “sprint race pit-stop” strategy which would require a mammoth comeback from the back of the field to pull off.
Coming out the pits with 8 laps to go, Leclerc took over 3 seconds a lap out of the leaders, all whilst overtaking the rest of the field, to grab the lead on the final lap of the race to take a stunning victory.
So many world champion drivers have their junior series “moment” where they announce themselves to the world. Think Lewis Hamilton in Turkey in 2006, or the infamous Schumacher vs Hakkinen Macau showdown in 1990.
This was Charles Leclerc’s statement to the F1 paddock that he was coming and that the world better watch out.
Leclerc went on to take that F2 title in crushing fashion, setting him for his F1 debut for Sauber in 2018.
Rise To Stardom
Leclerc’s rapid improvement throughout his short F1 career so far has been nothing short of remarkable.
After all, the first few races of his debut season were hardly stellar. Outperformed by Ericsson in each of the first 3 races of the year, many worried whether the Ferrari protégé had risen to a seat too soon.
However those sentiments were quickly squashed with a measured drive to P6 at the following Azerbaijan GP and from there Leclerc’s season went from strength-to-strength.
Out-qualifying established Swede Marcus Ericsson 17-4, what was most impressive about Leclerc’s rookie campaign was the way he learnt from his early errors to become the most consistent midfield runner by the end of the year.
The Monegasque finished the season with 3 consecutive “Class B” victories, more than justifying his place in the senior Ferrari team for just his second season.
Again, only the greats usually rise to a “top team” so early on, let alone quickly establish themselves as the driver that said team then wishes to build around.
READ MORE: DANIIL KVYAT: NOT DONE YET
Similarly to Hamilton vs Fernando Alonso in 2007 at McLaren, Leclerc was supposed to play second fiddle to 4-time world champion and future hall of fame teammate Sebastian Vettel in 2019.
However, Leclerc quickly showed, just like Lewis all those years ago, that he was more than capable of being the #1 man immediately.
Although Vettel finished ahead of Leclerc in more races last season, Leclerc grabbed 2 victories to Vettel’s 1, finished above the German in the world championship, and recorded a staggering 7 pole positions, more than any other driver in 2019.
This Season…And Beyond
It’s hard to remember a multiple world champion being as comprehensively beaten as Vettel has by Leclerc in this 2020 season.
Although the news that the German would be replaced by Carlos Sainz in 2021 undoubtedly has had an impact on his performance this year, for Leclerc to outshine his senior statesman in such crushing fashion has been utterly sensational.
Bar one obvious blemish in Styria, where the two Ferraris came together following an overoptimistic Leclerc lunge, the Monegasque’s season has been almost perfect.
Reminiscent of Fernando Alonso in 2012, Leclerc has made up for Ferrari’s shortcomings by consistently getting the absolute maximum out of the car and using superb race craft to drag the Scuderia into places they arguably don’t deserve to be in.
Leclerc has outqualified Vettel 11-3 and outraced him 8-4, giving him almost 3 times the number of points of his teammate (97 to 33).
Had it not been for his late error in Turkey, P4 in the drivers’ standings also beckoned, an outstanding achievement in arguably the 6th fastest car.
Remaining competitive in underwhelming cars is a trait that once again, world champions show. Lewis Hamilton drove his 2009 McLaren boat to multiple victories, whilst the great Michael Schumacher famously outshone his Ferrari in the years before eventual dominance.
Leclerc’s attitude to defeat and his ability to learn from his mistakes and ensure that he improves next time is the feature that arguably stands him above the rest of his generation.
His closest rival for the next decade is clearly most likely to be Max Verstappen, but as shown in Turkey, the Dutchman still has a tendency to become too easily rattled. Races can fall away from him and unlike Leclerc, Verstappen usually blames others rather than himself for his mistakes.
Verstappen clearly has prestigious speed, but to win a world championship requires minimal errors and an ability to not get worked up when things don’t go to plan.
Schumacher, and subsequently Hamilton, are masters of this, and many of their early career traits can be seen in Leclerc too.
If Ferrari can provide him with the equipment, and that’s the biggest if at the moment, then there’s no doubt that Leclerc has the speed, mentality and the determination to become a multiple world champion.
The future is bright.