Charles Leclerc knew he wanted to be a Formula 1 driver by the time he was four years old.
He grew up in Monaco, home of the most famous grand prix of all, and he says his first memory of the race is playing with toy cars at a friend’s apartment on the exit of the first corner, watching the grand prix at the same time, “dreaming of being there one day”.
The car he dreamed about most was Michael Schumacher’s Ferrari. And now, 17 years on, the dream has come true. Leclerc is driving his own F1 Ferrari, and doing a rather good job of it.
While the headlines after last Sunday’s British Grand Prix focused on Lewis Hamilton’s record sixth victory at Silverstone, in many ways the highlight of the race was Leclerc’s epic battle with Red Bull’s Max Verstappen for the first 20 laps. It was just the latest indication that Leclerc could be a man with a very bright future.
At the halfway point of his first season at Ferrari, only his second in F1, the 21-year-old could have had at least one win – and possibly a couple more.
Leclerc is obviously disappointed that he missed out when his engine hit trouble in the closing laps in Bahrain after he had dominated the race. And he was mortified to crash in qualifying in Baku, when the race weekend looked to be his for the taking.
In Monaco, he had set the pace in final practice, only for a strategy error by Ferrari to see him knocked out of the first part of qualifying. Losing the lead to a charging Verstappen with two laps to go in Austria hurt, too.
But he says: “It motivates me even more to try to progress and take that first win as quickly as possible. That’s my target. I am trying to work as hard as possible and hopefully it will come soon.”
In an exclusive interview with BBC Sport, one of F1’s brightest new stars discusses: his formative years; the effect of the deaths of both his father and godfather – the former F1 driver Jules Bianchi; being team-mate to four-time champion Sebastian Vettel; his progress so far; and his ambitions for the future.
A humble upbringing in a rich man’s playground
Leclerc’s father, Hervé, was a Formula Three driver and he introduced his son to karting, the nursery for nearly all F1 drivers, when he was three and a half years old.
“From that moment on,” Leclerc says, “it was pretty clear I wanted to do that.”
They lived in Monaco, with its reputation as a rich man’s playground, but Leclerc says they were “not particularly wealthy – in 2011, I had to stop karting because my father did not have enough money for me to continue and we did not have enough sponsors to help us”.
The then 14-year-old was able to continue his career because he was picked up by Nicholas Todt. The son of FIA president Jean Todt had built a substantial driver management stable, which included Bianchi, Leclerc’s godfather, who was then racing in GP2, the step below F1, and a Ferrari test driver.
Thanks to Todt, Leclerc followed Bianchi into the Ferrari driver academy.
Bianchi was only eight years older than Leclerc, more like an older brother, and was instrumental in tutoring the young driver during his formative years in karting.
But despite the motor racing background, and a stellar career in karting, Leclerc says he only began to think that he could actually make it to F1 “pretty late”.
“I never told myself that I actually could arrive there,” he says. “I just told myself to keep working and keep focusing on the present to try to improve what I could do now and then I would probably have the opportunity to get there.”
Did Bianchi and his father not tell him he had the talent to make it?
“Yeah,” Leclerc says, “but I think they were saying a lot more: ‘Keep your feet on the ground and keep working.’ So, yeah, in the end I think I took the other side and kept working and not thinking too much about Formula 1.”
This humility is something many have noticed about Leclerc since he made it to F1. He says: “I am pretty sure it comes from them. I don’t think I’ve ever been arrogant or anything like that, so it’s also a bit natural.
“I honestly believe it is the way forward. But the fact they kept telling it to me, I think it has helped me.”
Dealing with two terrible tragedies
On track, Leclerc progressed to F1 pretty much as seamlessly as possible, winning almost everything along the way.
Off track, though, he has had to deal with awful darkness – he lost both Bianchi and his father while he was making it through the ranks.
Bianchi was driving for Marussia in F1 when he suffered terrible head injuries in a crash during the 2014 Japanese Grand Prix. He died nine months later. Despite the tragedy, Leclerc says he never considered stopping motor racing.
“There was definitely no thoughts any time to stop my career because of that,” he says. “From the beginning when you go into this sport, you know how dangerous it is. It will never be a safe sport.
“Of course, the cars are getting safer and safer but, when you are going at 340km/h, it can never be safe. This I knew from the start. And I just wanted then to be good for him because he had taught me many things.
“He had always pushed me forward and helped me to get better, and the only thought I had when this happened was just to do good for him to make him proud.”
Then, when Leclerc was competing in Formula 2 in 2017, his father died on the eve of the race at the Azerbaijan Grand Prix.
Focusing on that weekend, Leclerc says, “was very, very difficult”. Practice was “very bad”. But then he had a talk to himself. “I just asked myself what he wanted me to achieve on a weekend like this, and the answer came back pretty quickly – that he wanted me to win.”
So he did – finishing first in both races, although a 10-second penalty in the second demoted him to second place.
The benefits of mental training
Leclerc got through this, he says, because of mental training he had been doing since early in his career.
“It is always very difficult to put into words because it is not like physical training, where you lift weights and you can definitely see the difference where you are lifting more weight week after week,” Leclerc says.
“It is a little bit the same process. But the results, you don’t see them as easily because it is about how you are feeling and how you are dealing with pressure. So it comes a lot more naturally.
“But I have a lot of tests to see more the results of it. And it is all about concentration, being calm in the tense moments, which is very important, being able to calm yourself as quickly as possible.
“F1 weekends are full of things and any time that you have five minutes, you need to use it as well as possible to calm down. So all of these small details make a small difference in the end.”
Dealing with team orders at Ferrari
Leclerc’s dominant F2 season earned him a seat at Sauber in 2018 and, after a shaky first three races, he turned a corner in Baku, where he drove brilliantly to take sixth place.
From there, he never looked back.
His impressive performances earned him the call from Ferrari, and he became their least experienced driver since the legendary Gilles Villeneuve was signed in late 1977.
Before Leclerc had even turned up at his first race, though, team boss Mattia Binotto made it clear that Vettel would have priority in “50-50 situations”. This translated to the application of team orders of one kind or another at all of the first five races this season.
This, Leclerc admits, was “not easy – but it’s part of it, so you need to get used to it and understand it, being clever when you accept them and when you don’t, and for now it has worked pretty well”.
The one time he ignored an order was when he was recovering quickly after a bad start from pole in Bahrain and was told to wait two laps behind Vettel, who was leading. Leclerc passed Vettel a few corners later.
“There were a few races where it was reasonable and then others like in Bahrain when I thought it was better not to respect them,” Leclerc says, “because in the car I felt I had more information than they had on the pit wall. That’s how I felt it.
“I felt like I had a significant pace advantage, I was coming quite quickly and I felt it reasonable to overtake.
“In the end, I understand they are trying to do the best job for the team and I completely understand. It can be very frustrating from the car sometimes but it is all about staying calm and then the mental work I have done since the beginning of my career helps.”
Racing against a four-time champion
Ferrari’s lack of competitiveness, and the way the past few races have developed, mean the team orders issue has evaporated.
Focus has shifted on to the dynamic between the two Ferrari drivers. Leclerc was quicker than Vettel at a number of races in the first part of the season – Bahrain, Baku and Monaco – but he harmed his chances with a series of mistakes in qualifying. Some were big, such as when he crashed in Baku when looking set to dominate the weekend; the rest were small.
A mediocre performance in Canada in mid-June, though, led to some soul-searching and self-analysis. He changed his approach to qualifying after working out how to have the car set up properly for when it matters, the top 10 shootout. Leclerc has out-qualified Vettel at all three races since.
Does he think this was a turning point?
“This definitely was a positive point of the season,” he says. “Then, whether it is going to be the turning point or not, I don’t know.
“But as I’ve said, I am still very early in my racing career and I am pretty sure there is a lot more I can learn and a lot more things I can do better. I will focus on these things and hopefully there will be even more turning points in the future.”
If Leclerc carries on like this, life will become even more uncomfortable for Vettel than it already is after his series of crashes in the past year. Leclerc says he is simply enjoying being measured against a driver of such quality.
“It was always going to be a very interesting challenge for me,” he says. “I am at the beginning of my career. He is a very experienced driver and to have him by my side is very important because I can definitely grow a lot and learn a lot things from him, which I did from the beginning of the season.
“But it is also a great challenge for me to try to beat him, and that’s what I am here for. I always want to be the fastest on track and I always try to give absolutely everything to be in front.”
Verstappen and the future
Leclerc’s monumental battle with Verstappen at Silverstone was an echo of times past, in a less high-profile arena – they were disputing karting titles in the early part of this decade and now find themselves going toe-to-toe again at the highest level.
The way things look now, Leclerc-Verstappen could turn into the next great F1 rivalry.
“I really hope so,” Leclerc says. “We had some very good fights in karting that didn’t always end in a good manner, but it was fun, good times.”
They have had wheel-to-wheel battles in the past two races, their brief but intense fight for the lead in Austria preceding the much more drawn-out – and even more intense – one at Silverstone.
“And I can’t wait to have more with him,” Leclerc says. “In the end, we have done most of our career together, so it is fun to find ourselves again here in Formula 1.”
And his more general ambitions for the future?
“Well, hopefully the first win to come very soon,” he says. “And many more after. But at the end the target is the first win now, trying to take the opportunity whenever we have it.
“In the future… my dream as a child was being a world champion. Now I am finally in a team where I think this can be a reality so we need to keep working and hopefully this will happen one day.”
After the first 18 months of his F1 career, would anyone bet against it?