Charles Leclerc tipped to be next shooting star of F1 | Giles Richards

The 19-year-old Monégasque tests with Ferrari next week after dominating the Formula Two season, setting seven consecutive poles from the first seven races

Making it to Formula One is a difficult business and the dream of reaching the rarefied heights of motor sport’s ladder is so often unfulfilled. But sometimes talent will out and in the case of Charles Leclerc it seems a matter of when, not if, the young driver will join the elite.

After this weekend’s race at the Hungaroring the 19-year-old Leclerc will test for Ferrari here. His time in an F1 car will be closely observed such has been his rise through the junior formulas and, this season, Formula Two in which he has laid down a marker as a star of the future.

Leclerc drives for the Prema team and is a member of the Ferrari Driver Academy. The Scuderia are protective of their charge, as well they might be. He is formidably quick, confident, intelligent and at such a young age has already demonstrated an ability to find focus even under the most trying circumstances.

In an outstanding rookie season in F2 (formerly GP2) Leclerc has been a runaway success. He leads the championship by 67 points, has five race wins and was the first driver to secure six consecutive pole positions from the first six races. On Friday afternoon he had made it seven in Hungary beating the record of consecutive poles previously held by Stoffel Vandoorne only to later be penalised for a technical infringement on the car that relegated him to the back of the grid.

Nevertheless, it is an achievement that must be put in context to be appreciated. F2 still uses the Pirelli tyres that degrade rapidly and coming to terms with them is the most difficult task facing new drivers; no rookie has won the series since Nico Hülkenberg in 2009. Leclerc has struggled with the fragile rubber but still managed to be on a different level from his competitors. At the last round in Silverstone he was putting two seconds a lap on them on the way to a fourth feature race win.

By that point, however, the Monégasque had already proved he had something special. Leclerc’s father, Hervé, who had been instrumental in guiding his career, died three days before the fourth round in Baku. Despite the emotional turmoil Leclerc raced on and won. “It is hard for anyone losing their father but I couldn’t destroy myself before the race weekend,” Leclerc says. “Racing was everything for him, he was my biggest fan and all he would have wanted me to do was to win the races. There was not a lap where I was not thinking of him but I was also focused on the race and trying to do the best I could for him.”

It was not the first time he had been forced to cope with tragedy. His godfather was Jules Bianchi, who died a year after crashing at Suzuka in 2014. Leclerc had first driven a kart at Bianchi’s track and the French driver had been both a mentor and close friend. Leclerc demonstrated maturity beyond his years in dealing with the loss.

“I missed him as a person; he was an amazing person,” he says. “He was happy when I won a race and he would not have wanted me to have a bad race because of him. I was trying to do the best I could so that Jules would be proud.”

Nor did Bianchi’s accident cause him any doubts about his future. “I know it is a dangerous sport but this is something I like,” Leclerc says. “I like the danger, I like the adrenaline and I need it to race. What happened with Jules is extremely sad but I have never thought of stopping racing.”

He has not entertained any ambition other than reaching F1 since he took his first drive in a kart aged four. He told his father, who had also driven in F3, he was ill and did not want to go to school and so they visited Bianchi’s track. After a lap being towed round to ensure he could steer and brake he was let loose and that was that.

“Straight away I told him that was what I wanted to do,” he recalls.

Karting led to single-seaters and wins in Formula Renault 2.0 and the European Formula 3 series before he took the GP3 title at his first attempt last year. Ferrari brought him under their wing in 2016 and now F1 awaits.

“It would be a lie if I said I don’t think about it. I do,” he says. “Sometimes I just dream about it but for now it is a dream and I need to make it a reality by pushing in F2.”

That he will realise his dream is in no doubt to those close to him. “He has confidence and self-belief but he wants to improve,” says Angelina Ertsou, Prema’s joint team manager. “After a weekend where he has dominated he will ask if there are areas he can improve. He is definitely one of the best we have ever seen and he clearly deserves to be in F1.”

Seats are at a premium at the very top but Leclerc believes that, when the call comes – and it could well be next season – he will make the grade. “I believe I am ready,” he says. “All the steps that were helping me to gain experience I have done them. I feel ready now.”


Giles Richards

The GuardianTramp

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