Already a hero: How Charles Leclerc won the hearts of the tifosi in a single season
When Charles Leclerc triumphed at Monza last year, he became the new hero of the fabled tifosi, and he could be the man to finally bring the glory days back to Ferrari. In a feature from the Official Formula 1 Magazine, acclaimed journalist Pino Allievi reveals how the 22-year-old is viewed from within Italy.
When a legend announces their arrival on the world stage, logic goes out of the window. Small gestures are enough: ways of communicating that don’t even have to be verbal, yet which capture the imagination and head directly into the subconscious. Above all, they fly straight into the heart of anyone who can recognise them.
Charles Leclerc is one whose rise to being hailed as a genius has been lightning quick. It took barely more than a single race with Ferrari before all their followers, who had been quietly dozing thanks to a lethargy that began in 2008, woke up with a jolt in recognition of a new ‘chosen one’ who was destined to become their hero.
Last year’s pole position in Bahrain was a statement in itself: to see the young man from Monaco fully three-tenths ahead of Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton generated enormous interest because no one had expected it.
But when he made a bad start the next day, only to cockily force his way first past Valtteri Bottas and then, after six laps, his team mate – after respectfully asking his pit crew: “I’m quicker than him, what should I do?” – it unleashed a fervour that hadn’t been felt in ages.
To see Leclerc in first place was a striking sight. And it matters little that an injector failure then forced him to slow down and settle for third, because the public had already seized both on his joy and – later – the sincere pain on the countenance of this exceptional boy-next-door.
That’s how the myth of Leclerc erupted without warning, even though it had long been well known that he drove superbly and was destined for success. In his case, it wasn’t even a win that cemented his legendary status, just the ups and downs he went through during that Bahrain weekend.
He faced it all with a determination that shook up the indifference of all the fans of Formula 1 who had grown bored of the predictability of its main players – both their actions on the track and their words off it.
Leclerc shattered this mindset, just as Gilles Villeneuve did in 1978. Back then, triangular cardboard flags were printed in both Canada and Europe featuring his smiling face and the words: “I’ve got Gilles Villeneuve fever”, underlining how much that wild rising star had already nourished the fantasies of the tifosi without even having won a race yet.
Forty-one years later, the same thing happened to Leclerc, even if the parallels between the two racers did not quite stretch to cardboard flags.
That’s why today, he finds himself as a champion elect whose praises are already being sung despite having won just two Grands Prix – and with his maturity still to be fulfilled or even truly tested on a mental, competitive and technical level.
I wake up and I think about winning. When I drive the car it doesn’t matter what circuit I’m on, or what occasion it is, I think about winning. I go to bed and I’m still thinking about winning. It’s an obsession.
It’s not just his fans who insist he is ready to win the championship; Ferrari’s key men agree, starting with Mattia Binotto, the Team Principal who has been following Leclerc since his time in GP3.
During the winter break between 2018 and 2019, Binotto said: “He’s a young man who will surprise everyone because he’s already capable of winning in Formula 1.”
Binotto wasn’t the only one to think it and know it. Among those who agreed was Vettel, who had seen the telemetry sheets from Leclerc’s early test outings in the Ferrari.
When someone asked what he thought about him during a press conference at Hockenheim in 2018, when it was becoming clear that they might end up as team mates the following year, Vettel’s reply was icy cold: “I don’t know much about him.”
At that very moment it was clear how much Vettel would have preferred to continue beside Kimi Raikkonen, rather than an upcoming talent who was sure to be a thorn in his side.
Even so, Vettel could scarcely have imagined the speed at which things would move on. From his very first race in Australia a year ago, Leclerc showed character and precious little reverence in his battles with his rivals, Vettel among them.
The fact that he was ordered over the radio not to attack Vettel was, for Leclerc, a declaration of his superiority that was worth half a win already, especially considering he was making his Ferrari debut.
After the glory of the first two races there followed a moment of readjustment when an unlucky incident during Q2 in Azerbaijan took him out of the running for the win.
Then we came to the Monaco Grand Prix, in the Principality where Leclerc was born and grew up. “As a child, I watched the Grand Prix from a friend’s balcony and I would get so excited when the red cars went past,” he recalled. “That’s where my love for Ferrari was born.”
Now here he was in a Ferrari.
He spent Thursday studying the circuit, but on Saturday morning he was unleashed and imposed his authority, finishing free practice ahead of everyone and making himself the clear favourite for pole position.
That pole would have been within his grasp but for a shocking error by Ferrari, who sent him out onto the track too late during the decisive phase of Q1. It was an inexcusable howler for such a prestigious team.
Leclerc was devastated, yet he didn’t make accusations and in the race he went for it, despite starting near the back.
His passes on Lando Norris at the old Loews Hairpin, and on Romain Grosjean at Rascasse, brought back the emotions of motor racing from a bygone era. Then the gamble he took with Nico Hulkenberg, and the resulting contact, proved a step too far.
Patience would have been a virtue, but his desire to take on the impossible challenge lit up the public’s enthusiasm still further and created indelible memories.
The French Grand Prix at Le Castellet, where he finished third, is the one Leclerc defines as “a turning point”. That’s because he finally had a full understanding of the car he was driving.
It signalled his evolution as a driver – even if there were still some gaps in his knowledge, as revealed in Germany when he went off in the wet while running in second place.
“I shouldn’t have done it, I was stupid,” he said with a look of contrition that inspired sympathy from the men working in his garage. Not to mention mothers all over the world…
It was all made good on his return after the summer break as he secured two first places on two tracks that have been integral to the history of Formula 1 – Spa-Francorchamps and Monza.
Both races were difficult battles and far from foregone conclusions, and both were with Hamilton, the undisputed number one.
In Belgium, Leclerc saw off the Englishman’s late fightback with a shiver down his spine.
In Italy, the pair ran side by side until they nearly made contact at the second chicane when Leclerc shut the door on Hamilton and pushed him off the track. It was a manoeuvre that was decisive, fearless and left no holds barred.
The clinical Monegasque left Hamilton with just enough room so he couldn't complain that he had been left without any chance of escape.
Proof, if any was needed, of a devilish racing brain. Hamilton acted as a gentleman and allowed himself just one moment of irritation before surely coming to realise that this young lad was ruthless, but fair – just like himself, of course – with a talent that was off the scale and with quite a future ahead of him.
As for Leclerc, he held his position to the chequered flag and Italy, long divided by serious political tensions, suddenly found unity and a common dialogue under the flag of Ferrari.
Still, it wasn’t long before the Brazilian Grand Prix, where a confrontation with his team mate led to disastrous consequences for both drivers.
Vettel had to shoulder most of the blame, but Leclerc also faced his own share of the fallout.
At the end of the championship, Leclerc finished one position ahead of Vettel in the standings and also won the key intra-team battles: two wins to one and seven pole positions compared to two.
However, the figures don’t reflect how many times Leclerc had to slow down in order to not disturb Vettel’s race, or detail the repeated errors by his team.
Neither, though, do they reveal his own errors, whether in qualifying or during the races, for which he was always swift to admit responsibility, apologising to everyone concerned.
The clear way in which Leclerc sees things and digests his experiences brings to mind Niki Lauda at his very best
On the occasions when Vettel’s mistakes were obvious, Leclerc was never tempted to add salt to the wound.
For example, after the coming together at Interlagos he declared: “We have to be more careful and think of the interests of Ferrari, which we didn’t manage to do.” In this way he was polished and diplomatic in attempting to keep the turmoil behind closed doors.
Piero Ferrari, Maranello vice-president and son of the great Enzo, clearly has a sincere admiration for his latest driver. “The clear way in which Leclerc sees things and digests his experiences brings to mind Niki Lauda at his very best,” he has stated.
“He is impressively quick and he knows how to instil fear in his opponents. He has also quickly learned what it takes to win – this is an ability that is neither easy or something to be taken for granted.”
The honest face of this young man – the son of a Monte Carlo hair stylist – is one that seems to seduce everyone, but is he really so nice?
The answer is yes, when it comes to savoir-faire and physical communication; but no, when it comes to his own ultimate ambitions.
Leclerc is a fierce competitor who is ready to tear anyone apart and his angelic face is essentially a front, just as it was for Ayrton Senna.
This combative driver’s hunger is sated only when he takes the chequered flag – and sometimes not even that glory is enough.
As he says: “As soon as I came down from the podium after my first victory at Spa, I began to think obsessively about Monza, the race that is most important at Ferrari, knowing I had to win there too.
“I’m made like that. I wake up and I think about winning. When I drive the car it doesn’t matter what circuit I’m on, or what occasion it is, I think about winning. I go to bed and I’m still thinking about winning. It’s an obsession.”
For Leclerc, Ferrari is a religion of its own that has its origins long ago. “Jules Bianchi was like a brother to me,” he says. “One day, I went with him to Maranello and the emotions it led to were insane.
“He went into the factory and I waited for him outside the gates. During those moments I dreamed of going through the same gates one day. Now that I’ve managed it I want to give everything I have to Ferrari.”
Leclerc has a realistic sense of his own popularity following his success at Monza. “From that moment on, people started to recognise me in the street, wanting to wish me well,” he recalls. “That’s a nice feeling – and exciting.”
Yet, perhaps Leclerc has not fully come to terms with how big the expectations are that people are now pushing onto him. In 12 months he has become the main reference point at Ferrari, and he’s taken from Vettel the title of the recognised ‘number one’.
He has overtaken him when it comes to results, installed himself as a possible heir to Hamilton on the roll call of all-time greats, and battled on equal footing with Max Verstappen, who is the same age but has four more years of experience in Formula 1.
Leclerc has done everything at pace, but now he has to show that this very quick growth has not also brought with it extra distractions and psychological banana skins, no matter how easy they would be to justify.
He is only 22 years old, he has the world at his feet, not to mention the adulation of powerful people in Monte Carlo, who are always keen to offer help to winners like him. There are girls chasing him and a bank account that has reached unthinkable levels.
To establish whether this boy has become a man and has suffered no repercussions from the massive changes his life has undergone during these months of so-called ‘rest’, we will have to watch the upcoming season unfold.
It is also worth considering the words of his long-time doctor, Riccardo Ceccarelli, who met Leclerc when he was still a child: “Charles was just 11 years old when he came to see me at Formula Medicine in Viareggio.
“He has come a long way since then – always serious, diligent, focused and concentrated on improving himself mentally and physically.
“I’m not surprised that he is now up there with the best drivers in Formula 1, because he has worked towards this without distractions.
“From his very first steps it was clear that he had rare gifts, and he had what it takes to become a champion. Now here we are…”
One aspect of his character that Leclerc has paid particular attention to has been his emotional side. “I was wasting energy on pointless things and getting angry,” he reflects.
“So I worked with some specialists and I found a way to overcome it.”
This is similar to what Hamilton did at around the same age with neuroscientist Kerry Spackman, who stated as far back as 2007: “Lewis has a brain that accumulates data, so he always knows what to do. He analyses every experience and stores it away; this is why he can always find an immediate solution in his mind when he is facing an emergency.”
We just have to change the name and these words are a perfect fit for Leclerc, Ferrari's 'chosen one' and champion-elect, who is now missing just a single detail: the title.
This article first appeared in Issue 2 of The Official Formula 1 Magazine, subscribe now at f1magazine.com