The meteoric rise of Charles Leclerc

Charles Leclerc’s gritty win at the Italian Grand Prix yesterday ended a nine year drought for Ferrari on home soil. The last two weeks have seen Leclerc battle a personal tragedy but the young Monégasque has come out on top and looks set to take over the mantel of first drive at Ferrari as Sebastian Vettel continues to struggle. Back to back wins at Spa and Monza are a fitting way for Leclerc to begin his reign as the new king at the Prancing Horse.

Leclerc’s rise to the top of motorsport is a testament to the talent he posses but his journey has not been as easy as it looks on paper. The 21 year old has become all too familiar with the deepest lows motorsport can offer losing his godfather Jules Bianchi due to injuries sustained in the 2014 Japanese Grand Prix and his good friend Anthoine Hubert who lost his life during the Formula 2 feature race last week.

The way in which Charles has reacted to these events though show true determination and professionalism beyond his years.

The youngest man to drive for Ferrari since 1961, Leclerc, began his carting career in 2005 and rose through the KF3 and KF2 ranks until his ninth and final year in 2013, when he was runner-up in the FIA World KZ Championship, behind Max Verstappen. He entered single seaters in the Formula Renault 2.0 Alps championship for British team Fortec Motorsports in 2014.

During that season, he also raced in the Eurocup Formula Renault 2.0 season as a guest driver. He comes from racing pedigree, with his late father Hervé Leclerc having also raced in Formula 3 in the 1980s and 1990s. He was a respected name in the karting circles, and his sons Charles and Arthur are now following in his footsteps.

Leclerc’s rise to a drive in a top constructor like Ferrari has been relatively quick with him testing for Haas and Sauber in just his third year in single-seater racing. Here’s how he rose through his junior Formula years to a seat at the Prancing Horse.

At only 17, Leclerc graduated to the Formula 3 European Championship in 2015 with Dutch team Van Amersfoort Racing. With a Volkswagen engine powering his car, he won in Silverstone, Hockenheim, Spa-Francorchamps and Nuremberg which saw him take the lead in the championship.

His crash with Lance Stroll at Zandvoort proved to be decisive as he never recovered from the damage to his car’s chassis. He finished fourth, behind champion Felix Rosenquist, Antonio Giovinazzi, and Jake Dennis. Despite the setback, his talent was noted by scouts and experts in general.

He quite notably won the rookie championship, beating George Russell, Lance Stroll and Alexander Albon by quite a margin, and incidentally, all of the them are on the Formula 1 grid in 2019.

Leclerc with his godfather and mentor Jules Bianchi.

His performances in Formula 3 were rewarded with a jump to the GP 3 series with a seat in the Asia Team Racing (ART) founded by Frédéric Vasseur and Nicolas Todt, son of the legendary Jean Todt. Todt has since become Leclerc’s manager and has been instrumental in getting his protégé into the sport’s top teams.

Leclerc won the 2016 drivers’ title after the first race in the final round in Abu Dhabi. He edged out Alexander Albon to the championship. En route, he won at Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya, Red Bull Ring, and Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps, while nabbing four pole positions during the season.

Other notable ART drivers from the recent past who have moved on to Formula 1 include Sebastian Vettel, Lewis Hamilton, Nico Rosberg, Valtteri Bottas, Nico Hülkenberg, Romain Grosjean, Esteban Ocon and Stoffel Vandoorne. The Monégasque stepped up to the opportunity and was quickly deemed as the star of the future.

Charles Leclerc was joined by fellow Ferrari Driver Academy member Antonio Fuoco to drive for Prema Racing in 2017 Formula 2 season. Leclerc dominated the season and secured the drivers’ championship with three races to go, with Artem Markelov second and Oliver Rowland finishing third.

He took pole 8 times and won 7 races, winning the title with a massive 72-point gap. He impressed with his race craft and composure. 2017 also saw him act as the test driver for Sauber and Ferrari, with a drive in 2018 almost confirmed given his superlative season in which he left his rivals in his wake.

Prema didn’t win the constructor’s title, which was decided in the final race, with Russian Time winning by 15 points. To win a championship with such a margin when the team was unable to win the constructors’ championship also pointed to Leclerc’s talent and speed.

A standout moment in his Formula 2 season came at the Azerbaijan Grand Prix. The 19 year old won the feature race just fays after his father and racing mentor passed away.  Leclerc struggled in practice before qualifying on pole a moment he says made him cry with disbelief. He led from the front and displayed the skill, determination and focus that would earn him a seat at Sauber in 2018.

In December 2017, it was announced that Leclerc would make his racing debut in Formula One, signing with the newly rebranded Alfa Romeo Sauber F1 Team as regular driver for 2018, thus marking the first appearance of a Monégasque Formula One driver since Olivier Beretta in 1994. At the Azerbaijan Grand Prix, a sixth place finish saw him become only the second Monégasque to score points in Formula One, after Louis Chiron finished on the podium at the 1950 Monaco Grand Prix.

Leclerc ultimately almost entirely outqualified his team-mate Marcus Ericsson and ended up among the top 10 qualifiers on several occasions, participating in the Q3 session in qualifying. He also finished in the points on several occasions, including multiple 7th-place finishes during the second half of the season, finishing 13th in the championship in his sole season for the team prior to his Ferrari move.

Leclerc celebrates an emotional F2 victory in Azerbaijan.

Ferrari’s decision to hire a driver with just one season’s experience in the sport has proven to be an intelligent move and one that completes a goal for Leclerc. His godfather Jules Biachi was a member of the Ferrari Driver Academy and looked certain to one day drive for the Prancing Horse. Bianchi mentored Leclerc during his carting days and following Bianchi’s tragic death in 2015 Leclerc promised to one day earn a seat at Ferrari.

So far this season Leclerc has not looked out of place in a front running team. The second race of the season saw Leclerc storm to pole position in Bahrain and he dominated the race until an engine fault late on saw him drop from first to third resulting in a bittersweet first podium finish in F1.

Another pole position would come at the Austrian Grand Prix but he would again be denied a maiden victory due to poor strategy allowing Red Bull’s Max Verstappen to take victory. All these close calls would pay off however at the Belgian Grand Prix.

Leclerc took pole at Spa and was poised to claim his first victory. Tragedy however struck hours after he took pole as Leclerc’s close friend Anthoine Hubert crashed at the circuit during the Formula 2 sprint race. Hubert and Leclerc formed part of a crop of promising young French drivers that looked certain to race in F1 along with Esteban Ocon and Pierre Gasly. Hubert died instantly stunning the paddock leaving Gasly and Leclerc numb.

Leclerc honoured his friend the only way F1 drivers can by pulling his visor down on Sunday afternoon and racing. The Monégasque was destined to take his first win on the darkest of weekends the sport has seen in many years. Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton was close to catching him but Leclerc crossed the line to take an emotional victory. Subdued celebrations followed as he dedicated his win to Hubert.

Last weekend Leclerc cemented his place in the hearts of the tifosi with a stunning win at Monza. An unusual end to qualifying saw Leclerc start from pole ahead of the two Mercedes. Leclerc was counting on Sebastian Vettel starting from fourth to apply pressure to the Silver Arrows but his more experience teammate had a nightmare race leaving the 21 year old on his own.

For over 40 laps the 21 year old fended off attacks from five time world champion Hamilton and despite his tyres being seven laps older he managed to evade the rapid Valtteri Bottas late on to become the first Ferrari winner at the Italian Grand Prix in nine years.

Leclerc was not afraid to get his elbows out while defending and masterfully managed his race to claim back to back victories sparking wild scenes around the circuit.

Charles Leclerc has been spoken about for several years now but the events of the past two weeks have shown what he is made of. Leclerc has time and again overcome tragedy to triumph and looks certain to be Ferrari’s next legend.

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