Not even halfway through his first Formula One season, Charles Leclerc is admittedly determined to shake up the Ferrari hierarchy. With home court advantage next race, will Monaco’s whiz kid do as he’s told or prove he’s got what it takes to earn the top seat? Either way, the Prancing Horse needs a win and Leclerc is never going to settle for second best.
Growing up in Monaco, Charles Leclerc recalls his earliest Formula One childhood memory. “I was about 4 or 5 playing cars with my best friend on the street near the first turn and watching the Grand Prix at the same time.” He never followed one racer in particular, but says, “the red car has always been special to me.”
In September 2018, he became the first Monegasque driver to sign a deal with “the red car” team, which, as La Gazzetta dello Sport was first to report, is worth an estimated €5 million, earning Leclerc €2 million in 2019 and €3 million in 2020. At 21, he’s also the youngest driver to compete for Ferrari since Ricardo Rodriguez in 1961.
A rather remarkable accomplishment, but for Leclerc, it’s simply part of his plan to bring home the Drivers’ Championship. Driving is in his genes, inherited from his father Hervé, a Formula 3 driver and fan of 6-time Monaco Grand Prix winner, Ayrton Senna. “Senna is my inspiration,” Leclerc says. “I never saw him race but my father passed on his passion for this driver.”
It was also thanks to his dad, a Monegasque industrialist, that Leclerc first stepped into a kart, aged four, at the circuit of a childhood friend, Pierre Bianchi, in Brignoles, Var. Charles has said that he was hooked after his godfather, Jules Bianchi, gave him his first lesson. “I told my father that my future was decided. I would be an F1 driver,” says Leclerc. He won his first race at age seven, and became the youngest French cadet karting champion in 2009. By 2010, the brakes were nearly put on his F1 dreams because of the cost of competing, but Bianchi, a niçois driving for Marussia, discussed his protégé with manager Nicolas Todt, founder of All Road Management. Todt took on Leclerc in 2012, when he was 15, and paid for his next season. The relationship continued and in 2014, he was the best rookie in the Formula Renault series and in 2015, the best rookie in Formula Three.
The same year, young Leclerc would lose his close friend Jules Bianchi, who died nine months after suffering severe head injuries during a crash at the Japanese Grand Prix. “I’ve never overcome it. Maybe I never will,” he told F1.com. “But I never had a doubt about continuing. All I’ve ever wanted was to race.”
Two years later, Leclerc’s father, whose aspiration for his son was to be in F1 and to be world champion, also died. Sensing the end, Leclerc told his dad a little white lie, that he had been guaranteed an F1 drive for 2018. “It was a bit earlier than I had really signed,” Leclerc recalls, “but in the end I didn’t lie because I am here and now in Ferrari, which feels incredible.”
Four days after his dad’s death, Leclerc won a Formula Two race from pole position. “When I came second, my father wasn’t the happiest,” he told F1.com. “So I focused on winning. Only winning to make sure he was still smiling.”
These two men have defined Leclerc. Grief has helped him grow a thick skin and his brutal honesty could be misunderstood as overconfidence. It has also fuelled his mental strength and control behind the wheel and off the track. “Any time I have the chance to be in Monaco, I like to spend it with my family and friends. I think this is very important as I don’t have much time to be at home, so I need to maximize in terms of quality,” he says. This includes with his Italian girlfriend of four years, Giada Gianni.
His younger brother, Arthur, has been called a very gifted driver. He took first at the Kart Racing Academy championship at age 14 and came in fifth place in the France F4 championship in 2018. The 18-year-old has teamed up with Venturi (see p. 50) and their Formula E junior driver development program, and this summer, following in his brother’s footsteps, he will be joining the Sauber Junior Team to compete in the German F4.
“I support him as much as I can, but it’s important for him to grow as autonomous as possible, especially because you are alone in the car,” Leclerc says of his younger sibling, adding that he tries “not to interfere. He knows I am here to help. He always watches my race and we always stay in touch.”
The media seem hungry for Leclerc’s possible sibling rivalry with Arthur, and bait him about his relationship with teammate, 4-time World Champion Sebastian Vettel. But Leclerc speaks his mind and moves on. “I am systematically asked for my opinion on this subject,” he says. “I get orders during the race…As I often say, I’m willing to accept them to a certain degree. For now, there is nothing special to add. It’s up to me to do the job right to get ahead.”
Leclerc is thinking of Leclerc. “I’ve never used social media for mental games, I prefer to be honest and show my true self in the best possible way,” he tells Forbes Monaco. He was flattered when Lewis Hamilton said, “I see myself in Leclerc,” but the self-critical driver comments, “I only want to be the very best version of myself. I am as focused as possible on my career and working on my weaknesses, like my technical knowledge, for them to become my strengths.”
A hometown hero in the streets of the Principality, he admits his life has changed “a little”, especially because globally Formula 1 is a sport in which you don’t see the face of the athlete until he achieves something big. “Since I’ve been on the podium a few times already, people stop to congratulate me and this is obviously really nice. It’s clearly a big honor to able to drive for Ferrari and I think this is also massively contributing to making me more recognizable.”
He also acknowledges that the Ferrari Academy prepared him well to step up to F1, but there have been a few surprises. “It’s a big challenge to work with so many people at the same time in Formula One, and as a young driver you are not used to going into such detail about developing the car.”
Stating he is more or less satisfied with his performance so far this season, Leclerc says he understands Ferrari’s current policy that favors teammate Vettel. Ferrari team boss Mattia Binotto has made clear it clear that Vettel is the number one driver. “I have to show what I can do on the racetrack, and then hopefully the situation will change someday,” he told Auto Motor und Sport.
Will it be in Monaco on May 26? Only one Monegasque has ever won at home. In 1931 Louis Chiron drove a Bugatti to victory. In April, at a MonacoUSA Association event at Stars’n’Bars, the motorsport-themed restaurant where Leclerc likes to have a burger, Prince Albert said, “I hope Leclerc wins at home,” but in May, interviewed by Nico Rosberg, the prince admitted “Leclerc doesn’t have the right car for the slow turns… He has a good chance to win a Grand Prix. But not in Monaco because his car is better in a straight line.”
Leclerc tells Forbes Monaco, “I will approach this race in exactly the same way as every other race, and try to be as focused as possible. Obviously this will be something special, my first Formula 1 Grand Prix at home racing with Ferrari. I’m really looking forward to it as Monte Carlo is also one of my favorite tracks.”
With the entire country rooting for him, and as he “works harder than ever not to disappoint” Bianchi and his father, Leclerc will take that first turn at Sainte-Devote where he played cars all those years ago and dreamed of becoming a Formula One champ. How could he ever settle for second best?