Just before Charles Leclerc’s father died in June 2017, his son told him a little white lie.
Leclerc was in the middle of his Formula 2 season, a member of the Ferrari driver academy, and being widely tipped for a graduation to Formula 1 the following year.
He knew his father, Herve, was close to the end. So Charles told Herve that he had been guaranteed an F1 drive for 2018. Only he hadn’t.
“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.”
He says his father’s ambition for his son was “to be in F1 and to be world champion. I haven’t done that yet but I will work to realise his dream.”
It might not be that far away.
This season will be only Leclerc’s second in F1, and already he has a seat at the biggest team of all. It’s about as strong an endorsement of his potential as it is possible to get.
It is very unusual for Ferrari to take a driver so early in his career. They normally prefer to employ experienced drivers, ideally with a proven winning ability. So to choose Leclerc – to replace the 2007 world champion Kimi Raikkonen – says an awful lot about both how impressive Leclerc was in his debut season with Sauber last year, and how good Ferrari expect this 21-year-old from Monaco to become.
In fact, Leclerc has been taken on by Ferrari earlier in his career than any driver since Gilles Villeneuve at the end of 1977. The Canadian went on to carve himself a place as one of the great F1 legends in four short seasons before his death in a crash at the 1982 Belgian Grand Prix.
Could Leclerc’s talent be in the same bracket? He has done enough in his short career so far to show that it is not a ridiculous question.
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The battle with Vettel
Parachuting Leclerc into Ferrari for 2019 provides a chance to begin to answer the question, for he is team-mate to four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel. The German is one of F1’s elite, but Leclerc’s potential is such that many expect him to give Vettel a run for his money.
Their performances in pre-season testing only emphasised this point. Their fastest laps were just 0.01 seconds apart and, over race distances, their overall times were almost identical.
Ferrari have acted early to try to dampen down discussion on the issue of an internal battle between their drivers. New team boss Mattia Binotto, the former technical director who has replaced Maurizio Arrivabene after the errors that blighted Ferrari’s 2018, has said that in “particular situations our priority will be Sebastian”.
Binotto says: “When you have your intentions clear from the start, you do not make mistakes when you may have an ambiguous situation.
“The two will be free to fight. We will not ask Charles to be slow or Sebastian to be fastest. We need both of them to run to the maximum.
“But if there any ambiguous situations at the beginning of the season, Sebastian is the one with more experience (and has had) many years with us. He already won championships so he is our champion.”
Leclerc is easing himself into Ferrari and has been careful to avoid stoking any controversy. But at the same time he is not troubling to hide his ambitions.
“Obviously I will be happy if I get used to this car as quickly as possible, and that I’m straight on the pace,” he says. “I’m realistic, too. It’s only my second season in F1. I have a lot to learn, and there is a long road ahead.
“I can’t hide that I’m pushing to be as ready as possible for the first race, and if Mattia has the problem to manage two quick drivers, then it’s a good sign for me.
“But for now I’m just focusing on myself, trying to improve every lap I am doing in the car. It is a top team, and there are procedures that are quite different to the team I was in before. There is a bit of adaptation.”