F1 2018’s outstanding rookie Charles Leclerc sits down with Crash.net F1 Editor Luke Smith to discuss life with Sauber, being his own biggest critic – and, of course, those Ferrari rumours.
Charles, through your start to the season, the hype around you seems to be growing and growing. Compared to your own expectations you had coming in to F1, how has it matched up?
Charles Leclerc: Good. I think it was pretty similar in terms of results to what I was expecting. Actually, it was similar in the beginning in the first three races. It was above expectations after that. The first three races were difficult, and I expected it. Formula 1 is such a big jump from Formula 2, and there are so many new things that you need to learn. I expected a difficult start, but then after that, five times in the points in the last seven races, I definitely did not expect it. It’s a good surprise.
CL: Yeah, definitely. Probably not the confidence, but definitely the motivation to do well, and to try and improve every little detail. We know that this can be important for us and for our performance. The midfield is all very, very tigh as we’ve seen in the last couple of races, so we really need to be on point with everything. I think this not only motivates only me, but the whole team.
That period at the start of the season, was that one of the toughest spells of your career as you got on top of that big jump up from F2?
CL: It’s definitely very difficult. From GP3 to Formula 2, it’s obviously a step, but it’s only a step on driving I would say. Here from Formula 2 to Formula 1, it’s a huge step on driving because we have nearly 400 BHP more, with a lot more downforce. So it’s a completely different car. It’s like a jump of three categories in the lower formulas, so it’s a lot. Plus all the media attention, plus all the meetings, plus all the people in the team. It’s a huge step, and it takes a bit of time to get used to it. It was definitely my biggest challenge in my motorsport career.
And I guess you go from working with 10 to 15 people to a team with several hundred. How did you find that adjustment with so much going on?
CL: It takes a bit of time to know which people are doing what in the team. It’s still taking time, because I don’t know all of the people in the team, especially the ones at the factory and the racing team at the track of course. But in the factory it’s very difficult to get to know them all. Obviously day after day, I get more and more familiar with all of this.
At the start of the season you seemed to be quite self-critical at points. In Bahrain after qualifying over the radio you were very apologetic to the team, for example. Do you think you are your own biggest critic? Are you a perfectionist? Do you look for every single area you can improve?
CL: I think I am my own biggest critic, yeah. And I will stay that way, because I think it’s very important for me, especially because when you arrive in Formula 1, I think – I don’t mean the team – but I think some people on the outside are afraid to tell you what you are doing wrong, because now you are a Formula 1 driver. This should not be the case, because even if you are in Formula 1, you have a lot to improve, and you do things wrong, even if you are in Formula 1. I’m always very critical to myself to try and improve that.
Are you finding that even now, there are things you keep finding you could be doing better?
CL: Oh yeah, yeah, definitely.
Are there any little examples you’re able to give?
CL: Not really, but a bit on everything, on my feedback. You can always do better. For now obviously, everything is going very smooth, and we are having quite an incredible season I would say in the last seven events. It has always going very well, apart from when we have had some problems. Otherwise, we are always extremely competitive. But there are still things to improve, from my side, from the team, obviously. I always try to report to them after each weekend on what we can improve, what I think they can improve and what I think I can improve. So that’s why we make some steps after every weekend.
You said it’s been an incredible season. Obviously this has led some speculation about your future…
Is it getting a bit boring now, getting the same questions every weekend about Ferrari and having to give the same answers?
CL: Well I think I’ll never get bored to be asked this type of question, because obviously a future in Ferrari is something very special. But on the other hand, I unfortunately have nothing more to give than what I’ve already said. There have been no talks, and for now I’m just really focusing on this year, which is extremely important for me. I’m completely aware that if I don’t do good results here, it can already end next year for me. So I just need to do the job here, and then hopefully I’ll have a very good opportunity for next year.
Has it been quite easy to put those rumours to the back of your mind and not be thinking about them?
CL: Yeah, luckily, I think naturally I don’t really think about it. Once I’m getting into the mindset of driving, I don’t think there’s much that is interesting me apart from doing the best job possible on-track. So yeah, it hasn’t really distracted me so much.
Is that kind of mental toughness and diligence the key to your success so far do you think?
CL: Oh yeah, definitely. I think that if I would distract myself more with what could possibly happen next year, the results would not be the same. You cannot deliver to your maximum if you’re thinking ‘if I do an error, it might close a door to somewhere’ or whatever. I’m just really focusing. I think this is really important for me, to stay focused on the job.
To live in 2018 and not in 2019…
CL: Yeah, exactly.
But Ferrari as a brand, what has it meant to you growing up, when you were a kid, watching the Ferrari cars – was that quite special?
CL: Yeah, it has always been. But I believe not only for me, but for every driver. I think Ferrari has always been something special. I can’t really explain it to be honest. From a young age, I was always looking at the red car and cheering for the red car. It hasn’t changed since then. Obviously it would be a dream come true if one day I had the chance to drive for this team.
Even getting into the driver academy, was that quite a big step for you to be part of that family at Maranello and be there?
CL: Yeah, definitely. It was at the end of 2015 I think. I came for the first time before, with Jules actually, in Ferrari. I first visited the factory with him, and I was impressed. He had spoke to me quite a lot in Ferrari, and then in 2015, they finally decided to bring me into the academy. For me it was a huge honour. As I said, since I was a child I was looking up to Ferrari like any child is doing. I felt very privileged to be part of this academy. They have helped me massively on the physical preparation, and what for me is the most important one, the mental preparation, on the concentration, managing the pressure – and the rumours! They have helped me massively.
You mentioned Jules. I found a picture earlier when doing some research of him alongside you in a go-kart along before a race when you were a kid. How important was he in developing your love for racing and getting on-track?
CL: He was extremely important. My father and his father were best friends, and our families are extremely close. I drove for the first time karting on his track, and he was there. Then I think we were meeting up every Wednesday and weekends just to drive rental karting. These are probably the best memories I have in racing. So much fun, and so much learned also. He was older than me, so you always push yourself to beat him. They are very good memories. But more than a mentor. He was also an extremely close friend, a bit like family.
If you were to reach Ferrari, would that be a really great way to honour Jules, given he was so close to getting there?
CL: Yeah, definitely. He will have probably deserved this place more than I do. If one day I have the chance to be there, I will try to do everything I possibly can to win the titles that he deserved to win.
Finally – your brother Arthur is also rising the ranks in racing, currently competing in French Formula 4. How do you think he’s getting on, and are you trying to give him some advice about what to do?
CL: I’m trying to stay as far as I possibly can for him to grow in the most independent way, to just be alone and know how to work alone with the engineers, which I think is extremely important. I think he’s doing extremely well. We have only done him like five tests of cars before this year, and I think he’s fourth or fifth in the championship, which is good. I think he’s doing extremely well.