Weekend Sport | Motorsport

Will Ferrari’s punt on Charles Leclerc pay off?

Charles Leclerc   | Photo Credit: Getty Images

For the last few years, the Formula One world has watched a precocious talent do crazy things. Since his debut in 2015, Max Verstappen has fascinated both fans and critics. He skipped a few rungs on the ladder to F1, and once there, drove fearlessly and ruffled feathers.

But, in a week, expect another prodigious 21-year-old to steal the Dutchman’s limelight. Roughly a fortnight younger than Verstappen, Charles Leclerc will begin one of the most daunting tasks in the sport: driving a Ferrari.

The fabled Italian team hardly ever punts on young drivers. The last time Ferrari rolled the dice was back in 1977 when it recruited Gilles Villeneuve, who was one-race old. It hired the relatively inexperienced Felipe Massa in 2006, but even he had had three seasons of F1 and a full year of testing with Ferrari, back in 2003 when there was near unlimited testing.

Ferrari’s caution is understandable. The pressure of wearing the red overalls can be frightening; it can end careers. Indeed, it is how Leclerc handles the weight of the tifosi’s expectations that will determine his success — far more than his raw speed or how he reacts to teammate and four-time champion Sebastian Vettel.

Fortunately, the youngster has shown that he is up for it. Leclerc has climbed every rung on the ladder to F1 adeptly, winning the GP3 and F2 titles in his rookie years. He has never stayed at a series for more than a year — he is a quick study.

In 2018, making his F1 debut with Alfa Romeo Sauber, the Monegasque driver found his feet after a disappointing start. He produced a string of impressive results, scoring 39 of the team’s 48 points and outclassing the far more experienced Marcus Ericsson.

That was the confirmation Ferrari needed, provoking the usually conservative team to act bravely. Leclerc, who was a part of the Ferrari Driver Academy (FDA), replaced former champion Kimi Raikkonen for the 2019 season.

Leclerc has always shown signs of being an early developer. The racing bug bit him before he turned four. On the official F1 podcast, Leclerc recalled how he feigned an illness to skip school and his dad, who had dabbled at the F3 level, decided to take him karting. There began an obsessive love for racing.

Recently, former F1 driver Karun Chandhok spoke of how Leclerc’s passion for the sport rallied the engineering team behind him during his European F3 season. At the paddock, Chandhok found Leclerc busy working with the engineers after a session; the team’s other drivers were on their own. Unsurprisingly that year, Leclerc scored 10 times the points scored by each of his teammates.

Charles Leclerc of Monaco and Ferrari looks on after stopping on track during day three of F1 Winter Testing at Circuit de Catalunya on February 28, 2019 in Montmelo, Spain.

Charles Leclerc of Monaco and Ferrari looks on after stopping on track during day three of F1 Winter Testing at Circuit de Catalunya on February 28, 2019 in Montmelo, Spain.   | Photo Credit: Getty Images

Leclerc’s most remarkable moment came during his title-winning F2 run in 2017. He produced a magical pole position in Baku and won the feature race. On Sunday’s reverse grid race, Leclerc, starting eighth, slipped to 10th before fighting his way back up the field to win (later classified second because of a 10-second penalty). And this was after losing his father earlier in the week; nobody watching him would have known it from that performance.

What is even more remarkable is that Leclerc’s composure isn’t natural. He has relentlessly worked on his mental game after recognising early that it was a weakness.

“When I first started racing, my weak point was my mental strength,” Leclerc revealed on the F1 podcast. “I was weak mentally, very emotional, and that was not great for me. Since the beginning, I felt that was my weakness and started to work on it with Formula Medicine [a driver-training organisation] and then the FDA, which has mental trainers for different situations.

“I was extremely harsh on myself. I would be angry even if I finished second after a great race. I was never happy. With age and maturity, I have learnt to enjoy when you are doing a good job. Before I was just looking at the results and putting too much pressure on myself.”

In his brief time in F1, Leclerc has had to deal with a significant adjustment to his driving style. It was again at Baku, where a brilliant performance set up the Ferrari job, that the youngster cracked it. After three poor races, Leclerc realised that his preference for a setup with ‘oversteer’ (where the car is extra sensitive to a driver’s touch) wasn’t bringing results. After working with the team, he changed to ‘understeer’ (where a driver has to muscle the car). A switch was flicked.

“The car had an ‘oversteer’ balance and it was not the fault of engineers,” Leclerc said. “I was the one asking for that car to drive. In junior categories, I was driving with more ‘oversteer’ but in F1, with downforce and speed, I realised the car had to be driven a different way. In Baku, it was a street circuit, we put more ‘understeer’ to be more comfortable with the walls, and I realised this was the balance I needed.”

Over the course of the season, the youngster out-qualified Ericsson 17-4. Another impressive feature of the year was his start, which can be tricky in midfield. Leclerc kept his wits about him, aware that the race is not won on the first lap but it can often be lost. This should hold him in good stead when he is higher up the grid this year.

Leclerc, should he choose to view it that way, has little to lose. The stars have aligned. Up against a driver a decade older than him, he is the clear underdog. At the same time, Vettel has looked vulnerable over the last two seasons and has been beaten by a younger driver before (Daniel Ricciardo; 2014), which could play on his mind.

Even if Leclerc finishes behind Vettel but shows promise, Ferrari and its fans will likely be satisfied. And if he manages to beat the German, it could be the start of something momentous — a changing of the guard in Formula One.

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Printable version | May 7, 2021 7:39:58 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/sport/motorsport/will-ferraris-punt-on-leclerc-pay-off/article26475548.ece

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