2019 British GP preview: Charles Leclerc’s rise to F1 stardom

There was a huge sense of anticipation over Charles Leclerc’s promotion from Sauber to Ferrari to partner Sebastian Vettel this year.

How often does such a young talent get an opportunity in a front-running Formula 1 team? The last time it happened was Lewis Hamilton joining McLaren to partner twice world champion Fernando Alonso in 2007. And look what happened there.

Leclerc, 21, became the youngest driver to race for Ferrari since Ricardo Rodríguez at the 1961 Italian Grand Prix. He grew up in Monte Carlo, where father Hervé finished just behind Damon Hill in the 1988 Monaco Formula 3 race. Together, father and son watched F1 on TV, both supporting Ferrari.

Hervé Leclerc was a close friend of Philippe Bianchi, father of the late Jules. Bianchi Sr ran a kart track at Brignoles and it was not long before the young Charles was spending all his time there. Bianchi became his karting mentor and when funds ran low, Nicolas Todt, son of FIA president Jean and manager of Jules, took young Leclerc under his wing and guided the transition into cars.

From Leclerc, bitterly disappointed, there were no histrionics and he won many more admirers. “Today was not our day,” he shrugged. “It’s sad because obviously I was so close to realising a dream. Hopefully this day will come. The team should be proud. We’ll come back stronger.”

The season’s defining characteristics are a Mercedes with prolific downforce that dominates whenever the road turns, and a Ferrari with prodigious straight-line speed that is tough to contend with whenever it doesn’t. Baku, round four, was Leclerc’s next opportunity and again he was the pace-setter, but poor qualifying strategy from Ferrari contributed to a qualifying accident that scotched that particular chance. “I’m stupid!” he said, holding up his hands. Admitting to mistakes and his weaknesses appears to be an admirable character trait.

The most recent highlight, in Austria, turned into another near miss for that first win. From pole position, he led until the closing stages – only to be caught and passed by Max Verstappen, who was on fresher tyres. But he’d outperformed Vettel once again and, with just over a third of the season gone, Leclerc is still in touch with the four-time champion in the points. A thoroughly likeable guy, he has the self-containment of a man who knows his chances will come.

You get the feeling Vettel might be becoming a little world-weary. Not only does he have to contend with Hamilton and Mercedes, but also the threat from within. Ferrari’s deficit means that Leclerc may not be a championship contender in 2019, as some predicted, but he is still, obviously, a potential race winner. The pedigree is undeniable.

Will Leclerc win at Silverstone?

Charles Leclerc certainly has an impressive Silverstone record. In GP3, in 2016, he finished second in the main feature race and third in the reverse-grid sprint race, as well as sampling the Haas F1 chassis in free practice. The following year, in Formula 2, he took one of his eight poles and also a commanding race win in the main event, before finishing fifth in Sunday’s sprint race from eighth on the grid. In his rookie F1 season with Sauber, Leclerc qualified in the top 10 before retiring just 18 laps into the race with a wheel issue.

Tony Doggins