Even the very best make mistakes from time to time.
Charles Leclerc took himself out of Sunday’s Sakhir Grand Prix with a misjudgement on the first lap, breaking his Ferrari’s front suspension in a collision with Racing Point’s Sergio Perez, who went on to win.
It earned Leclerc a three-place grid penalty for this weekend’s season finale in Abu Dhabi, but was a rare aberration from the 23-year-old in a season in which he has been far more associated with moments of sublime quality.
Just a day before his race-day error, Leclerc had produced exactly that – a qualifying performance so good it might just have been the lap of the season.
He put his Ferrari fourth on the grid, just 0.236 seconds from pole, on a day his team-mate, the four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel, could manage only 13th.
Moments like that carry echoes of great Ferrari underdog achievements of the past from Gilles Villeneuve and Fernando Alonso. In just his third season in F1, Leclerc is well on the way to joining them in the pantheon of Ferrari legends.
“That would be incredible,” Leclerc tells BBC Sport in an exclusive interview.
“I love to do things differently. I always try to do things that people don’t expect, because that is what is exciting about the sport and you always need to surprise people on track otherwise it is too easy for them.
“Sometimes it goes my way and sometimes it doesn’t and I learn from it, but it is good to hear that and I hope so – but I try to focus on myself and not think about these things too much.”
‘I am very honest with myself’
This is 2020, so we are talking via video link. Like that, or in person, Leclerc is an open, friendly presence, with a smile never very far away. He has a hint of diffidence about him, but there is no mistaking the steel beneath the surface.
The same contradiction is apparent in Leclerc the racing driver. He’s not boastful, but knows how good he is, and has exceedingly high expectations of himself. This explains the occasional angry outbursts when he feels he has let himself down.
One such happened last month at the end of the Turkish Grand Prix.
On the afternoon Lewis Hamilton clinched his seventh world title with one of his greatest drives on a treacherously slippery track, Leclerc, too, had excelled.
After a difficult start, Leclerc was 14th on lap 15, 35 seconds behind Vettel, who was fourth. Twenty-five laps later, Leclerc overtook his team-mate and pulled out a five-second lead over the next seven laps.
On the final lap, Leclerc briefly passed Perez for second place, only to brake slightly late at the final chicane and slide wide, allowing Perez and Vettel to slip through for the final two podium places.
Leclerc was furious with himself, telling his team over the radio he had done a bad job – except the word he used was not “bad”.
Looking back, he says: “That’s probably one of my best performances this year in a race and I’m aware of it and I was aware of it after the race when I calmed down. But on the other hand, I was so disappointed.
“After the first few laps, I thought my race was more or less over, but I kept my head down, trying to do the best job possible lap after lap and it seemed to work.
“I was aware I was one of the fastest guys on track and that gave me a lot of confidence, and then I arrived in the last lap where I knew a podium would be possible after being second to last at the first corner.
“And then to do such a small mistake that cost so much at a very important time in the race – aah, I was so frustrated. So I was extremely unhappy with myself at the end of the race, which you could probably hear from the radio.
“But on the other hand, as soon as I got out of the car I was aware of what I’d done and it’s not like I put myself completely down.
“On the radio it sounds that way, but when I get out of the car I am very honest with myself. Whenever I have done a good job, I know I have done it, and I tell to myself, but whenever I do a bad job, I am frustrated.
“On this day, even though I had done a very, very good job before that, the mistake at the wrong time cost us the final result, which is the most important.”
‘Thankfully people can see I am doing a good job’
By and large, Leclerc has carried Ferrari on his back this season.
The team have produced their least competitive car for 30 years. It’s the sixth fastest on the grid on average, but Leclerc has scored two podiums, qualified it fourth four times, and has an average grid position of eighth. He has scored 75% of Ferrari’s points, and out-qualified Vettel 12 times in 16 races so far at an average of 0.354secs.
He has moved forward from an already impressive 2019.
In his first season at Ferrari and only his second in F1, Leclerc usurped one of the most successful drivers in history as the team’s number one to such an extent that Ferrari decided Vettel was surplus to requirements, and told him even before the delayed start of this season that they would not be renewing his contract.
Leclerc is now regarded throughout F1 as one of the three standout drivers on the grid, along with Hamilton and Red Bull’s Max Verstappen.
Ask Leclerc how it feels to have earned this status, and he says: “It feels great because at the beginning of the season it was difficult to accept the situation we were in.
“I’ve always had a dream of being in Ferrari to win races and then I did a first year that was very good. I won my first ever F1 race, which was a dream since I was a child, but I was still at the end of the season a bit disappointed with myself because I did mistakes at some very important moments last year where I would have hoped not to.
“It’s part of the learning curve, so I gave myself a target this year to try and do it in a better way with less mistakes, which I think I achieved.
“Looking back at the season, I am extremely happy with it, but on the other hand the car was not as good as last year so unfortunately I couldn’t achieve and show as much results-wise how good my season was.
“But thankfully somehow people have still managed to see I was doing a better job than last year even though the results were not as good. It kept me very motivated that people were seeing what I was doing in the car.”
‘I have so much motivation when it’s going badly’
Leclerc set the tone for his season at the very first race. Ferrari’s fears that they were in for a difficult year were realised in qualifying in Austria in early July, when Leclerc could manage only seventh and Vettel 11th on the grid.
The next day, though, Leclerc took a stunning second place, hanging in there in the race, making some aggressive overtaking moves following a late safety car, and benefiting from a collision that took out Hamilton and Red Bull’s Alex Albon.
“I actually have so much motivation when it is going badly,” Leclerc says. “I am not the kind of person that feels bad because it is going badly. When it is going badly, I just think: ‘In which way can I impress people?’
“After qualifying, it was pretty clear for everyone in the paddock that we were struggling and that’s where I found my motivation, saying: ‘OK, everyone knows we are struggling but I want to show them that we can actually do something quite good.’
“That has been my mentality whenever we have had a difficult race, trying to prove people wrong.”
Apart from the Ferrari’s lack of straight-line speed, the car has also been a handful in the corners. But it’s this that has allowed Leclerc to demonstrate his quality.
“Balance-wise, we have been struggling with the rear,” Leclerc says. “That was very difficult for the confidence you have in the car, and confidence in F1 is everything.
“I managed to find my way through a little bit this moving rear but still we have some work to do on that.”
Ask him why Vettel has struggled so much more, and he says: “It’s a question I don’t know the answer to. At the end, some drivers feel more at ease with the rear moving, some others more with understeer. And this year’s car probably fitted my driving style a little bit more.
“But also, as Seb mentioned a few times, it is a difficult year for him overall because he knows he is not going to be in the team next year and probably this plays a part, too.”
‘I am always very hard on myself’
Leclerc, who is contracted to Ferrari until 2024, says he takes his new status as team leader in his stride.
“I don’t really feel the difference compared to before,” he says. “I have to do the same job as I was doing before. At the end, I am here to perform at my best when I am on track and to help the team as much as I can when I am outside the track.
“That’s what I was doing before; that’s what I will do now. Surely my comments will probably take a bit more weight now that I have a future with the team and they know how long I will stay with them, But it is not like I was not listened to before.
“From the outside, it can look a bit different but it doesn’t feel that different to me.”
Leclerc this year has demonstrated exactly what people inside F1 mean when they talk about a driver out-performing his car.
There have been a series of standout drives following that opener in Austria, among them third and fourth places in the two races at Silverstone, on an unusual one-stop strategy despite the team running a low-downforce set-up.
This was especially satisfying on a personal level because he had considered his ability to manage tyres in races a weakness in 2019 and had worked hard over the winter on improving.
In this, he is demonstrating a characteristic shown by Hamilton and all great drivers over the years – a capacity for self-criticism, a sense that good is never enough, that there is always more to be done to improve.
“That’s always been my mentality,” Leclerc says. “I am always very hard with myself. And this won’t change. But now it’s more constructive than destructive as it was in the past probably.
“When I was younger, every time I did a mistake I was putting myself down. But it was not constructive. I was losing a lot of confidence in myself and that was not great.
“But year after year I managed to change that into how to learn from my mistakes and this seems to work pretty well for me.”
Admiration for Hamilton and hopes for the future
Between Leclerc and Hamilton, the mutual respect has always been high, and through this year they have become friendly, playing computer games together online from time to time, along with Alpha Tauri’s Pierre Gasly, a lifelong friend of Leclerc.
“Lewis has been incredible this year,” Leclerc says. “For me, the most impressive performance this year was Turkey because nobody expected him to be so strong.
“Everybody expected Lewis to be struggling and at the end, when it mattered, he did it, and he won the championship with a win there, which shows that people who say it is only the car are wrong.
“Surely he is driving with the best car but performances like this show he is the best on the grid at the moment, so congratulations to him and he has always been so consistent at the top and this can only be respected.”
The Ferrari has been too poor a car this year for Leclerc to reprise some of the battles he had with Hamilton in 2019.
Restrictions on development over the winter, introduced to save costs in the context of the coronavirus pandemic, would suggest on paper that Ferrari might have to accept another difficult year in 2021.
But they are working on a new engine, and Leclerc has some hopes of a better season.
“We shouldn’t have too much high expectations, but on the other hand I feel confident it will be better than this year and I really hope so,” he says.
“We have done a good job in the last few races to tackle our issues, and I see how hard everyone is working in Maranello.
“People are just pushing at the maximum. And I hear positive things. You can never know until the first qualifying of the season.
“We are confident we are doing a good job but we prefer to be low on expectations because we don’t know how good a job the others are doing.”