Charles Leclerc is an F2 and F3 champion. The F1 title is surely an inevitability for the young driver from Monaco. This much is known. But what’s much less well known is the role former F1 driver Jules Bianchi has played in his career.
Just over a week ago, Leclerc was searching for his first win, but with successive successes in Belgium and Italy he now has back-to-back wins and the emergence of an exceptional talent on the circuit.
There’s two people 21-year-old Leclerc acknowledges as having the biggest influence on his career, one his father, Herve, and the other his Godfather, former F1 driver Jules Bianchi.
Leclerc senior was an F3 racer and brought his young son to race at the Bianchi family kart track, from where he developed a great bond with the developing Bianchi, who was only eight years older.
In his burgeoning racing career Bianchi tested with Ferrari, eventually racing with Marussia from the 2013 F1 season. Tragically, the track would claim the young Frenchman. Holding on for nine months after a crash at the 2014 Japanese Grand Prix, Jules Bianchi passed away at the age of 25 years old.
But before tragedy struck Bianchi had actually recommended Leclerc to the son of Scuderia Ferrari Formula One team principal Jean Todt. This helped lift Leclerc’s career to a whole new level.
Speaking about his father and Bianchi, Leclerc has said: "I think of them every time I win a race and I’m sure they are up there looking at me smiling.
“Sometimes people compare me to Jules, and it always brings a smile to my face. He was a good guy and one of my best friends. If my style and mannerism reminds people of Jules, I’m happy about it.”
In finishing ahead of Valtteri Bottas and Lewis Hamilton at the Italian Grand Prix, Leclerc became the first Ferrari driver to win at Monza in almost a decade.
“I think if you have to win one Grand Prix with Ferrari it’s the Italian Grand Prix,” Leclerc said in the aftermath in an official F1 interview.
“From the beginning of the week it’s been absolutely crazy, I came here with my first win, and to win straight away the second one here in front of all the fans that have welcomed me extremely well after the first victory, is just unbelievable.”
He has unabashedly admitted that psychological help has been part of his regime in the aftermath of both his father and Bianchi’s deaths, but steadfastly refuses to let the tragedies hinder him.
He’s said: "Fear? No, that doesn’t exist. Even after Jules’ accident in Suzuka, I never had the slightest doubt about my future. I know that danger is part of racing, but when I’m in the cockpit, all I feel is the adrenalin rush and I have never driven even a single metre, afraid that something could happen.”
Leclerc earned his debut F1 season with Sauber Motorsport AG in 2018.
With a strong finish to a maiden F1 season that produced three consecutive seventh place finishes (in Mexico, Brazil, and Abu Dhabi), he was consequently selected to replace Kimi Rainokken at Ferrari, with the Finn moving in the other direction to join the renamed Alfa Romeo Racing.
With his new team, racing at his home event in Monaco in May 2019, Leclerc presented a half-and-half helmet that paid tribute to his late father and godfather, with the words, “Without these 2 I would not be here”.
Championship leader Hamilton finished third in Lombardy, has recorded eight wins this season, with Mercedes having all but claimed a sixth successive title.
Leclerc, however, celebrated his own achievement, reaching the top of the podium for the second time in the space of a week, following Ferrari’s one-two at the Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps a week prior and extending Ferrari’s record-high success at the Belgian GP (now standing at 18).
In a fledgeling career, nothing can be better than crowning a maiden victory with another, with Leclerc certifying his credentials as the future of Ferrari.
Hamilton has in fact suggested in recent weeks he wouldn’t rule out joining Ferrari in the future. The Brit currently has a contract with Mercedes until 2020. However, with the 21-year-old Leclerc now leading the Scuderia stable, 34-year-old Hamilton might find that ambition harder to realise, particularly with Leclerc endearing himself further to the Ferrari fan-faithful by ending the Italian company’s drought at Monza by beating Bottas by just 0.825 seconds to the chequered flag, waved by former Ferrari driver Jean Alesi.
Meanwhile, Ferrari’s supposed ‘number one’ Sebastian Vetterl, the four-time world champion, made his ninth major mistake in 27 races, dating back to the French Grand Prix in June 2018. The German finished in 13th place and has yet to win a race this season.
Hamilton currently tops the rankings on 284, what appears to be an almost unassailable lead ahead of Bottas on 221, with seven races remaining, next up it's under the lights in Singapore on 22 September. Ferrari remain second in the World Constructors’ Championship, behind Mercedes.
Leclerc may well be too far off the pace this time around but it is becoming increasingly apparent that we are witnessing a future world champion, whether that’s jostling with Hamilton in the same paddock, or not.