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Rookie Of The Year

Charles Leclerc

He’s from Monaco, races F1 cars and is 2018’s most exciting prospect. We catch up with Sauber young gun CHARLES LECLERC…

In Formula 1, the “next big thing” is only ever a season away. A long line of young guns always ready to make the step up from the junior series — and take the fight to the establishment. But as ex-F1 driver and Sky Sports commentator Martin Brundle will tell you, it’s 100 times harder than you think to get to F1, and 500 times harder to stay there. So the majority arrive, drive and jet off to either sportscars or Formula E. Every so often, though, a special talent arrives — one complete with breathtaking natural speed, supreme dedication, and razor-sharp moves; one destined to be a world champion. And they stand out immediately. Think Max Verstappen, Lewis Hamilton, Michael Schumacher, or Ayrton Senna.

The latest ‘special one’ is Swiss F1 team Sauber’s rookie driver, Charles Leclerc (pronounced ‘Sharl Le Clare’), a Ferrari protégé with talent so bright he’s being spoken about as a replacement for monosyllabic Finn, Kimi Räikkönen when he hangs up his helmet at the Scuderia. It’s understandable, because Leclerc is the real deal. He took fourth place in the 2015 European Formula 3 title, but was then picked up by Ferrari for its Driver Academy the following year. He followed that with the GP3 and Formula 2 titles back-to-back, seven wins in his F2 campaign a huge x-factor statement.

But, the 20-year-old isn’t thinking about that plum Ferrari seat just yet. “It’s an honour for me to read an article where Ferrari and Leclerc is written in the same sentence, but on the other hand it doesn’t quite seem realistic for me,” he says humbly. “I first need to prove to everyone what I’m capable of at Sauber and then we’ll see after that. But, I’m taking it step by step and I think it’s the right approach.” And this is where most drivers fail, in terms of proper preparation.

The test not just physical, but mental too, with razor-sharp reflexes required — and not just for racing wheel-to-wheel, but consistent lap times, and making corner-by-corner setup changes on the smartphone-like steering wheel that might have up to 35 knobs, buttons, switches and dials to be used in a specific order at a moment’s notice. It’s PlayStation times 1000. There’s also the challenge in working with a much bigger team of people, F1 squads fielding hundreds of people at the factory and track. Mercedes is the biggest, with 1,500 people across its two British bases. “Driving these type of cars always feels amazing,” Leclerc says. “There’s a lot more speed compared to the junior series, a lot more aerodynamics and a lot more people also involved in the performance of the car.”

To get up to speed, Leclerc dovetailed his F2 campaign last year, with eight F1 Friday free practice sessions, shared between American team Haas and Swiss squad Sauber — both of them Ferrari customer teams — before joining Sauber’s line- up as a race driver for this year.

His biggest challenge, though, will in keeping a lid on expectations with Leclerc already outclassing his more experienced teammate, Sweden’s Marcus Ericsson, across the first nine races.

But experience counts and Leclerc is not underestimating the Swede’s racecraft or connection with the team’s owners. “The main thing for me is that I do a good job, that the engineers are happy with my job and myself,” he says. “Obviously I have my teammate here who is the only one who has the same car as myself on the grid. So I have to make sure I am in front of him or competitive at least. It’s not going to be easy but yeah as I said I think I really need to do step by step, try to learn and race him as quickly as possible.”

Leclerc is already showing his huge potential, having scored points at five of the last six races up to and including Austria — scoring 12 to Ericsson’s three. And he’s shown the way over one lap in qualifying as well, with 7-2 in Leclerc’s favour — making it to Q3 for the first time at the French Grand Prix at Paul Ricard. But it’s a different kind of challenge, with the Monégasque used to racing and winning in previous years. “It’s just change of mentality, because when you arrive in the junior categories, and anytime you change category you are going for the win,” he says. “But in F1, everyone has very different cars so you really need to calm down and just be realistic. This is hard to change, but you just focus on yourself more than your opponents because everyone has a different car and the difference between cars are a lot bigger than it was in the junior formulas.”

A bigger test is ahead, though. More specifically, in September, at the Formula 1 Singapore Grand Prix. “I like city tracks,” says Leclerc, “They are my favourite. So I’m looking forward to Singapore, and it’s a night race so really looking forward to that also because this will be new to me.” For the fans, it’s an unbelievable experience, like F1’s version of the Superbowl — with racing under lights and the top international artists on stage, all against the stunning backdrop of one of the world’s great cities.

This year’s revealed 11th edition entertainment line-up is also epic, with headline acts including Martin Garrix, The Killers, Liam Gallagher, Jay Chou, Dua Lipa, Simply Red, The Sugarhill Gang, Björn Again, Sekai No Owari, Young Fathers and more. For the drivers, it’s a completely different experience as a brutal test of fitness and endurance, given the need to withstand cockpit temperatures reaching 60 degrees Celsius at racing speeds, made only worse by three layers of fireproof clothing and a helmet. That’s before you add between 5-7G in the corners and under braking, or actually go wheel-to-wheel with anyone.

So it’s no surprise drivers will lose up to 3kg in fluid over a two-hour period — with most immediately replacing that in the aftermath of the race, just as the trackside parties and concert take proceedings to the next level. “We will use some heat training for Singapore,” Leclerc says. “Just to get used to the heat, and I will probably go as early as possible just to be ready for the climate there.”

For now, Leclerc is just focusing on learning as much as he can and taking the fight to Ericsson. If he continues to do this and deliver on the enormous hype, you can bet a Ferrari promotion will be on the table. ■

2018 F1 CALENDAR HIGHLIGHT:
FORMULA 1 2018 SINGAPORE AIRLINES SINGAPORE GRAND PRIX

Trackside parties, F1 racing under lights, epic live music performances, brilliant weather, and some of the world’s best shopping and dining options, a trip to the Formula 1 Singapore Grand Prix has it all. For F1 fans, the event just couldn’t be better timed — with Singapore the first race after the end of the European season, when the world championship battle is just heating up, and every point won or lost makes a difference. And it’s a short flight away from most Australian capital cities, so easy to get to. There’s plenty of action on-track, with F1 and other exotic machinery threading the barriers at up to 320km/h. While off-track, there’s plenty a lot to see and do – with interactive race-themed family activities, support paddocks to peruse, and parties galore all surrounded by the event’s iconic lanterns. The event can be done on any budget with single-day walkabout tickets starting from just S$78 (approx. AUD$78), single-day grandstand tickets starting from S$108 (approx. AUD$108), and three-day grandstand tickets starting at S$298 (approx. AUD$298). There’s also plenty of affordable accommodation, both in and around the city.

The FORMULA 1 2018 SINGAPORE AIRLINES SINGAPORE GRAND PRIX will be held from September 14-16, with more information at singaporegp.sg.

INTERVIEW BY STEWART BELL

For the full article grab the August 2018 issue of MAXIM Australia from newsagents and convenience locations. Subscribe here.

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