Last season felt like a wasted one for Charles Leclerc, a young driver in a hurry to conquer Formula 1 after a superb rookie season in the midfield with Sauber in 2018, then breaking through as a race winner on his promotion to Ferrari the following year. Instead, he had to scratch around for results, requiring a slice of good fortune to claim a couple of podium finishes and usually having to be satisfied with lower-profile points finishes even on a good day.
Yet the (now) 23-year-old showed no signs of losing motivation or giving up, producing a superb campaign despite only finishing eighth in the drivers’ championship. While 2020 might have been a setback in terms of the quality of the machinery at his disposal, he used it to enhanced both his reputation and his skillset.
Having had the edge over illustrious teammate Sebastian Vettel in 2019, he crushed him last year. In qualifying, he outqualified him 13 times out of 17 with an average adjusted advantage of three-quarters of a second — a lifetime in F1 terms. On Sundays, he outscored him 98 points to 33.
The Ferrari SF1000 was a tricky car that didn’t offer Vettel the rear-end stability he craves. While not a characteristic that Leclerc would seek, he is a virtuoso performer when it comes to hanging onto a car on a flat-out qualifying lap. Inevitably, in the races the performance difference between the two was lessened, but despite the oft-repeated adage that the points are awarded on Sunday, qualifying lays the foundations for your race.
Not that he needed to prove it, but what’s clear is that Leclerc is one of the best in F1 at dragging a lap time out of a car regardless of the balance limitations. That’s a rare skill. While all drivers will prefer similar characteristics — stability, predictability, consistency, balance — some are better than others in adverse conditions. It’s one of the things that can separate the very good drivers who can excel when things are right from the potential superstars who must prevail in a wide range of conditions.
On race day, Leclerc’s versatility shone through. During 2020 there were races where he pulled off an unorthodox tire strategy by making a one-stopper work. There were also times when he performed superbly in tricky conditions to convert overachieving in qualifying to a strong race result, such as in Portugal where he finished fourth and was comfortably clear of the rest of the midfield group.
This might seem futile. After all, if you’re a driver with aspirations of winning the world championship, why waste your effort scratching around for the odd fourth place in a limited machine? But that’s where his attitude was so impressive, recognizing the potential to learn and improve.
Many drivers have talked about the opportunity provided by the difficult seasons, to the point where it’s almost a cliche to say you learn from the most challenging times. Often, that’s repeated as a mantra of optimism when in the thick of such trials, but there is a fundamental truth to it. The classic example is Jenson Button, whose two seasons immediately before his famous world championship for Brawn in 2009 were dreadful in terms of results, but forced him to experiment, learn, test himself in a way he wouldn’t have done otherwise. The moral of the story is not to seek out bad situations, but instead to benefit from them when you find yourself in them.
Late last season, I asked Leclerc whether he felt he improved more as a driver in 2020 because of Ferrari’s struggles than he might have done had the car been as competitive as he hoped.
“The car is weaker this season so I can’t speak if the car would have been better,” said Leclerc. “I think it has made me a better driver, because in difficult times, I’ve found my determination in other ways. Focusing on myself, trying to improve. Even though it’s not to fight for podiums or wins, we’re fighting for other positions. In the end, it matters as much for me.
“I don’t think I was a very patient guy in the past, but now I have to be in the situation I’m in now. I feel like I’ve improved on that too. So surely, I’m a stronger driver than where I was at the beginning of the season. If it’s because of the situation we are in at the moment, I’m not sure. But my approach didn’t really change, at the end I always try to analyze my weak points and to improve on those ones.”
That’s not to say he was perfect. Leclerc made too many mistakes last season, perhaps as a result of adopting an all-or-nothing approach that helped him drag the most from the car more often than not. He wiped out both Ferraris at the hairpin on the first lap of the Styrian Grand Prix and famously torpedoed eventual race winner Sergio Perez at Turn 4 at the start of the Sakhir Grand Prix. He also booted Lance Stroll into the wall on the first lap at Sochi, earning a reputation for occasionally being overly aggressive on the first lap.
While that was usually in a bid to hang on to a good position he found himself in due to qualifying more strongly than he should have done, that doesn’t mean those mistakes can be overlooked. He also made an error on the final lap of the Turkish Grand Prix that cost him second place after a largely exemplary drive, dropping him behind Perez and Vettel.
Perhaps the worst blunder is one that’s often forgotten, when he crashed heavily at the Parabolica at Monza after having jumped up to sixth thanks to the timing of the safety car. That was a completely unforced error, one big enough to result in the race being red-flagged.
Clearly, these mistakes must be eliminated if he is to make good on his potential and win the world championship. But he has pulled off great things more than enough to prove that he’s not some kind of unguided missile, relying on luck and his wits to keep the car under control.
In a ‘normal’ season with a competitive car that allows him to fight for the world championship, things should be different. After all, he’s still relatively inexperienced compared to Lewis Hamilton, but when the time finally does come for him to fight for the world championship, the capacity to minimize mistakes will be tested. What’s clear is that the five errors across 17 races mentioned above is too frequent.
But Leclerc does not lack for the capacity to self-improve. As anyone who has heard some of his self-beration over the radio will confirm, he does not let himself off for his mistakes or shy away from taking responsibility. Comparing his reaction to wiping out Vettel in Styria, immediately taking the blame, to certain other drivers is very telling.
That reflects his fierce determination to set the highest possible standards and to continue to improve himself. And he will need to do so if he is to prevail in a world championship fight in the future against Hamilton or Max Verstappen.
But crucially, he has the opportunity. Ferrari may be F1’s great underachiever, but even in the dozen-season championship drought it’s currently going through, it’s had periods when a title bid was possible. Leclerc breezed into the team in 2019 and quickly made it his own, leading to Ferrari deciding to drop Vettel. That he went on to sign a five-year deal is proof of his status in the team.
Reading between the lines of team principal Mattia Binotto’s comments about new signing Carlos Sainz, which stress there’s no hierarchy but also underline his importance to its constructors’ championship aspirations, Leclerc is being backed to the hilt by the Prancing Horse. Of course, whether Sainz can exceed those expectations and cause a problem, which he might provided the car offers the rear-end stability he needs, is another question.
The dynamic is also changing for Leclerc. He’s now completed the transition from Maranello arrivista by taking the initiative from Vettel, and that comes with its own unique pressure. Vettel appeared to struggle at times with that pressure, and confirmed in the second season of the Netflix series Drive to Survive that it is a unique challenge.
“In the end, it’s all about winning,” said Vettel. “Competing against the best, that’s one thing. Trying to do it with Ferrari is another one.”
Fortunately for Leclerc, it seems unlikely that any external force can exert greater pressure on him than he puts on himself. He’s always been like that, and it’s a characteristic that all the true sporting greats share — even if it manifests itself in different ways from person to person. Provided he doesn’t push himself harder than he can bear, that quality should serve him well.
But for now, it’s all about ensuring that he’s in the best possible shape as a driver to take the world championship when the time comes. Realistically, that’s not going to be in 2021, with Binotto setting a minimum target of third in the constructors’ championship but ruling out any hope of beating Mercedes. But 2022 is anybody’s guess given the comprehensive rule change. What is clear is that Ferrari has the potential in terms of resources, people and facilities to be back at the sharp end and fighting for the championship then.
And if it is, even when he was fighting only for eighth place, Leclerc proved in 2020 that he should have the driving side well and truly covered if the machinery is up to it. A world championship for Ferrari in the future seems inevitable — albeit with the caveat that we’d once have said that about Vettel.