Back-to-back championship successes in GP3 and Formula Two made Charles Leclerc an obvious choice for an F1 seat at Sauber in 2018.
Birthplace: Monte-Carlo, Monaco
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He had his first run in a kart thanks to childhood friend Jules Bianchi. Leclerc, the younger of the pair by seven years, showed similar skills at the wheel and followed his friend’s path towards F1.
In 2009 Leclerc became the youngest-ever winner of France’s cadet karting championship. Two years later Nicolas Todt, Bianchi’s manager, signed Leclerc up. This was a pivotal moment, as without Todt’s backing Leclerc doubted his family could have afforded to keep supporting him.
He went on to enjoy success on the international stage, though he narrowly missed out on several major titles. In 2012 he was runner-up in the European KF2 series and the under 18 world championship. The following year Max Verstappen beat him to the KZ1 world title.
Nonetheless Leclerc showed clear potential and was ready to move up to racing cars. While Verstappen went straight into F3 Leclerc took smaller steps up the F1 ladder.
Charles Leclerc biography
2014: Formula Renault 2.0
Leclerc stood out as a rookie in the 2014 Formula Renault ALPS championship where his rivals included George Russell and McLaren junior Nyck de Vries, the latter in his third year in the category. De Vries beat Leclerc to the title, the latter winning twice at Monza.
The title had already been decided when the series arrived at Jerez in Spain for the final round. On the same weekend Bianchi was racing for Marussia in the Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka, where disaster struck. Bianchi crashed and suffered serious head injuries. He was comatose for nine months and died the following July.
Though distraught, Leclerc said the death of his childhood friend never caused him to doubt his future lay in racing. Demonstrating remarkable composure just a few days after his 17th birthday, Leclerc finished on the podium in the final race.
Leclerc had also attracted attention with wildcard appearancees in the more competitive Eurocup series, where he took second place finishes at Spa and the Nurburgring.
2015: European Formula Three
For 2015 Leclerc ascended to another championship where he was up against several experienced competitors. He took Verstappen’s place at Van Amersfoort in the European Formula Three championship. His fellow rookies included Russell at Carlin and future F1 driver Lance Stroll driving for Prema.
Leclerc and Russell tangled in the first race of the year at Silverstone, then Leclerc followed his rival home in the second race. In the weekend’s final race Leclerc scored his first F3 victory, and a championship bid looked to be on the cards.
A superb performance in the third race at Hockenheim underlined Leclerc’s potential. He won a thrilling duel with highly experienced title favourite Felix Rosenqvist. That put Leclerc second in the points standings, a position he still held after the third round at Pau, despite a couple of poor starts.
Driving standards in the championship became a major talking point at the following rounds. Stroll went out in a horrifying crash at Monza and other incidents prompted one race to be abandoned. The controversy continued at Spa where Stroll earned a one-race ban for takig Rosenqvist out. Leclerc stayed out of trouble, racing from sixth to first in the weekend’s opening race. Second in race three meant Leclerc now had the championship lead.
He kept his points lead at the Norisring, winning a wet first encounter on the short street course and finishing the other two inside the top four. His closest rival, Antonio Giovinazzi, was now 42 points behind.
But his season was about to take a downward turn. Having reached the podium in 13 of the first 17 races, he failed to reach finish in the top three again during the rest of the season.
A heavy crash at Zandvoort after contact with Stroll (which was ruled a racing incident) put him on the back foot. He brought his repaired car home tenth in the final race but Giovinazzi now led the points standings.
Then Rosenqvist hit his stride. The Prema driver took the points lead with victory in Portugal and reeled off five wins on the trot to secure the title.
Leclerc was bumped down to fourth in the standings by Jake Dennis, but still ended the year as top rookie against a strong field.
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The Monegasque driver attracted the attention of Ferrari who brought him into their Driver Academy in 2016. This allowed him to raise his game further: testing in the Ferrari simulator, developing his physical and mental abilities and even sampling a current-specification Ferrari F1 car in testing.
This also prompted a move away from F3 – where Prema enjoyed dominance and Stroll was being groomed for a title shot – and into GP3. While this meant adjusting to a new chassis and Pirelli’s high-degradation tyres, Leclerc had the benefit of joining top team ART which had taken Esteban Ocon to the title 12 months earlier. Leclerc emulated his predecessor and took his first championship since graduating from karts, but team mate Alexander Albon ran him close.
Leclerc won the season-opening race at the Circuit de Catalunya despite DAMS pair Jake Hughes and Kevin Joerg sweeping the front row. He took another feature race win at the Red Bull Ring, this time from pole, but a crash during Sunday’s reverse-grid race meant he went to the next race with a grid penalty.
Despite being relegated to seventh on the grid at Silverstone, Leclerc finished second in the feature race after a superb pass on fellow Ferrari Driver Academy member Antonio Fuoco. But another win-less weekend in Hungary cost him the points lead to Albon.
By now Leclerc making occasional practice session outings in F1 with Haas. Although it underlined that he was now being considered a serious prospect for promotion, he found driving an F1 car during a race weekend compromised his GP3 preparations. He also had test outings for Ferrari, and
Nonetheless the pendulum swung back in Leclerc’s favour at the Hockenheimring where Albon dropped out of the second race and Leclerc scored well in both races. A dominant performance in race one at Spa – despite being caught by Dennis towards the end – moved him further ahead.
Although Monza included another no-score following a collision with team mate Nieri Fukuzumi, none of Leclerc’s title rivals were able to capitalise. Albon took a useful win in the first race at Sepang but Leclerc took points off him again in the Sunday race, meaning they headed to the finale with Leclerc 29 points ahead.
Pole position for Albon with Leclerc only fifth set up an intriguing championship showdown. Leclerc lost a place at the start while Albom led, but a mid-race Safety Car brought Aitken within range of the leader. He took the lead but Albon’s attempt to regain the position put both out. Moments later Leclerc went out in a tangle with Santino Ferrucci but it didn’t matter: He had already secured the title.
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2017: Formula Two
A move into Formula Two was the obvious next step though his chances of winning the title first time out appeared slim. The series, previously called GP2, was now in its seventh year of running the same chassis, which handed an advantage to the more experienced drivers.
Joining Prema, who had dominated their first attempt at the championship 12 months earlier, strengthened Leclerc’s hand. Not only did he win the title as a rookie – the first to do so since Nico Hulkenberg in 2009 – he smashed the opposition.
Leclerc ended the year with a 72-point margin over his closest rival. But this understated the extent of his dominance: Leclerc won on the road at Spa but was disqualified for excessive plank wear, as was title rival Oliver Rowland. And he should have started from pole position at Hungary but his car failed a scrutineering check due to a minor technical infringement.
Despite these setbacks, and a significant penalty in Azerbaijan for failing to slow sufficiently for yellow flags, Leclerc’s title bid never looked under serious threat.
He began the season on pole position in Bahrain but failed to convert it into victory as tyre degradation got the better of him. In the sprint race the following he took the gamble of making a non-mandatory pit stop in order to race flat out and sliced through the field to an extraordinary win. He followed that up with victory at the next race in Spain despite a problem with his radio.
He was hard done by in Monaco where a suspension problem put him out shortly after his team misjudged a strategy call behind the Safety Car. However further wins in Baku (where his penalty denied him a double), the Red Bull Ring and Silverstone strengthened his championship situation.
Leclerc suffered another, much greater blow during 2017. On the Tuesday before the Azerbaijan Grand Prix weekend his father Herve died. In spite of his grief, and with the motto “Je t’aime pap” added to his rear wing, three days later Leclerc put his car on pole position by six-tenths of a second.
The slogan stayed there until the end of the year. After the disappointment of Spa, Leclerc was in the hunt for victory at Monza until he was taken out by De Vries.
That meant he had to wait until the penultimate race weekend at Jerez to put a lock on the title, which he did in style with victory from pole position in the feature race. He signed off with a final win in the reverse-grid race at Yas Marina, muscling past Albon on the final tour.
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Learning from his difficulties in 2016, Leclerc ensured his practice outings for Sauber during 2017 took place outside of F2 race weekends. He also returned to test for Ferrari, and impressed enough that they found a place for him in Sauber’s race team for 2018.