Ferrari have put Charles Leclerc through the mill in the past few years – and at times vice versa, too, it has to be said – but the driver some in Formula 1 believe to be the fastest of all over one lap says his commitment to a future with the Italian team is absolute.
But he says he wants nothing more than to stay with the team which has been his life for the past decade and more.
“I have always loved Ferrari and I would love to stay,” Leclerc tells BBC Sport in an exclusive interview. “I’ve always made it very clear that my goal is to try to be a world champion, but firstly with Ferrari.
“I know how difficult it is. We are not in the easiest situation. There is a big gap to fill to get to Red Bull’s level but Ferrari has helped me before I got into F1, believed in me and put me into the Ferrari seat very early on, and it’s always a team that I’ve loved.
“My priority is to win with Ferrari and it is not my worry whether I won’t achieve it or whatever. We just need to work on the team and try to improve it as much as possible, and I hope that I can achieve that one day.”
Now in his sixth season in F1, Leclerc has established himself as one of the very top drivers in the sport, so it is inevitable that – with Ferrari struggling – there will be both speculation about his future, and genuine suitors.
For some time, Leclerc has been linked with a possible move to Mercedes, while Aston Martin are believed to be courting the 25-year-old.
Some have looked at Leclerc’s situation at Ferrari and worried for him. Is his career at Maranello, they wonder, going to go the same way as, for example, that of Fernando Alonso – an abundantly talented driver who Ferrari failed to provide with a competitive car, leading him to eventually lose faith and leave the team two years before the end of his contract.
A name from history resonates, too – Gilles Villeneuve. Leclerc shares many of the qualities of the great Canadian. Not only is he incredibly fast, and capable of producing qualifying laps that leave onlookers gasping in disbelief, but he’s also a disarmingly straightforward and honest person.
But ask whether Leclerc has any concerns that his career could go the same way, and he says: “Absolutely not. Because at the end, being a Ferrari driver is a dream for everybody.”
The word is Ferrari are as committed to Leclerc as he is to them, and that behind the scenes both parties are already talking as if their future together will go well beyond 2024, and that a new contract is only a matter of time.
Leclerc says: “There are some jokes here and there, but no serious talks yet.”
He adds: “Honestly, I am not in a rush. I don’t think Ferrari’s priority is signing me at the moment, which is understandable because we are all just focused on trying to have the best race car possible as quickly as possible.
“I understand that. So for now we are just focusing on the season. I am sure talks will arrive at one point during the season, probably a bit later on.”
‘There is a special connection with Ferrari’
Leclerc’s love for Ferrari stems from their history together. The late Jules Bianchi, who suffered fatal injuries in a crash during the 2014 Japanese Grand Prix, was Leclerc’s godfather, and a Ferrari junior driver who was being groomed for a future at Maranello.
The following year, Ferrari stepped in when Leclerc’s family ran out of money to fund his racing career and joined forces with his manager Nicholas Todt to support him. Leclerc’s subsequent performances have fully justified their faith, but it is that backing that forms the foundation for his attachment to the team.
“It’s my whole family and environment,” he says. “Being so close to Jules so early on and seeing him part of the Ferrari driver academy and then helping him reach his goal, and obviously they helped me in 2015.
“There is just a special connection. I have always been a fan of this team. My dad (who died in 2017) also was a huge fan of Ferrari and all of this makes it special.
“But even apart from all that, I have always loved this team and I’ve always had a special relationship with Italy also.”
The reciprocal nature of that relationship will be obvious at this weekend’s Italian Grand Prix, where Leclerc will enjoy a support from the famous tifosi that borders on worship.
Does he almost feel part-Italian?
“I could say, kind of, yes,” he says. “I speak fluent Italian. It is the country apart from Monaco where I have spent most time in my life. So I have a very close relationship. I know the guys at the factory and here at the track since I was 15 or 16, which also makes it a very special relationship.”
‘Just not good enough from our side’
Despite the obvious strengths of his bonds to Ferrari, all relationships are tested over time. And Leclerc’s tenure has not exactly been the easiest period of the team’s history.
At the end of his first season – 2019 – Ferrari were revealed to have reached a confidential agreement with governing body the FIA, which said it believed the team’s engine had not at all times been run within the rules, even if it could not prove it.
Ferrari always denied that was the case. But the drop in engine performance that followed that ruling led to the team’s worst season for 40 years in 2020.
Things began to look more positive through 2021, and Ferrari entered the era of the new ground-effect regulations with a bang. They started 2022 with the fastest car, and Leclerc won three of the first four races to emerge as Max Verstappen’s closest title rival.
But then the season imploded at remarkable pace. Ferrari suffered a series of strategic errors and reliability failures that cost Leclerc three potential victories, and in the second half of the season Red Bull simply moved into another gear and left them behind.
After that, Ferrari entered 2023 expecting to learn from their errors, take the next step and challenge for the title, only to find Red Bull had moved the goalposts again and they were even further adrift.
The Ferrari has been respectably quick over one lap in qualifying – along with Lewis Hamilton, Leclerc is the only driver not in a Red Bull to set a pole position – but its handling has been vicious at times, and in races it tends to fall backwards.
Ask Leclerc how it ended up like this and he says Ferrari were simply not ambitious enough with what they were seeking from the new car.
“If we look on the technical side,” he says, “whenever we put the car on the track at the first test, it was doing what we expected. So we expected it to be a good step forward.
“But unfortunately Red Bull had done twice the step, especially in the race, and that was just not good enough from our side.
“I don’t think we underachieved. I think just the targets were not the right ones.”
‘I struggled quite a bit’
Those targets were set under former team principal Mattia Binotto, but the Swiss did not survive in his role to see the effects of his decisions, for he lost his job at the end of last year.
Binotto’s replacement is Frenchman Frederic Vasseur – a very different character. Binotto’s background is engineering. Vasseur is a racer, who ran successful teams in the junior categories before moving into F1, first with Renault, then Sauber for a while before the big job at Ferrari.
Leclerc and Vasseur go back a long way – Leclerc won the GP3 title driving for Vasseur’s ART team in 2016, they were at Sauber together in his first season in 2018, and have remained close.
Leclerc professes complete faith in the changes Vasseur is instigating aimed at bringing Ferrari back to a position of competitiveness, but this has been a trying season for both, starting with a car that was not only not fast enough, but also incredibly difficult to drive.
In the early part of the season, it was relatively commonplace to see either Leclerc or team-mate Carlos Sainz in the gravel or barriers having lost their battle to keep on top of their wayward car. Leclerc is renowned for his ability to control a loose rear end – it’s what he wants from a car – but even he has struggled.
“The very tricky thing,” he says, “is I love oversteer-y cars in general, and this has been a trait throughout my career. The thing with this year’s car was that it wasn’t an oversteer-y car, but a very unpredictable car.
“It was affected much more than our competitors with the wind direction, and obviously going round in circles then you always find yourself with a tailwind at some point and that wasn’t a very comfortable position to be in. It was impossible for the driver to anticipate.
“We still have this limitation in the car today. It is much better compared to the beginning of the season but it is still there, and obviously driving with a pointy car makes this characteristic even more difficult to manage. So at the beginning of the season, I struggled quite a bit.”
Leclerc had to set the car up in a way he did not want in order to cope with its erratic behaviour, and dial in a lack of front grip.
“I had to deal with quite a bit of understeer just to have a bit less unpredictable moments,” he says, “which is not what you want, and it is not the balance I enjoy the most, so it doesn’t really fit my driving style.
“But we worked on it. We had a good reaction. We did a really big step forward on that and now we just need to add more performance and still work on this weakness in order to improve the car.”
In the circumstances, it is perhaps not surprising that Leclerc has out-qualified Sainz less frequently than in the past. Last year, it was at a ratio of nearly three to one. This year, on the head-to-head, Leclerc is only narrowly ahead, even if his average pace advantage over the Spaniard has remained pretty much the same, at 0.125secs a lap.
That Ferrari and Leclerc are still struggling with this difficult car was in evidence at last weekend’s Dutch Grand Prix, where Leclerc crashed in qualifying – again complaining the car had not done what he expected – then had a difficult race after sustaining early collision damage.
With so many incidents, no-one could claim this has been his best season, even if he insists he is “happy” with it overall.
He says: “In a season like this, it’s difficult as a driver because whenever you do a good race, nobody really notices it, because you are a bit in the middle of nowhere.”
His highs, though, have been as impressive as ever. There have been strong race drives in Belgium, Austria, Canada and Bahrain – the last one before he retired with an engine failure in the closing stages while running third.
And the peak was undoubtedly Azerbaijan, where he took a car that was unpredictable and overly sensitive to the wind and put it on pole on a street circuit in a place nicknamed the ‘windy city’, more than 0.8secs quicker than Sainz in qualifying for the race and nearly 0.6secs ahead in the sprint shoot-out.
“Baku was a really big surprise,” Leclerc says. “For some reason, I felt really comfortable, which is not something we expected because coming to Baku we knew our weaknesses and we knew it was a city track, so windy, with walls around (and that) is never really good for confidence.
“I found a good balance with the car. I was also playing quite a bit with the walls as it was kind of cutting the wind, so this was helping us in the way you were taking the corner.
“At that point, I did a really good lap in both qualifyings, which helped us do a double pole, which was a big surprise for us.”
‘I still feel like victory is possible’
In the race in Baku, as Leclerc puts it, “everything was a bit back to normal” and Red Bull moved ahead, although he still took a strong third place.
It is a pattern all drivers have had to come to terms with this year, but it must be especially frustrating for Leclerc, given he was going toe-to-toe with Verstappen a little over a year ago.
How does he deal with going into a race knowing one car – and particularly one rival – is basically unbeatable?
“As strange as it can sound, whenever I put my helmet on, I still feel like the victory is possible,” he says.
“Whenever I am home training or when I am in the car, winning is what motivates me and it never feels unachievable. Then of course realistically before the weekend you know that, if nothing happens to them, they are just going to be in a league of their own come Sunday.
“But whenever I close the visor, I still believe in it. I still think this is something I can do. A win is still possible and I will always give absolutely everything for the win. So there is no lack of motivation whatsoever.”