Charles Leclerc, Sauber, Circuit de Catalunya, 2018

The breakthrough which made Leclerc F1’s new star of 2018

2018 F1 season

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Just two races into the new Formula 1 season, Sauber team principal Frederic Vasseur faced some searching questions over the performance of his new driver Charles Leclerc.

The 20-year old had arrived in F1 amid a blaze of hype, being the first driver ever to win back-to-back GP3 and F2 titles. But Marcus Ericsson, Leclerc’s little-heralded team mate who had gone two years without scoring a point, showed him the way in the opening rounds.

Ericsson delivered the team’s first points of the year in Bahrain. Leclerc, meanwhile, tried an aggressive strategy which failed to pay off.

When the teams arrived in Shanghai four days later, Vasseur was quizzed on whether beating a driver of Leclerc’s reputation emboldening Ericsson. The suggestion was shut down firmly.

“Don’t take some strong position like this that yesterday one was nowhere and now is the superstar and Charles now is dominated by Marcus,” said Vasseur. “It’s not like this and real life is not like this.”

He was right. But four months on the opposite is now true: Leclerc is dominating Ericsson. In the nine-race run from China to Germany he out-qualified the team’s senior driver every time, by a crushing average of three-quarters of a second – and that’s generously excluding Ericsson’s Baku effort where he couldn’t get a clear lap in.

At one stage there were even rumours Leclerc would take the place of Kimi Raikkonen at Ferrari in time for the next race at Spa. Since then tragic events have forced Ferrari to concentrate on other priorities, but it’s a reflection of the esteem in which he is held by the Scuderia.

What was behind Leclerc’s initial struggles and rapid improvement? Vasseur, who has worked with him since he was in karts, said the pair spoke often before the season began about how significant the gap in performance and complexity is between F2 and F1.

“He was fully aware that the situation won’t be easy because there’s a huge step between Formula Two and Formula One, that he had to discover the fuel management and so on in the first races,” said Vasseur. “It’s never easy to do it. He knew that it won’t be so easy.”

But even before the opening series of flyaway races was done with, Leclerc was making huge gains. His troubled start to the opening races was quickly forgotten.

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“Many people are telling me it was a smooth start,” said Leclerc. “But I remember that after the third race actually people were saying it was a difficult start. Which was probably true.

“I struggled in the first three races, there was a lot of new things to me. But I probably did not expect things to go well as quickly. From Baku onwards we really did a big step up and we kept that performance. That very sudden step, probably I did not expect.”

Charles Leclerc, Sauber, Baku City Circuit, 2018
Sixth in Baku signalled Leclerc had arrived
Understanding how to work with his engineers to extract more performance from the car has been a major part of his development, said Leclerc.

“Everything is so new that you need to take a little bit the rhythm of the weekends, of how to work with your engineers, of what to ask to the car which is very important.

“Driving is one thing but what you ask to the car, or what you ask to the engineer to do on the car is also extremely important and I think I did a big step on that after the first three races and that has helped me also to improve the driving on an easier car to drive. I think it was a bit of a combination of everything that made a step up.”

As a Ferrari development driver, Leclerc has been able to use the team’s simulator to practice tracks he hasn’t driven on yet. And of course it helps enormously that Sauber’s C37, with a current-specification Ferrari power unit which now appears to be F1’s class-leader, is a much more competitive prospect than the team’s 2017 car.

However as Leclerc points out the young driver ladder does little to prepare new F1 drivers for one of the most important aspects of their job: helping the team make their car faster.

“When you start in Formula Renault until Formula Two the car is completely fixed in terms of development. So you only really have to do the set-ups, and the set-up more come from the year before.

“So you just arrive on the track, you take the car they give you, and then you work on the set-up. In terms of developing the car and having a future vision for the car and what to add on the car to go quicker, this is something completely new to me. But we have also very good engineers that know what are the weaknesses of the car and what we need to improve.”

Another aspect of this has been learning that in F1 having a well-balanced car is not necessarily the same thing as having a quick car.

“I find it quite difficult actually for the driver because in junior categories it’s about the balance of the car, because when you have the right balance, everyone has the same cars, so you are going quick.

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“In Formula 1 you can have a really good balance but if the actual package is not good enough it’s difficult then to find the real weaknesses of the car. This is something I’ll probably learn with years.”

Charles Leclerc, Sauber, Paul Ricard, 2018
He reached Q3 for the first time at Paul Ricard
The results have been there for all to see since it ‘clicked’ for Leclerc. He’s the only Sauber driver to reach Q3, which he’s done three times. He’s scored 13 of the team’s 18 points. And he’s seldom been found wanting in wheel-to-wheel battle, even when up against the likes of Fernando Alonso.

With Leclerc widely expected to gain a Ferrari promotion for the 2019 F1 season, Vasseur now gets asked very different questions about his young star. “I would like just to remind you that all of you were around the table in China and you were quite discouraged with the level of Charles,” he jokingly reminded journalists during the Austrian Grand Prix weekend.

The Sauber team principal now has the opposite task of containing expectations about F1’s emerging talent. “I think we have to take it calm. He is doing a good job, for sure, he is improving.

“But he’s not world champion and you have to do step by step and I don’t want to be in a situation that if he has some issues in the next races – and he will have because you can’t have a clean sheet all the season – I don’t want to have Charles destroyed by everybody that he’s not world champion.

“He has to improve. He has a very good learning curve. He’s ramping up. I’m very happy and very proud of the job done but he’s not world champion.”

Not yet, but on the strength of his first half-season the ingredients are clearly there.

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Author information

Dieter Rencken
Dieter Rencken has held full FIA Formula 1 media accreditation since 2000, during which period he has reported from over 300 grands prix, plus...
Keith Collantine
Lifelong motor sport fan Keith set up RaceFans in 2005 - when it was originally called F1 Fanatic. Having previously worked as a motoring...

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  • 22 comments on “The breakthrough which made Leclerc F1’s new star of 2018”

    1. Great article; informative, nuanced and insightful! Looking forward to more of this to get us through the F1-holiday period.

      This interview also makes me confident Leclerc will have a good basis for whatever comes next year, and leads me to think that Sauber can definitely keep moving up as they started to do this year.

    2. How much influence has a faster Sauber and a slow Ericsson to do with LECs succes. Would like to see him against HUL, MAG, or ALO before falling on my bag…

      1. A faster car or a mediocre (but stable) ERI doesn’t ‘dress-up’ LEC’s real improvement versus his teammate. We don’t know where he fits in until comparing him to the next level of racer.

        The question I have is how much of his improvement is due to Vasseur? He has very much impressed me since taking over at Sauber, including the answers to the press as quoted in this article.

    3. Ben Rowe (@thegianthogweed)
      5th August 2018, 11:45

      I think Leclerc has been the most impressive rookie over the last few years. He’s impressed me more than Verstappen. The main thing is that he hasn’t made any race ending mistakes as well as putting in many very solid performances. But I’m still not sure he would be quite good enough for Ferrari. If we judge Ericsson to be very poor (which many do), there have been several races as well as the first 3 where he’s been very close or better. I’m wondering if Ericsson has a major weakness in qualifying or Leclerc just has amazing 1 lap pace. I think it is a bit of both. Sauber have got better this year, but I think it takes some skill to get through to Q3.
      Ericsson has been well off Leclerc in qualifying virtually all year. During the races, we haven’t always been able to prove that Leclerc is far better though. I’ll say that he has indeed been way better than Ericsson in 5 races. Them being Azerbaijan, Spain, Canada France and Britain. In Monaco, it is a bit difficult to judge really. All we know is that Ericsson managed to recover from the time he lost when there was a gap and very quickly caught up to Leclerc at one stage. Leclerc was in traffic. But all we knew was that Ericsson could have been faster. Ericsson didn’t look dominated that race.

      Then in Austria, I’d say Ericsson had a cleaner race, but Leclerc looked faster throughout the beginning of it. It can’t be certain if Ericsson will have got past without team orders, but I’d say they were pretty even that race on the whole.

      Germany was probably Leclerc’s worst race of the season. At least he didn’t bin it like Ericsson the race before though. He was slightly quicker than Ericsson in the first stint, but not by much. Once he pitted, he was understandably a lot quicker and soon caught up and got past Ericsson. But on his final stint on ultra softs was a total mess. He basically lost an entire minute due to his own mistakes. And this was a minute behind Vandoorne who was a lot slower than the leaders already. Even if the team hadn’t put him on inters earlier, if he made this same mistakes, he still would have finished last. Meanwhile Ericsson (who has only ever finished one other wet race in his career i think) had a very solid end to the race and got a couple of points. Then following this, Ericsson beat Leclerc in the rain in qualifying in Hungary. I’d always thought Ericsson was one of the weakest drivers in the wet. And I’m almost wondering if this is one area Leclerc possibly struggles in.

      So all in all, Qualifying is clearly something Leclerc is far better in. He is dominating Ericsson here clearly.
      The thing that makes me unsure about dominating him in all areas is that there have been 7 races where the domination on race day has not been obvious at all. Obviously the first 3. Then Monaco, Austria, Germany and Hungary. Hungary beign a bit difficult as both were involved in incidents on the first lap. I don’t think either did anything wrong, but we can only really judge it on qualifying here. And if this is being against the heavily criticized Ericsson, is Leclerc really good enough for a better team this soon?

      I think Sauber is getting better and better. I think that Leclerc should stay another year to gain more experience before going to a top team. Or, moving up to somewhere like Hass. I do believe that he will get to be great in time. But the fact that Sauber have improved and Ericsson isn’t all that great makes it a bit hard to judge how good he is. It is difficult to say he’s done well in the last 2 weekends.

      1. @thegianthogweed, I suppose one initial question is whether Ericsson is really quite as bad as he is portrayed to be, as to some extent there seems to be an attitude that “he’s a pay driver, therefore he must be bad”.

        In 2017, whilst Ericsson was portrayed as being a “clearly weaker” driver than Wehrlein, who was generally portrayed as a reasonably competent driver, Ericsson was generally much closer in terms of performance than many might have expected him to be relative to Wehrlein – particularly when Ericsson, being a taller and heavier driver than Wehrlein, had to run up to 8kg over the minimum weight limit, whilst Wehrlein, being 10kg lighter, could run at the minimum weight limit. The gap in qualifying trim was the smallest in the field – only 0.05s on average in Wehrlein’s advantage, less than the likely penalty that Ericsson had from being heavier than Wehrlein.

        Similarly, whilst Felipe Nasr was generally held as a reasonably competent driver, again he wasn’t blowing Ericsson away by a massive gap either – if anything, it seemed that some begrudgingly accepted that Ericsson was better than they’d thought, even if they did so in a rather passive-aggressive fashion.

        Now, this year Sauber have, as far as I can tell, managed to shave a bit of weight off the car so that both Ericsson and Leclerc can run under the minimum weight limit. If Ericsson was penalised by having to consistently run over the minimum weight limit in the past, that change would be a much bigger advantage for Ericsson and is already going to slightly increase his competitiveness compared to his past form.

        Now, that is not to say that Ericsson is an amazing driver, but if we accept the possibility that he is not as mediocre as is portrayed and that he has probably gained a larger benefit from the car being made lighter, then perhaps the comparison is not quite as negative as you suggest.

        1. You say he’s probably not good enough for Ferrari yet which is fair but let’s be honest here… Is 2018-spec Kimi good enough for Ferrari? I think LeClerc would score more points over a season than Kimi.

          1. Ben Rowe (@thegianthogweed)
            6th August 2018, 8:48

            Well, I doubt he would instantly be better than Kimi. He would very likely need several races to get used to the new team while Kimi will be very familiar with it all. He may well get better than him throughout most of it, but I’d say it would still be best for him to have another season elsewhere before going to Ferrari. I also don’t see Kimi messing up his races and ending up at the back. The worst time to do this is near the end of the race as you have little time to recover, which is what Leclerc did in Germany. I think Kimi’s last DNF including just himself was Brazil in 2016. Since then he pretty much never badly effects his own race Even Vettel does this more often. I’m thinking it is more and more likely Ferrari are going to be keeping him for 2019 if I’m honest. He’s pretty solid but nothing special. But I see that as being ideal for them. But I can easily see Leclerc going there sometime soon if he keeps improving.

            1. Why, after a few races, Lecler would probably beat both Kimi AND the grossly overestimated Seb

        2. If indeed Ericsson has that weight disadvantage, then he’s even better than I thought. Not to take anything from Leclerc, but I don’t think the Swede is as bad as some commentators portray him.

          And I agree with others, there’s no rush for Charles: another season in the midfield wouldn’t be a bad thing (think of the insane pressure at Ferrari from both the bosses and the fans/media…).

      2. @thegianthogweed

        And I’m almost wondering if this is one area Leclerc possibly struggles in.

        Leclerc has been strong in wet weather in the lower formulae and claims to like driving in the wet (as he expects to have an advantage). But 900+HP in the wet is new to him. I expect he’ll end up being good in it, he certainly has the confidence.

        1. Ben Rowe (@thegianthogweed)
          6th August 2018, 13:51

          Well, I was just basing it on that Ericsson has crashed out of loads of wet weather races. Some qualifying too I think. Showing that normally he isn’t very strong here. And the 2 wet sessions this season. The end of the race in Germany and qualifying in Hungary, Ericsson either beat him, or was far better. Looking at it this way doesn’t look that good for Leclerc. But Lets give him time to get used to it in F1. If he used to be great in these conditions, he hopefullly will be again.

    4. @thegianthogweed – very nice post there mate. I agree he has probably been more impressive than Max in his first half season but I do think he will be good enough for Ferrari, maybe a year in Haas next year first. I think he is a Superstar in the making.

    5. Nice rookie with lots of potential but still prone to stupid mistakes and sometimes destroying his own race.
      Slow starter in his f1 career but fast learning. Compared with his very weak teammate makes it hard to judge his real potential and that of the Ferrari powered Sauber,

      1. Another orange fan hating on anyone threatening his idol from Belgium, hahahaha.
        Loved this bit: ” (..) prone to stupid mistakes and sometimes destroying his own race.” – Hahahaha.

    6. An insightful and informative article.

    7. Leclerc utterly dominated teammate Fuoco in F2, who is having an impressive year this year. He would be very strong in the Ferrari immediately.

    8. It’s a shame that there is so much pressure to accelerate (legit) young driving talent into the top teams. If there wasn’t such a major performance gap between the MFG teams and the farm teams, it would be great to see these guys nipping at the heels of the top teams for a bit longer.

    9. The guy clearly deserves a front seat in 2019 already. The only risk though is to be given wings without a Red Bull drink.

      1. Josh (@canadianjosh)
        5th August 2018, 21:16

        +1

    10. Ericsson – Leclerc races 5-6.

      Fantastic job Leclerc. You are great.

    11. Josh (@canadianjosh)
      5th August 2018, 21:15

      Leclerc is my fav driver week in week out. To me he just has that natural instinct to be a great driver and when you see a 20 year old rookie in a Sauber making a few Q3s, albeit with Ferrari power, you just have to sit back and appreciate it. When Spa comes a few weeks from now I won’t be surprised to see some good points from him.

    12. amazing content, thank you really

    Comments are closed.