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.
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.”
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.”
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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2018 F1 season
- Honda’s jet division helped F1 engineers solve power unit problem
- McLaren Racing losses rise after Honda split
- Ricciardo: Baku “s***show” was Red Bull’s fault
- “Drive to Survive Episode 1: All to Play For” reviewed
- F1’s television and social media audiences rose last year