Back in 1988 I covered the Monaco F3 race and met the late Hervé Leclerc, nine years before Charles was born. He finished eighth, just behind Damon Hill and Martin Donnelly.
Mentioning it to an amused Leclerc a couple of years back, he asked if his old man, a huge Senna fan, was any good! He talked about later sitting with his Dad in their Monaco apartment watching F1 and cheering on the Ferraris. Always the red cars. And how it was one of Hervé’s life’s ambitions to see Charles race at Monaco.
Four days before it was going to happen, in F2 in 2017, Herve, suffering from terminal cancer, was placed into an induced coma. Charles took pole, which moved him to tears, and was dominating the race until he pitted under a safety car and had a wheel problem. He had desperately wanted to win and dedicate it to his Dad. He sat with his head in his hands for a very long time.
Baku was a month later and Hervé died four days before it, just as Leclerc was about to get on the plane to Azerbaijan. Ferrari team principal Maurizio Arrivabene was on the same flight and said he was a bit surprised to see his young academy driver considering what had just happened. Leclerc replied that he was going to Baku to win the race, then would go back and bury his Dad.
Arrivabene later explained that he understood right then how seriously Charles took his responsibilities. In Baku, Leclerc took pole by half a second, won the feature race, dedicated it to Hervé, then next day won the reverse grid sprint race by 8sec from eighth, until hit by a 10sec penalty for failing to slow sufficiently under a yellow…
It was that emotion-laden month that convinced Ferrari they should be putting Leclerc in their car sooner rather than later.
Leclerc dedicated 2017 Baku win to his late father then returned home for the funeral
Zak Mauger\F1 via Getty Images
When I asked him about inking a Ferrari contract at 20, he said, “It was crazy, a childhood dream come true. Actually… I’ve got something to say, but I’m not sure whether I want to say it or not.”
After a bit of coaxing, he went on, “Just a week before my Dad was gone I lied to him that I’d signed for Ferrari. Not for 2018 but 2019. I’d promised myself that I absolutely wanted to achieve that and so I told him that I had. It probably sounds like bullshit for the media but that’s actually what I did.
“My Mum told me, ‘That’s not good Charles, you shouldn’t lie to him.’ And I thought to myself that I shouldn’t have said it. But I knew it was going to end for him in the next week. It was a very bad moment. He also knew it was the end. To put just some happiness in all of that, I told him I did it. And I remember the tears of happiness in his eyes.
“From that day, I regretted saying it. Then, when I actually signed, it was the first thing I thought of. I could tell him up there that I didn’t lie! And that’s what I said to my Mum.”
When Leclerc held off Lewis Hamilton all race to win Monza in a Ferrari in 2019, I recall feeling the raw emotion of it: the tifosi going mad, that podium, at just 21, and Hervé not being around to see it…
Then there’s his home race… Leclerc has always been ballistic around street circuits. At his first bite at Monaco in 2019, he topped FP3 and was clearly in with a shot at pole before Ferrari made an awful strategic screw-up that eliminated him in Q1. Hitherto he hasn’t been able to buy any luck in the Principality and has actually never seen a chequered flag around Monte Carlo in any category.
Lando Norris is clearly doing an exceptional job at the moment, but if he ever comes across hard times in F1, he could have a replacement career as a soothsayer. Ahead of Monaco he texted his old mate Carlos Sainz to say that he figured Carlos had a decent chance of winning.
That might seem a tad ambitious given the season’s results but Norris’s opinion was based on data from Barcelona’s slow third sector and the Ferrari performance in slow/medium speed corners thus far.
Norris tipped Sainz for victory but didn’t do too badly himself
Florent Gooden / DPPI
From first thing Thursday morning, the red cars were bang on the pace, Sainz topping the first session, beaten only by Sergio Perez’s Red Bull, and Leclerc quickest in FP2 despite doing just four laps in FP1 before breaking fourth gear. Charles obviously hadn’t read the script saying that once you miss track time in Monaco you play catch-up for the rest of the weekend.
Had Ferrari turned the engine up? Were they running light? Down at Mercedes, engineering director Andrew Shovlin reckoned you didn’t need to study the data for too long to conclude that the Ferrari pace was genuine. On Saturday morning, Max Verstappen’s Red Bull was quickest but Sainz and Leclerc were right there. Mercedes, by contrast, was struggling: Valtteri Bottas was almost half a second away and Hamilton, his car unstable at the rear, another quarter second further down, only seventh fastest.
When the most important qualifying hour of the season got underway, it did so without Mick Schumacher, who heavily binned his Haas exiting Casino Square at the end of FP3. Then Q1 claimed Fernando Alonso, which was a surprise. With improving pace at the past two races, the Alpines were hoping to make Q3 at Monaco. But Alonso understeering straight on at the Antony Noghes final turn on Thursday demonstrated how much trouble they were having generating tyre temperature. An unresponsive front-end is the last thing you want in Monaco.
“We didn’t deliver and we need to understand why,” Alonso said, matter-of-factly. Team-mate Esteban Ocon had similar problems but got on top of them rather better and managed to qualify 11th.
No amount of kerb cutting could rescue Alonso’s session
Dan Istitene/Formula 1 via Getty Images
At the sharp end, pole was looking like a straight shoot-out between the Ferraris and Verstappen. Max had not been happy with the Red Bull on Thursday, also reporting understeer, but was in much better shape as the track evolved. He was just 0.06sec down on Leclerc in FP2 despite aborting a quicker lap.
On his first Q3 run Leclerc found another quarter of a second to break the timing beam in 1min 10.346sec. Verstappen did 1min 10.576sec and Valtteri Bottas joined the fight with 1min 10.601sec, a hundredth quicker than Sainz and two-hundredths ahead of an inspired Norris.
The final runs in Monaco, the adrenaline off the scale. Then, bang, Leclerc’s Ferrari is in the barrier exiting the Swimming Pool. Red flag. All over. Charles on pole.