The pole position that means everything to Charles Leclerc: 2021 Monaco GP qualifying


Charles Leclerc's qualifying crash clinched him pole for the 2021 Monaco Grand Prix — assuming his gearbox survives. It sets him on course for an emotional lifetime's ambition, writes Tony Dodgins

wrecked ferrari of charles leclerc after qualifying for the 2021 f1 monaco grand prix.jpg

Leclerc on pole — if the gearbox of his wrecked Ferrari is salvageable

Clive Rose/F1 via Getty Images

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.

charles leclerc celebrates a 2017 f2 win in baku

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.

lando norris in qualifying for the 2021 f1 monaco grand prix

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.

fernando alonso over the kerb of the hairpin in qualifying for the 2021 f1 monaco grand prix

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.

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Instantly, minds went back 15 years to 2006 and Michael Schumacher cackhandedly parking his Ferrari at Rascasse to make sure nobody could beat his time. Alonso and Mark Webber were the injured parties then, and it was 10pm that night before the stewards concluded Schumacher’s action was deliberate, relegated him to the back of the grid and awarded Fernando pole.

What about this time? Leclerc, like Schumacher, was slightly down on his second run, his rivals behind him on the track. But this shunt was genuine enough as he tried everything to recover the time.

“I really nailed that first lap but I’d lost a tenth in the first sector,” Leclerc said. “First time I almost brushed the wall at the swimming pool, in fact I might have done, but this time I hit it too hard. Okay, it’s pole, but it’s a shame to finish up in the wall. Not the same. And I’m worried about the gearbox…”

He’d gone in right-front first but the rear-end pivoted into the tyre wall and only close inspection will reveal whether Leclerc will need a new gearbox tomorrow and takes a five-place grid hit. If not, he will be the first Monégasque to start his home race from pole since Louis Chiron (whose tribute helmet Charles is wearing) in 1936.

charles leclerc crashes in qualifying for the 2021 f1 monaco grand prix

Clive Rose/F1 via Getty Images

charles leclerc crashes in qualifying for the 2021 f1 monaco grand prix - front

Florent Gooden / DPPI

Verstappen’s final attempt was just over a tenth up on Leclerc’s first run as the Red Bull blasted into The Tunnel, but we will never know if the lap would have been good enough. As it is, Max will start on the front row for the first time in Monte Carlo.

Bottas also thought he would have had a shot at pole and Sainz was frustrated at not getting a second shot at it. He has never before been outqualified by a team-mate at Monaco (which includes Verstappen at Toro Rosso), loves the place, and thinks Ferrari could have been first and second. He was not happy.

“Awesome!” was how Norris described the lap which sees him start fifth, worst-case scenario, and possibly fourth. And there’s a case for it being stand-out lap of the day. McLaren team principal Andreas Seidl said ahead of the weekend that he didn’t expect Monaco to be a strong race for the MCL35M, which is better suited to high-speed corners and longer straights. But it seems that no-one told Lando. He was just 0.28sec from pole and 0.56sec ahead of confused team-mate Ricciardo – the 2016/18 pole man let’s not forget – in FP2.

Pierre Gasly was another top performer in what is his favourite race of the year. He lines up sixth for AlphaTauri as team-mate Yuki Tsunoda, who has never been around Monaco in anything, went out in FP1.

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Hamilton may have won Monaco three times but it is not one of his best tracks and in his 100 poles, only two have come in the Principality. “The car didn’t feel too bad on Thursday,” he said, “but we made some changes and it felt pretty terrible today.” The rear looked unstable, generally lacking grip which, Hamilton admitted, pushed him into over-driving. It will need a genuine miracle for him to win this one.

Sebastian Vettel is another who loves the challenge of Monaco and looked much more like his old self from first thing Thursday morning, ultimately putting the first Aston Martin eighth on the grid. If you’d told him he would outqualify a Red Bull, he’d have taken that!

Sergio Perez would have outqualified Hamilton if he had repeated his Q2 time in Q3 but didn’t enjoy the best of the traffic with his tyre preparation and never looked like the threat he appeared in FP1.

“We went backwards,” he admitted. “The conditions were much cooler and I didn’t get the best out of the car.”

Who knows what the next few hours will hold. Can Charles Leclerc achieve his and his father’s lifetime ambition and win a race around the streets where he was brought up. Or will his cursed Monaco luck continue?