Charles Leclerc: Ferrari driver on honesty, learning from mistakes & downtime on the golf course

Formula 1
Ferrari's Charles Leclerc celebrates winning the Austria Grand Prix last month

Charles Leclerc admits “emotions have run extremely high” in a tumultuous first part of the season for himself and his Ferrari team.

“Whether it was in highs or lows, there was no race with no emotions,” Leclerc says. “It’s either win, or leading and then some problems occur or whatever. So it’s been a first part of the season with quite a few things happening.”

It has indeed. After two years in the competitive wilderness, Ferrari started the season with a bang. Two wins in the first three races, and two retirements for title rival Max Verstappen of Red Bull, gave Leclerc a 46-point lead over the Dutchman.

Since then, 2022 has largely been a story of squandered opportunities for Ferrari. Leclerc has scored seven pole positions in 13 races – but only one further win.

Twice his engine has failed while leading. Three times now Ferrari’s strategists have thrown away a lead for Leclerc and turned it into a lower finish. And Leclerc himself has not been blameless either. A spin at Imola in April turned third place into sixth. Much worse was his crashing out of the lead in France last month.

“First of all,” he says, “it was amazing to see that we finally got back to fighting for wins.

“On the other hand, we haven’t managed to maximise all the potential we had. And this is not great. We still have the second part of the season to catch up, I hope, and I will push at the maximum. But the last few races have been a bit difficult.”

Through the course of an exclusive and extensive interview with BBC Sport, Leclerc is candid, friendly and refreshingly honest as he delves into Ferrari’s rollercoaster season.

The 24-year-old discusses:

  • How Ferrari are dealing with their failures
  • His mental approach to difficulties
  • Why he believes he is driving at his best ever level
  • His rivalry with Verstappen
  • How he’ll face the rest of the year

Coping with Ferrari’s problems

Verstappen and Leclerc are both outstanding drivers, and their cars are so close in performance that it’s hard to say which is faster. The title fight should be as close and intense as it was between Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton last year.

Instead, Verstappen takes an impregnable-looking 80-point lead into the final nine races of the season, starting in Belgium on 26-28 August. And for that, Ferrari have to look at themselves.

Leclerc has made two in-race errors that may have cost him as many as 32 points.

On the other hand, Verstappen has also made two obvious mistakes – going off in Spain and spinning in Hungary – it’s just that his have not been as costly; he recovered to win each time.

And both drivers have suffered reliability problems.

But it’s Ferrari’s operational errors that have really hit home. In both Monaco and Silverstone, pit-stop calls demoted Leclerc from the lead to fourth place. In Hungary last weekend, it was an incorrect tyre strategy that converted a lead into sixth place at the flag.

Without these mistakes, Verstappen’s lead would be 37 points rather than 80 – still substantial, but eminently recoverable.

How does Leclerc feel about this?

“Let’s say that we know we need to work on that,” he says. “We want to do absolutely everything to get better in every single thing we do, and obviously looking at the first part of this season, there have been some strategy problems, there have been some reliability problems and there have been driving mistakes.

“On reliability and strategy, we are working extremely hard to get better. And after a mistake, we always go through exactly the same process, which is to try and analyse from where the mistakes come, why did we take the wrong decision at a certain point of the race, in order to go forwards. As soon as we understand a mistake, then we can move on.”

Leclerc says that he and team-mate Carlos Sainz are “very involved” in these discussions, and that he has “the confidence that we will get better”.

What gives him that confidence?

“The way that we work, because I know how tough it’s been the last few years to get back to where we are. And I know that we arrived to that level because for two years we have been working on those weaknesses of the car.

“So, we still have weaknesses and we need to work on them. But if we work as well as we did in the last two years on other weaknesses, I am confident we will overcome them.”

Leclerc looking dejected after spinning out from third position with 10 laps remaining in Imola, in April

How has it affected him?

This is the first time Leclerc has had a car consistently fast enough to fight for the title, yet problems keep delivering him blow after blow. How has he dealt with this?

“It depends which one,” he says. “I’m extremely tough with myself. So it is much more difficult to deal with my own errors than whenever it is the team, even though we are obviously one team and we lose and we win together.

“I’m always harsher whenever it’s me who does the mistake, and obviously France was one of those which which hurt quite a bit. Imola also a little bit, even though there weren’t many points involved because I could go back on track.

“But whenever I go through this tough time, I go through the same process as I was saying before, trying to analyse what was wrong. And it’s mostly mentally.

“You know, what is the mindset that I had at that particular moment of the race that pushed me to go over the limit and do a mistake?

“To speak about it seems quite easy, but it is not always easy to pinpoint exactly what was going on in your head at that moment. But I think this is a strength of mine and helps me to improve as a driver every time I make a mistake.”

Honesty as a coping mechanism

Errors, he says, are “part of the experience; it’s part of the path of anybody in whatever work you do – at one point, a mistake will happen.

“Every individual will react in a different way. This is my way of reacting to it. And I’ve always felt the benefit of being honest with yourself and just grow from it.”

Some drivers take a different approach. The concept of a “racing drivers’ book of excuses” has long been in the F1 lexicon. Michael Schumacher, for one, was notorious for never admitting he had made a error – at least not in public. For Leclerc, this is anathema.

“I really don’t see the point of hiding it,” he says. “And sometimes it is so obvious to everybody that the mistake comes from driver, I just don’t understand the drivers that are trying to have excuses with the wind or whatsoever.

“I mean, sometimes it can happen. One out of 200 crashes, you’ll get something very strange happen. But I just don’t like to lose time with finding excuses, because that’s exactly when you start to you start to lose time, and you just don’t go forward.

“This is also good for the people that are that are working around me because they know that whenever I’m going to do a mistake, I’m gonna be very honest and I hope that is going to be the same for them. So then everybody can just learn quicker and it is the case in Ferrari.”

Adapting and improving

Leclerc, left, with Ferrari team-mate Carlos Sainz during the F1 Grand Prix in Hungary last week

Already at an extremely high level, Leclerc has stepped up this year. His advantage over team-mate Sainz in qualifying, for example, has increased significantly. Last year, it was 11-7 to Leclerc in their head-to-head over the year, at an average advantage of 0.122 seconds; in 2022, it’s 9-2 where a fair comparison is possible, at 0.187secs.

Leclerc says the mental training he uses as part of his development is part of the explanation for this.

“To put me exactly in the zone, to be able to always be at your 110% whenever you get into the car whatever the other outside pressures or whatever is happening around you; this is where mental training is extremely helpful,” Leclerc says.

He puts his improved performances down to other aspects, too.

“I think there has been a linear progression since I arrived in Formula 1 just by learning year after year and trying to modify some details,” he says.

“This year, I have changed quite a few things, especially in the way I prepare myself for races. In the way I relax after the races. But this comes from experience. It’s not like last year I was not careful to all of these details. Whenever you get older – I’m still 24, so it’s fine – in a way you just feel different things.

“I could feel at the end of last year that I was very tired in the last part of the season and I don’t want to get to the last part of this year being tired because I know it’s a big opportunity and I just want to win races.

“So there’s a lot more off-time, and time where I’m not doing much at home and in between the races.

“Just training and staying at home is basically my new life. Diet, training and staying at home. So there’s a lot more boring moments, if I can call it like that, but that are very helpful and I know they are. And this makes a difference.”

Does he think part of the reason he has raised his game is because he is in title contention?

“I used to say no, but I think it is. I think part of it is because when you know you have the car to fight for a world title, then you try to cure all the details.

“But then I will keep this level of preparation for all the next years because I felt the benefits, when I didn’t know the benefit before.

“So whether I’m fighting for the championship or not next year, this will be the new standard for me.”

Has being in a title fight changed anything else?

“Not really. I’ve never felt too much the outside pressures,” he says. “For me this doesn’t change much. It’s just more happiness, I guess, because whenever you are doing a great job you’re rewarded with a victory, which is much more rewarding than a fifth place like last year, whenever we were doing the perfect job.

“And it’s also beautiful to see the smiles on the faces of all the people now back at the factory and at the track.

“After two very difficult years where whatever we were doing it was quite frustrating because you’ll never get the result that you wanted, now we have the possibility to get the result that we want. So it’s good.”

Racing against Verstappen

Charles Leclerc and Max Verstappen

Although Leclerc and Verstappen have disputed the lead on track in a number of races, even passed and re-passed each several times, there have been none of the flashpoints seen between Verstappen and Hamilton last year.

This is a rivalry that dates right back to their karting days, more than 10 years ago. Back then, Leclerc admits, “Max and myself were extremely aggressive and that’s why it didn’t end up very well most of the time.

“When we were younger, it was a bit more messy and obviously we were kids. But now the relationship has improved, and there’s a lot of respect.”

In F1, the pair have had their intense fights before. After Verstappen barged Leclerc off the track to win in Austria in 2019, Leclerc reacted at the following race in Silverstone, where they staged a wheel-to-wheel fight of incredible intensity in the opening stint.

And Leclerc does not rule out their battle becoming more fiery in the future.

“It depends on the situation, on the person you’re facing, your opponent,” he says. “How far is he willing to go?

“This year, either I had a big advantage in the championship and then you are not really willing to take those risks. Or he had a big advantage in the championship and he is not really willing to risk. Or I am not really willing to risk because I need to catch up points.

“So, I feel like the championship of last year was probably much more prone to see these type of things because it was so close until the very end.

“I would have expected us to be much more like this if the championship will be extremely close towards the end. [If] it’s not finished, then we might see that at the end of the year.”

Golf and the new generation

Leclerc says a lot of Formula 1 drivers enjoy playing golf

Leclerc is part of a remarkable generation of young drivers in F1. Verstappen, George Russell, Alex Albon, Pierre Gasly, Esteban Ocon and Lance Stroll were contemporaries in karting, Lando Norris close behind.

Leclerc agrees with Russell that “the fact that we’ve raced together since a very long time has made all of us stronger, because we’ve always pushed each other to improve, and that’s why I believe we are a very strong generation”.

And now the friendship and rivalries have moved on to the golf course. Leclerc, Albon and Norris play regularly. It’s for fun and relaxation but, being elite sportsmen, they also want to beat each other. It seems an odd fit for F1 drivers, even if famously Nigel Mansell was a quality golfer. What’s the appeal?

“I don’t even know myself because it’s such a frustrating sport!” Leclerc says. “And I always get super-frustrated because whenever I play with them, I don’t play well.

“But there’s something about it that every single small detail makes a difference. In golf, if you don’t exactly have the right mindset to hit the ball, then you already know that the ball is going to go everywhere, but not where you want it to go.

“So I think, mentally, it’s a very good exercise and that’s why we love it so much as drivers.”

George Russell, Charles Leclerc and Alex Albon on the podium

The climax to the season

Leclerc now has three weeks to rest and recuperate before he tries to salvage his season over an intense period of nine races in 12 weeks.

He admits that the title looks “more and more difficult” but says “until it’s mathematically over, then I still want to believe in it. This is what gives me the motivation”.

He faces such a large deficit that he more or less has nothing to lose. How will he approach the second part of the season?

“I really feel like this first part of the season has been my strongest in F1 and I think the way I have worked,” Leclerc says, “and the way we have worked as a team – in terms of finding the right set-up, in terms of building up to the qualifying lap in Q3, or just preparing the race – has been the best I have ever done in F1.

“So there is no need for me to change that approach. Again, try and grow from the mistakes of the first half, but try and perform as well as the first half because the performance I’ve given, I’m extremely happy about. And this I want to keep.

“So there won’t be any significant change. We just need to try and work as a team to put a weekend together for the nine remaining races and see where we end up.”

You can listen to an extended version of this interview as a podcast on BBC Sounds.

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