until Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League

Formula 1

Does Leclerc warrant the ‘future F1 champion’ tag?

by Matt Beer
10 min read

Charles Leclerc is likely heading into a second successive season where his extraordinary talent is partly hidden by a limited Ferrari, but despite the team’s struggles last year his reputation was enhanced with a string of outstanding performances.

But he does also have his critics and when The Race placed Leclerc third in its 2020 F1 driver rankings, behind only Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen, there was no lack of pushback. In particular, Leclerc’s mistakes during the 2020 season were highlighted.

To get a deeper understanding of Leclerc’s driving, his strengths and weaknesses, The Race’s trio of F1 journalists – Scott Mitchell, Mark Hughes and Edd Straw – break down the 23-year-old’s qualities in this adaptation of a recent podcast episode.


Charles Leclerc Ferrari F1 2020

Outright pace is the bedrock of any F1’s driver’s game, which is in particular showcased by qualifying. Judged by that measure Leclerc is stunningly fast. You can make a case that he’s the fastest driver in Formula 1, and it’s impossible to say definitively if it’s Leclerc, Lewis Hamilton or Max Verstappen. But he’s one of the three capable of being the outright quickest of a lap.

Feb 01 : Charles Leclerc: future champion or over-rated?

Last year, Leclerc produced a series of stunning qualifying performances in a limited SF1000 – fourth on the grid at Silverstone, Nurburgring, Algarve and the second Bahrain race, and fifth at Mugello – that was a marginal Q3 car at best. Over the season, his adjusted average advantage over Sebastian Vettel was three-quarters of a second.

It’s not just about this season. He was consistently outstanding in his rookie season with Sauber in 2018, reaching Q3 eight times in a car that wasn’t as good as he made it look.

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Singapore Grand Prix Qualifying Day Singapore, Singapore

Leclerc’s greatest strength on this score is his ability to get a fast laptime out of any car balance. As we saw in 2019, there were times when Vettel could match or beat him but only when the car suited him. Leclerc is capable of turning in spectacular, live-wire laps on a knife-edge.

His pole position lap in Singapore in 2019 stands out, with several lairy rear-end moments but none that cost him too much time or put him in the wall. There are precious few drivers who can do that consistently.

For a driver that on the edge, there have actually been relatively few significant mistakes in qualifying. In 2018, he often delivered his best laps in Q2 then struggled to find more in the final stages of qualifying but that’s something that has since improved. He’s become better at anticipating track evolution and giving away pace early in qualifying in the hope of hitting the sweet spot in Q3.

While the strike rate isn’t 100%, the challenge of putting a limited car higher on the grid than it should be and extracting pole laps from a top car are subtly different and there’s no doubt that he will be consistently topping qualifying once back in a car capable of doing so.

That’s a particular strength when it allows him to do what he did in Portugal, where he reached Q3 setting his Q2 time on medium-compound Pirellis. It’s a result of putting the building blocks in place behind the scenes, analysing his performance and constantly improving to the point where he’s a consistent force in qualifying.


Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Portuguese Grand Prix Race Day Portimao, Portugal

Leclerc’s qualifying pace does translate to speed in the race, even if he was often reduced to rearguard action last year to hold position. After all, you can ‘outperform’ the car in qualifying by maximising the potential over a single lap while others fall short, but then you have to battle against regressing to the mean on Sunday.

He’s also put a lot of effort into improving his tyre management over the past few years, something that has paid off massively and allowed him to turn in some impressive one-stop races – notably his run to fourth in the 70th Anniversary Grand Prix at Silverstone last year.

His run to second in the season-opener at the Red Bull Ring was also superb. In what was a midfield car, he ran there for much of the race but the safety car created an opportunity that he seized to take an unlikely second place. Few would have pulled that off.

But it’s in race situations that the most noticeable mistakes have come. Last year, there were five significant in-race errors, three of which happened on the opening lap.

In the Styrian GP, he effectively wiped out himself and Vettel, and he also hit Sergio Perez on the first lap in the Sakhir GP. He got away with hitting Lance Stroll on the first lap at Sochi, but put the Racing Point driver in the wall. At Monza, he crashed heavily at Parabolica after the timing of the yellow flag moved him up to sixth and in Turkey he lost a podium finish after a misjudgement battling with Perez on the final lap.

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Turkish Grand Prix Race Day Istanbul, Turkey

There are mitigating factors. When you are in compromised circumstances, as Leclerc was last year, and there isn’t really a bigger picture to think about, you can throw caution to the wind if you at the risk of it going wrong in pursuit of overachieving. That’s how you can get a car to transcend its notional level, particularly in the race.

It doesn’t mean you gamble and fail every time with over-optimistic moves, but Leclerc doesn’t do that – more often he achieved a result the car didn’t deserve.

It’s also a different phenomenon to some of the mistakes we saw early in 2019, such as when he crashed in Q2 in Baku. That was more about inexperience and he now knows how to trade off that risk versus reward.

We’re also talking about small misjudgements that have big consequences. Leclerc also usually avoids making the same mistake twice. And once in a frontrunning car again, the number of mistakes will surely reduce. The key question is if it will be enough to beat a driver like Hamilton or Verstappen to the world championship and that will be the key test.

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Sakhir Grand Prix Race Day Sakhir, Bahrain

The greatest drivers still make mistakes, but they are rare. Leclerc’s error on the last lap of the Turkish Grand Prix is a case in point and how you interpret it partly depends on whether you believe it was possible to secure second place. It was either a misjudgement that cost him one or two places, or a worthy attempt as you’d rather see a driver try a slightly optimistic move and bank the experience to ensure they do better next time than accept second-best. But the perfect driver in that situation will judge and execute the move, and next time Leclerc likely will.

That drive in Turkey was, save for that moment, also outstanding. In fact, it was arguably better than race winner Hamilton’s. Leclerc comfortably outpaced Vettel despite the fact he didn’t make progress on the opening lap and that perhaps explains why he was so frustrated at the end because he was three corners away from completing a brilliant race.

So it’s all about the context of these errors. In the grand scheme of things, that made little difference but in a championship fight it would. Regardless of where you stand on the mistakes, that’s going to be key once he is back at the sharp end week-in, week-out.

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Russian Grand Prix Practice Day Sochi, Russia


Leclerc’s technical ability was a weakness at first, which was something he wasn’t shy of admitting. But he’s worked on that and as experience has built he’s got a lot stronger even if the weaknesses of last year’s car make it difficult to draw definitive conclusions.

Initially, when he came into F1, he was trying to set it up like a Formula 2 car so it was too oversteery. But after those first three race weekends he got on top of that and has improved over the past few years in terms of getting the set-up compromises right for each phase of the weekend, which did take a while.

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Italian Grand Prix Race Day Monza, Italy

In terms of what he asks for from the car, last year’s Ferrari was fundamentally limited by a power shortfall and lack of rear stability and there’s little the driver can do about that beyond living with it. So we have to reserve judgement on the question of how strong his technical input is compared to Hamilton and Verstappen, but now he’s the lead driver at Ferrari we will start to see that tested more.

What we do see is that once Leclerc gets his head around things, he tends to master them. He’s now going to be Ferrari’s main man rather than the less experienced partner to a four-time world champion.

But given we know how strong Vettel is technically, even if he does have a very strong preference for a certain balance, the fact Ferrari has been willing to dispense with him is proof of the regard Leclerc is held in. It seems it’s more about refining that strength and gaining further experience than fixing any weakness.


Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Tuscan Grand Prix Race Day Mugello, Italy

Leclerc is known for his outbursts after mistakes, most famously berating himself after losing second place late in the Turkish Grand Prix and finishing fourth. This can be seen as a weakness.

But it’s a strength, provided it never becomes destructive. Even in the junior categories, Leclerc showed this trait, even when external factors intervened – such as the death of mentor Jules Bianchi or the loss of his father on the eve of the Baku F2 race in 2018, which he went on to win.

He’s s the epitome of a driver who is their own worst critic. This appears to play an important part in dealing with frustration as everyone needs a release valve and while some question his temperament, there are no obvious cases where this led to mistakes in races. Just because you are angry after the fact doesn’t mean that caused the error.

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Italian Grand Prix Race Day Monza, Italy

You don’t get to be the top performer at this level of sport without being hard on yourself and it will be interesting to see how his emotional control stands up to the intensity of a world championship fight, when you constantly have to calculate the tradeoffs of a focus on the individual race and the big picture. But overall, his belief that good enough isn’t good enough is one shared by all the great champions.

Apart from the ability to drive the car, the desire and a driver’s psychological makeup is massively important. Leclerc is a passionate character and uses that to drive him and the team forward – and when he is furious after making a mistake, that’s no bad thing for the team to see. The last thing you want to see is an error the driver doesn’t appear to care about.

But there is no greater test than driving for Ferrari with its very special kind of pressure and so far Leclerc has excelled in this situation. He already has two wins for Ferrari in 2019, most famously under the scrutiny of the tifosi at Monza where he was robust in holding off Lewis hamilton’s challenge. His authenticity is a strength because while some drivers talk about leaving no stone unturned, there are those who don’t really practice what they preach.

You have to be ruthless to be a champion and that’s what Leclerc is – even when it comes to his own performance. Provided he doesn’t let frustration and anger accumulated in the pressure-cooker environment of a world championship fight get the better of him, this aspect of his character will serve him well.


Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Eifel Grand Prix Race Day Nurbugring, Germany

Leclerc is untested in a world championship fight, but has shown he can win titles in GP3 and F2. Given Leclerc is at least a year away from being in the position to challenge for the F1 championship, it’s only possible to speculate on how he might stand up.

There’s nothing to suggest he can’t go toe-to-toe with Hamilton and Verstappen given equal equipment. It would certainly test his temperament and put pressure on him to avoid mistakes, but extrapolating from what we’ve seen so far, he should be up to it.

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship British Grand Prix Race Day Silverstone, England

It becomes a question of whether any of the tiny cracks that any driver has open up. The best never let such weaknesses become anything other than a minor nuisance but they will be tested by fighting every weekend against drivers of that calibre. From the start in F1 Leclerc has shown himself capable of special things, and over time rough edges have been smoothed out.

Leclerc looks every bit the champion in waiting and it’s not going to be his weaknesses that prevent him winning a world championship, but a lack of opportunity.

This year appears to be a year of treading water for Leclerc, with Ferrari targeting third place in the constructors’ championship, and even race wins potentially too big an ask.

But he’s only going to get better over the coming season, so that he’s in even better shape to show he can cut it as a title contender once he gets the opportunity.

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Email
  • More Networks