Charles Leclerc, the Thrill Seeker, Fights for the Top

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He is battling Max Verstappen of Red Bull for the lead, but even off the track, Leclerc keeps his adrenaline pumping.

Even away from a racetrack, Charles Leclerc is a thrill seeker.

The Ferrari driver is a trained scuba diver, and this year, he started taking flying lessons. Because of the intensity of a Formula 1 season, Leclerc said it was crucial that he found ways to decompress.

“In the first part of a season you can afford to only think about racing, to go from one race to an event, then to the next race, but after 10 races you start to feel tired,” Leclerc said in an interview.

“Over a whole season, you can definitely feel the benefit of having time to relax in between the races, to think about something else, to take time for yourself, with your family, your friends. This is very important.”

Leclerc said he liked to challenge himself to do new things “with a little bit of adrenaline.” It is the reason — along with a slight fear of flying — that he decided to learn to fly.

“I’ve never been particularly confident in a plane,” he said. “This is something that has pushed me, even more, to pass my plane license so if ever something went wrong, I would understand it all and I can be in control.”

When there was no Formula 1 racing in the first half of 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic, Leclerc also taught himself to play piano.

“I play the piano quite a bit to disconnect my mind from racing, and it works well,” Leclerc said. “With scuba diving, it is the same. It provides me with a challenge to always go deeper, deeper, deeper.”

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He finished seventh in the driver standings in 2021, but after six races this year, Leclerc, who was born and raised in Monaco, has fallen behind going into his home Grand Prix on Sunday. His lead was 46 points after the first three races, but the reigning champion Max Verstappen of Red Bull. has won the last three to hold a six-point advantage.

Leclerc, who is in his fourth season with Ferrari, said he was “still living the dream” he had harbored since his karting days of driving for the Scuderia, but he was anxious to play down his title aspirations.

“I am confident if we keep working well, the results will come,” he said. “That’s the approach I want to maintain for the rest of the year. I don’t want to tell myself, ‘OK, we are really fighting for the championship’ because this adds a lot of pressure.”

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The title race is a renewal of the rivalry with Verstappen that dates back to the two 24-year-old drivers’ karting days, when Leclerc said they despised each other.

“We raced together for four or five years, and every race we would be fighting for wins,” he said. “We were also young and crazy, and we hated each other. But now we have grown, we are more experienced, we have both realized our dream to be fighting in F1, so the relationship has changed.”

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Like Leclerc, Verstappen said he could look back on their karting scuffles with amusement.

“We have matured a lot,” he said. “We grew up through go-karting from 12 years old and we are very similar in age, so we had a lot of go-karting battles you can laugh about now.

“We made our way into Formula 1 and we are in two top teams fighting for race wins. I hope it can continue for a long time.”

In the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix in April, Leclerc allowed pressure to get to him when he spun while chasing Sergio Pérez of Red Bull for second place. Leclerc went on to finish sixth.

In an interview, David Coulthard, a former Formula 1 driver, questioned if Leclerc had what it took to be a champion.

“After his victory and performance in Australia, with the way Charles performed there, I was like ‘Wow! This is Michael Schumacher again’,” Coulthard said.

“But then after what we saw in Imola, he still has an Achilles’ heel, he’s still making mistakes. Max has got rid of those unforced errors. Red Bull put Ferrari under pressure, and he made the error, so that’s the chink, and those little chinks make you think twice.”

Frédéric Vasseur, the Alfa Romeo team principal, has seen Leclerc mature since his debut season with Sauber in 2018, when Vasseur was in charge. He has no doubt Leclerc can handle the demands of a title fight with Verstappen.

“I have been convinced from the beginning he is a great driver,” Vasseur said of Leclerc, who won the GP3 title in 2016 and was the Formula 2 champion the following year. “From what he did in the junior series, from his first year with us, now he is in a different situation because there is a huge step in terms of attention and pressure.

“There is also a mega-difference between being a contender able to win one or two races during a season to a title contender because you can’t do a mistake, you can’t lose too many points, and you have to manage each race and the season. I am confident he can do that.”

Leclerc said the mistake in Imola was one he would learn from and not repeat. He is fueled by the memories of his father, Hervé, a former Formula 3 driver who died in 2017, shortly before his son signed his first Formula 1 contract.

“When I started winning in karting when I was 7 years old, naturally, you think you are the best, but he was telling me ‘Calm down, Charles’,” Leclerc said. “He was always telling me to stay humble. It was the first thing he ever taught me when I was winning, which has been very useful ever since.”

Since 2011, Leclerc has also been supported by his manager, Nicolas Todt, the son of Jean Todt, the former president of the F.I.A. There is also a strong family network that includes his brother Arthur, who is racing for a second season in Formula 3 this year.

Another important person in Leclerc’s life is Jules Bianchi, his godfather, who died in July 2015 from brain injuries he sustained in a crash during the Japanese Grand Prix nine months earlier.

“We were always extremely close,” Leclerc said. “There was definitely an extremely strong connection, and that remains the case through to today.

“At the end of 2010, when my father didn’t have the money to keep me going in karting and it was looking like it was going to be my last year, Jules was kind enough to speak about me to Nicolas who then paid for everything for me until I reached Formula 1.

“So without Jules, I would be nowhere,” he said. “He also taught me so many things when I was younger that allowed me to take my first steps in car racing and have been fundamental for my career and for me as a person. Jules will forever be with me.”

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