Interview: Leclerc's F2 title in his own words
12 October 2017 – Prema's Charles Leclerc wrapped up the Formula 2 crown at Jerez last weekend, with a round to spare, as he took his eighth pole position and sixth victory of the season. GPUpdate.net caught up with the Ferrari-backed Monegasque racer for a round-by-round account of an enthralling campaign, in his own words.
Qualifying: Pole | Feature Race: 3rd | Sprint Race: 1st
Leclerc took pole but dropped to third in the Feature Race. In the Sprint, he bolted into the lead, stopped for fresh rubber, and emerged outside the top 10, but he flew past rivals and retook the lead on the last lap
"We had a good winter testing. We worked on ourselves, we knew that we were holding up some pace on my side, but also on the car, because we didn't want to show everyone, but we didn't really know where we would be at the first round. When we went in qualifying and put it on pole, it was a good surprise. At the same time, it was a bit of a tricky session. I did the lap times so much earlier than the others, and the others then had the red flag. I don't think it would have changed the result of qualifying, but probably the gap would have been a bit smaller. After this, in Race 1, I had to learn as much as possible, the car, the tyre degradation… it's a big thing in Formula 2, with the Pirelli tyres, and the first race didn't go really well on that matter, because I just degraded the tyres too much. We finished third, which wasn't bad for our first race, but I had to learn a lot. In Race 2 we did a strange strategy, which made a very interesting race, with a stop. It was absolutely amazing. It was hard to believe in this strategy until the last lap, and I think for anyone who was looking on TV, not one person believed that it was possible to win, especially when I went out of the pits with eight laps to go and 22 seconds to catch. On paper it looked ridiculous, so making this strategy work was an amazing achievement by all the team."
Qualifying: Pole | Feature Race: 1st | Sprint Race: 4th
Leclerc cruised to victory in the Feature from pole and moved from eighth to fourth in the Sprint
"Barcelona was probably the race where we told ourselves that we were capable of winning the championship. Qualifying was a normal qualifying session, and we were on top, so we knew that performance-wise we were fast. Barcelona is a track where the degradation is big, and I think I learnt a lot from Bahrain to Barcelona, and it looked like the progress was massive in Barcelona, because we won Race 1, being the quickest all race, really. On the degradation we were a lot better than we were in Bahrain. I think it was really the turning point of the season, where we told ourselves that actually it [winning the title] was possible if we keep working like that."
Qualifying: Pole | Feature Race: DNF | Sprint Race: DNF
Leclerc scored pole on home soil and opened a comfortable lead, but an ill-timed pit-stop, due to the Safety Car, demoted him to fourth, before suspension damage forced him into a painful retirement
"Monaco was a huge disappointment. I mean, the weekend couldn't have gone more perfect until the mechanical problem that we had in Race 1. We were clearly the fastest in qualifying, the second group came very close, but the second group in Monaco most of the time improves compared to the first one, because the rubber is just going on track, so it was very good that we were on pole. And then in Race 1 the pace was incredible; it was probably the race where we were the quickest of the season, with Baku and Spa. Then to have the mechanical problem while leading the race… obviously it was even more disappointing because it was at home, in front of people I know, all my friends, all my family. It was hugely disappointing, but I turned the page very quickly. These things happen in motorsport, it was a shame that it arrived on my home race, but on the other side I think what we showed on track was very important and we showed that we were quickest."
Baku City Circuit
Qualifying: Pole | Feature Race: 1st | Sprint Race: 2nd
Leclerc claimed another pole, just days after the death of his father, Hervé, and stormed to victory in the Feature. In the Sprint, Leclerc raced to the lead, but a yellow flag-related penalty demoted him to second
"Baku was probably the hardest weekend mentally for me, because obviously I had lost my father on the Wednesday before the race. As for anyone who loses his father, it's just incredibly hard. Arriving to the weekend I was definitely not focused. I had the head completely somewhere else. It was definitely difficult to concentrate on the weekend. I was also a bit worried if I would have done good or not during this weekend. Then we had a free practice, which was very bad because of red flags every two seconds and Virtual Safety Cars... we had no mileage on this track because I didn't know it from the past. In qualifying it was a bit hard to tell myself that pole was possible, but I definitely went for it, because that was the goal. The lap was very good and we had the pole, which was… it made me relieved a little bit after the horrible week that I had. To have the pole in these circumstances cheered me up a little bit and that was the only thing I wanted to do for my father, to honour him the best way possible. Then I focused on the races and in the races it went incredibly well. We won Race 1, and we won Race 2 on track, but we took a 10-second penalty. I didn't find it really fair, but it was the system of the yellow flags that they changed later in the season, because they knew it was not fair. It's a shame, but in the end there was no better way to thank my father for everything he has done until that moment. It was an incredible week performance-wise, a disaster week personal-wise – it was a mixed emotion weekend."
Qualifying: Pole | Feature Race: 1st | Sprint Race: DNF
Leclerc topped qualifying once more and controlled proceedings in the Feature, resisting late pressure against Nicholas Latifi, but spun out of the Sprint early on, as he battled with Prema team-mate Antonio Fuoco
"It was a very good weekend, again. I think on the performance side, looking back at the season, there has not been one weekend where we were off the pace. The only session that we have been off the pace, I would say, is the qualifying at Monza, and that was more a matter of myself than the car. Anyway, in Austria, the pace was again very, very good. To be honest, I can't remember exactly all of the races! I remember that I crashed in Race 2, and that wasn't so good, but Race 1 we won – that was as always the goal of the weekend."
Qualifying: Pole | Feature Race: 1st | Sprint Race: 5th
Leclerc bolted away from the pack after taking pole, but a few laps into the Feature smoke poured from the rear of his car. He survived the scare to record victory, and went on to collect fifth in the Sprint
"It was again an amazing weekend. The pace was very, very good. In Race 1 everything was going well until I saw… I was looking at the screens on the straight, I saw a red car with a lot of smoke behind and I was like, 'Ah, it might be Antonio', and then I took the corner, I checked the mirrors, saw a lot of smoke and thought, 'Ah, no! That's actually me!' To be honest, in the car, I was very calm, but when you see that much smoke you tell yourself there might be a problem. I was asking the engineer, 'What's happening? Why are we still running with this amount of smoke?' They didn't really know. Somehow I thought I felt a loss of power or something like that, and I became a bit crazy looking at all the smoke behind. But actually we finished the race and we won the race – it was incredible. We didn't really know, at the time of the race, what it was, but it was just that we lost a bit of oil that caught fire on the exhaust, and that caused a lot of smoke, but it was nothing to be worried about."
Qualifying: EX (Pole) | Feature Race: 4th | Sprint Race: 4th
Leclerc continued his pole run but illegal shims were detected post-qualifying, and he was excluded. He rose from the back to fourth in the Feature, and gained places in the Sprint, despite an ailing gearbox
"We didn't actually care about the disqualification, we were more scared about what the people would say from that, because obviously when you are leading the championship people can say that all the performance comes from that piece, because they just don't know what that piece is. We knew in the team that this piece was definitely not giving any performance to the car, so we were not worried about going slower at the next race, or whatever. It was just a shame. But I think the issue has been explained quite well and people have understood that it gave no advantage. Luckily also we had very good races after that, showing to the people that this piece was absolutely no help for our performance. In the first race, we started from last and came to fourth, which was very good, because Budapest is a track where it's nearly impossible to overtake. We had a little bit of help with the Safety Car, but overall I think the pace was amazing. Race 2 also, we were incredibly fast, but then like seven or eight laps before the end of the race we had a problem with the fourth gear that cost us to go any [further] forward. But overall, in the circumstances, starting from last and coming fourth was great."
Qualifying: Pole | Feature Race: EX (1st) | Sprint Race: 5th
Leclerc recovered from missing the bulk of free practice to record pole in a wet session, before dominating the dry Feature, winning by almost half a minute, only to be excluded – along with Oliver Rowland – after a lengthy deliberation, due to excessive wear to the underfloor plank. He stormed from the back to fifth in the Sprint
"Spa is a track where the plank is having massive wear, and the officials know that, they know that if there is something that is a bit more risky to be out it's definitely the plank, because it depends on how you take the kerbs and things like that. Actually, the two fastest people on track, so myself and Oliver at that moment, got disqualified for the same reason. If you want to go fast at Spa you need to use the kerbs and if you use the kerbs you just wear the plank a lot more than if you don't use them. We got disqualified, which was a shame, because pace-wise it was incredible, I think we were like one second quicker than anybody else – it was crazy. They were telling me the lap times in the helmet and sometimes I couldn't really believe it, but it was an amazing race. To know that on paper we didn't finish how it really finished is a shame, but people in the paddock know what is the plank wear and they absolutely know that there is not one second per lap on a plank. It was like one hole on the seven holes… I don't want to go into details, but people know that and the important people in Formula 1 know that there is not much gain of performance on that, so that's the most important."
Qualifying: 7th | Feature Race: 17th | Sprint Race: 9th
Leclerc failed to top qualifying for the first time at Ferrari's home circuit – placing seventh – but emerged in the battle for Feature victory with Nyck de Vries. A chaotic last-lap shootout left Leclerc in the wall, though he officially classified 17th, while in the Sprint he recovered from the aforementioned position up to ninth
"To be honest, I didn't really feel comfortable in the car from free practice. Free practice and qualifying weren't great, but we worked really hard, and Race 1 was amazing, in the rain – we were very, very quick. Obviously, what happened in the last lap I don't really want to comment on! That made us lose a lot of points, and that was a shame, especially in front of all the Tifosi. It was such an amazing weekend support-wise, it felt like a second home, and the support you get there as a Ferrari academy driver is just incredible. It was a shame for us and for them. Race 2 was good also, but it was very difficult to overtake because there was a big queue of cars, with everyone having the DRS [available], and when everyone has the DRS you don't have many opportunities to overtake. We couldn't really show anything in Race 2 because of that reason, but I'm happy that we recovered after free practice and qualifying, pace-wise. But it's a shame that we couldn't show it on the paper."
Qualifying: Pole | Feature Race: 1st | Sprint Race: 7th
Leclerc bagged pole for the Feature and resisted late pressure, amid a communication mix-up, to take victory, confirming his place as the first champion of Formula 2's new era, ahead of next month's season finale in Abu Dhabi. He made a pit-stop in the Sprint encounter, along with several of his rivals, and finished seventh
"In Jerez we had a completely different approach compared to the other weekends. We took quite a risk. We knew that if we were doing pole and if we won Race 1 that we would be champion. We decided to put three sets of new [tyres] in qualifying, which we knew would compromise a lot Race 2, but we just wanted to do the pole and win Race 1. Race 1 went very well, on the Option our pace was crazy again. I think in 12 laps we managed to have a 12-second gap. After the Option, we struggled a bit more [on the Prime], but I wouldn't say a lot more, we were fast. I knew that Oliver was pushing to make me push, so I stayed calm in the car to try to keep the tyres to the end. Two laps before the Safety Car the gap started to increase for me, I think at that point my tyres were in a better shape for the end of the race. But after that the Safety Car came out, so all the pack got back together. Then there was a big misunderstanding with the team, because just after the Safety Car went in, they told me it was the last lap, so on this lap I pushed like crazy, just to have the tyres dead at the end of the lap. I put like 1.3 seconds to Oliver in one lap. After that, there was an error, so it was one lap more, and I thought, 'Okay, this already going to be difficult to do one more lap with these tyres!' I did one more lap, pushing like crazy again to just finish the lap, and then they were like, 'Okay, there was an error with the timing we had on the screen, there are still two laps more', and I was like, 'Oh my god! It is going to be a disaster now'. At the end it was quite a mess, and I finished with no tyres left, so it was very, very difficult. I hadn't calculated that there were four laps after the Safety Car, but at the end the most important is that we won, and we got the title."
Leclerc will make the second of four planned Friday practice appearances with Sauber at next weekend's United States Grand Prix, with outings also scheduled for the Mexican and Brazilian Grands Prix
"It's going to be great to back in a Formula 1 car in Austin, for me to get some more mileage, to get the most experience possible. Driving these cars is always something very good for me, and is always something very useful for me. I'm going to take the best out of the session and try to go through all the procedures that the team asks me to do, doing the most laps possible. As I've said in the past, I'm not doing the [practice runs] to prove anything, it's more for me to take the most experience. I think what I had to show, I had to show it in Formula 2. Formula 1 for now is just about taking experience for next year, if I get a seat in Formula 1."
Interview by: Mike Seymour