Just getting to take his place on the Formula One grid has been a emotional rollercoaster for Charles Leclerc.
He has had to deal with the death of his godfather and mentor Jules Bianchi after a crash at the Japanese Grand Prix in 2014 and last year the passing of his own father, just before the fourth round of the F2 championship in Baku.
Leclerc showed great maturity and courage to overcome those personal tragedies and add the F2 title to the F3 championship he had won in 2016.
But the step up to F1 is acknowledged to be a huge one, even for a driver as clearly talented as the 20-year-old Monegasque, so his debut for Sauber in the Australian GP Sunday was being watched closely.
After qualifying 18th and admitting the street circuit at Albert Park had proved more difficult to tackle then he had expected, Leclerc passed his first test with flying colors, claiming an impressive 13th place, just under a lap down on winner Sebastian Vettel and making several impressive overtaking moves.
“He did a great job,” said team principal Frederic Vasseur, who is hoping both Leclerc and teammate Marcus Ericsson can make great strides this season.
Leclerc, whose father Herve raced in F3, started his karting career at the track near his home in Monaco owned by Bianchi’s father. Leclerc has described Bianchi as “his best friend,” while his father would speak to his son about some of the great F1 drivers like Ayrton Senna.
“He [Herve} would always talk to me about Senna and so I grew up imbued in that legend and he was my hero,” Leclerc told the F1 webiste last year.
“I watched his Monaco qualifying laps so often, seeing him drive on the streets I would walk along every day. Taking pole, driving the perfect lap: that’s really the best and it gives you an incredible thrill.”
Ferrari Driver Academy
Leclerc’s talent was obvious from the start and after his 2016 F3 success he was signed up to the Ferrari Driver Academy.
“They give me amazing support in terms of my physical and mental preparation,” Leclerc told the F1 website last year of the advantages of being a part of the FDA.
“It also means I have regular access to the Scuderia’s incredible simulator, which for a youngster is an ideal way to improve one’s technique and it also provides the best possible preparation for each race.”
That mental preparation also included access to psychologists following the deaths of Bianchi and his father.
“I was helped a lot by the psychologists at the FDA, who made me realise how important it is for all of us to be mentally strong, especially if you are working as a racing driver,” he told the F1 website.
“Today, I am more self-aware: racing is the biggest thing in my life, but I know there are other things in life and it’s from them that I must draw even more energy.”
“Fear? No, that doesn’t exist. Even after Jules’ accident in Suzuka, I never had the slightest doubt about my future. I know that danger is part of racing, but when I’m in the cockpit, all I feel is the adrenalin rush and I have never driven even a single meter, afraid that something could happen.”
Initially linked with a drive with Haas, the 20-year-old has joined Swiss-based Sauber to earn his F1 stripes and will be looking to improve on his debut showing in a fortnight’s time in Bahrain.
As the official Ferrari reserve driver, there is also a chance that Leclerc might get to drive for the Scuderia this season if any mishaps befell Vettel or teammate Kimi Raikkonen.
He is playing down reports he could even replace Raikkonen in the Ferrari seat next season.
“I do have close ties with Ferrari, I’m one of the drivers so they’re watching me, but I’m not thinking about 2019,” he told his local television station in a recent interview.