At 21 years, Charles Leclerc has the composure of a veteran as he has had to battle hard for his first two Formula One victories -- in Belgium last week and here in Italy on Sunday.
He soaked up the pressure from the best in the business -- Lewis Hamilton and then later Valtteri Bottas -- to give Ferrari its biggest win on home soil, for the first time in nine years.
It is a remarkable journey for the driver from Monaco, who is the first successful candidate of the Ferrari Driver Academy.
On Sunday, Leclerc recalled his first time in Maranello and how he was not allowed to enter the factory when he was accompanying his mentor and guide Jules Bianchi -- the French driver who died in 2015, after sustaining serious injuries during the 2014 Japanese Grand Prix.
“First time I went with Jules who had some TV work there. He tried to let me in with him but they decided I couldn’t go in. I remember dreaming of going through these doors and see how F1 teams work,” said Leclerc, who seem to have a memory of a veteran as well not able to recall the year he went there explaining that its not his strongest skill-set.
When asked to describe the feeling of winning for Ferrari on Italian soil, Leclerc said, “I don’t know how you say it in English: Libération.… yeah, freedom. More or less this. How many laps were there in the race? 53. 53 laps felt a lot longer than 53 laps. As I’ve said, I felt a lot of pressure from behind. So, obviously, from once I crossed the finish line until now is just pure happiness."
“It was the first weekend in my life I focus on winning. Since Wednesday, seeing the support we had, it was just incredible. I wanted to win in front of all the guys supporting us. That was the only thing I wanted. Normally I focus on the job I have in the car which is easy and more successful. During the race I was thinking how the win would mean to fans. It was adding to the pressure.”
Leclerc could have won in the second race of the season in Bahrain but a car trouble ensured he could just settle for a podium while in Austria -- he lost the win in the final few laps after a controversial clash with Max Verstappen. Leclerc explained since the incident in Austria he changed his approach to racing and that helped in Sunday’s win.
“Yeah since Austria, it is clear we could go further the way we defend and overtake in terms of aggressiveness. Austria helped me change the approach. And today thanks to this I managed to win. On the limit but yeah I am happy to race like this.”
(The writer was in Monza at the invitation of Petronas)
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