By Alan Baldwin
LONDON (Reuters) – Charles Leclerc will have two men in mind, their memories living on as a source of strength and support, when he makes his Formula One race debut for Sauber in Australia next week.
The 20-year-old rising star from Monaco lost his father Herve in June last year, before the Ferrari protege wrapped up the Formula Two title as the youngest champion in that feeder series.
Until then it was Jules Bianchi, his godfather and family friend, whose memory he had carried with him in every race.
The popular Frenchman died in Nice hospital in 2015 after suffering severe head injuries when his Marussia car crashed into a recovery tractor during the previous year’s Japanese Grand Prix.
“I was racing for Jules and now obviously…my father,” Leclerc told Reuters last year before the Sauber drive was sealed.
“My father was my number one fan and every time I won a race he was the happiest father of all. I just want to do well for them to watch from up there and be proud of me.”
Fast forward a matter of months and Leclerc, one of two newcomers on the starting grid this season with Russian Sergey Sirotkin also lining up for Williams, is raring to get going.
He will have to adapt to new realities.
Swiss-based Sauber were last of the 10 teams in 2017, scoring in only one of the 20 races, and it has been five years since they last had a driver on the podium.
Alfa Romeo branding has boosted morale but Leclerc can still expect to spend much of his time getting out of the way of faster cars.
The new Sauber C37 has also proved quite a handful in testing in Barcelona, with Leclerc responsible for three red flags over the eight days including a crash into the wall on the final morning.
By his own admission, the last two months have given him plenty to think about.
“There are so many new things to me, so many parameters to the performance of the car that are new for me,” he told Reuters during pre-season testing.
“Let’s hope we can catch up a little bit with the midfield during the season and then obviously I’ll have to improve as a driver, try to work on myself and try to get used to these cars as quickly as possible.”
One obvious aim will be to do better than Swedish team mate Marcus Ericsson, who has failed to score a point in his last 48 races dating back to September, 2015.
Leclerc is not about to become fixated on that, however, or talk of a Ferrari future.
“I think one of my weaknesses when I was a bit younger was focusing too much on my team mate, always trying to beat him and you always forget many other things,” he said.
“I just need to focus on myself, try to deliver the best job possible and then I’m sure results will come.
“Ferrari is a dream, obviously. But it feels so far away that it doesn’t even seem like reality.”
He can count on manager Nicolas Todt, the son of FIA president and former Ferrari boss Jean, to keep his feet on the ground.
Todt also managed Bianchi as well as Brazilian Felipe Massa, who went from Sauber to Ferrari, and Venezuelan Pastor Maldonado.
Leclerc will have plenty of support too from Sauber principal Frederic Vasseur, with whose ART team he won the GP3 (now Formula Three) title in 2015.
“He knows he will have to learn about F1, he will have to learn about the organization, the car, the tires and the tracks and it will be a tough one,” Vasseur told Reuters.
“He has just to enjoy and do the job and I am fully convinced that he will do.”
(Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by Ed Osmond)