Cautious Leclerc testing home course limits at Monaco

Monaco (AFP) –


No driver on the grid at this weekend?s Monaco Grand Prix can claim to know the bumps, corners and idiosyncrasies of the Mediterranean principality's famous streets as intimately as local hero Charles Leclerc.

The Monegasque driver remembers watching the red Ferraris whizz throught the familiar home streets as a toddler, who was later to travel to school on them by bus and as an adolescent dreamed of racing on the world's most iconic F1 course.

At 21, and approaching only his sixth race as a Ferrari Formula One driver, he has realized his and his greatest mentors? ambitions by coming home to race in front of family and friends in the distinctive overalls of the 'scarlet scuderia'.

His father Herve Leclerc, a one-time Formula Three driver who died in 2017, and his inspirational friend Jules Bianchi, who died in 2015 following a crash at the 2014 Japanese Grand Prix, share the personal space on his racing helmet this weekend, a division to reflect their importance to him.

"Without them, I would never have started driving or racing," he said.

His father, he added, had transmitted to him his passion for Ayrton Senna, the great Brazilian three-time champion who was killed 25 years ago at the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix.

In the week of Niki Lauda?s death, the memories, as displayed in the coloured graphics on his helmet, are important to the calm, determined and self-possessed Leclerc who replaced Kimi Raikkonen as team-mate to four-time champion Sebastian Vettel this year.

"I am eager to race at home, for sure, as it is one of my favourite tracks, but I am trying to prepare as normally as possible,? he said. "I try to make sure that the pressure does not affect me ... "

He knows already that he is making history for his birthplace. On Sunday, as one of only five men from Monaco to have raced in F1, he hopes to become the first to score points since Louis Chiron finished third in 1950.

- Cool despite the hoopla -

Trailed by fans, stopped for 'selfies' and besieged by a French media almost desperate for a new champion, 26 years since Alain Prost clinched his fourth title, Leclerc has retained his air of coolness despite the hoopla all around him.

"I feel I am satisfied with my performances so far and I am learning from my mistakes," he said.

"And I am ready to accept team orders up to a certain point -? until now, they have been acceptable. It is now my job to end up in front of my team-mate. Simple as that!"

His promotion from Sauber to Ferrari, after one season, has brought him fame in the digital age. He has 1.2 million followers on Instagram, 220,000 on Twitter and more than 120,000 on Facebook. His fans say his regular postings, with pictures, have proved he is more human than many drivers.

He considers himself lucky to have been recruited by the Ferrari Academy, schooled by his mentors and given his chance. And he believes Ferrari this year are better than their results have suggested.

"We were on top in Bahrain, and in good shape in Baku, when something happened... that we all know about," he said. "I don?t believe the table reflects reality for us."

For Leclerc, praise from defending five-time champion Lewis Hamilton -? who said he was reminded of himself -? has been welcomed gracefully.

"Coming from Lewis, I really appreciate it. I am trying to focus on my career plan and just to keep improving."

His humility has made him popular in the same way that Senna held his place in the popular imagination of the sport.

"I never met him, but my Dad talked a lot about him," said Leclerc. "Yes, he has been my inspiration..."

At Monte Carlo, he knows he has support, but understands also that he must build up his performance cautiously through the weekend.

"Petit a petit," he said. "If not a crash is guaranteed. You have to find the limit, lap by lap."

As a child of four or five, he remembers watching past a grand here for the first time.

"I would play with my little cars with my best friend and watch the F1 race go round the first corner from his balcony.

"Above all, I always watched the red cars!"

After finishing up 10th in Thursday?s practice sessions, Leclerc has retained his serenity and has no fear of the rain forecast for qualifying on Saturday.