The Monaco-born driver got his two career victories with the SF90 in 2019 in different and emotive circumstances
By Yuri Coghe
To say Charles Leclerc’s home just got a lot more special is to tell half the story.
When the Monaco-born driver received a special delivery sent by Ferrari last week, he had just been gifted a piece of memorabilia filled with intense memories of being a home hero, mourning the loss of a long-time friend and the reason behind a lot of controversy.
“Something special just arrived home,” he said on Instagram stories to celebrate the delivery of the SF90, Ferrari’s 2019 challenger. Simple words that can’t quite illustrate how his connection with the model goes much deeper than now having the chance to display the iconic red car in his living room.
It was with that exact model that Leclerc won the 2019 Belgium and Italian Grand Prixes back-to-back, his two Formula One victories to date. Not only did he get those wins in Spa Francorchamps and Monza, both considered essential F1 tracks, but they also came in very different and emotive circumstances – and later were the centre of a legal dispute.
Having impressed with Alfa Romeo in 2018, Leclerc rose to Ferrari for the following season. Sure, it was bound to happen given that he had been part of the Ferrari Driver Academy since 2016, being widely perceived as a future world champion. But the skyrocketing ascent was nothing short of spectacular.
Given that he signed a five-year deal at the end of his first year with the Italian team shows how serious they are about him. A long-time deal of this kind is not commonly seen in F1, let alone in its most iconic team. Not even Michael Schumacher, who famously enjoyed an extremely successful eleven-year stint with the team from 1996 to 2006, had a contract that long.
It took 13 races for the ‘Ferrari chosen one’ to get his maiden career victory at the 2019 Belgium Grand Prix. Yet, he couldn’t celebrate it how he wanted.
Just one day before, his long-time friend and Formula Two driver Anthoine Hubert had died in an accident on the same track. The only fatal crash in the history of the junior series left the whole motorsport world in profound grief, but Leclerc was among the ones who took it the hardest.
“On one hand… a dream since being a child that has been realized. On the other hand, it has been a very difficult weekend since yesterday,” Leclerc told former driver David Coulthard in the post-race interview.
“We have lost a friend first of all. It’s very difficult in these situations so I would like to dedicate my first win to him. We have grown up together. My first ever race, I have done it with Anthoine when we were younger, there was Esteban (Ocon), Pierre (Gasly). It’s just a shame what happened yesterday, so I can’t enjoy fully my first victory, but it will definitely be a memory I will keep forever.”
Just a week later, the then 21-year-old was back to the top at the most important venue for a Ferrari driver: Monza, the Scuderia’s home race. He held off Lewis Hamilton to win the 2019 Italian Grand Prix, leading to one of the most memorable podium celebrations in recent years.
“It’s very difficult to find the words to describe what I felt during this race (in Monza),” said Leclerc about the stage while speaking on-stage at Autosport International 2020.
“It gave me chills and made me realize what it is like to be a Ferrari driver, which of course I realized a little bit before, but I think you really realize it once you win in Monza and see the passion (that) you can really see in the eyes of the people. The passion that they have for the brand. It’s unbelievable to see.”
“It was the best day of my life, without a doubt,” he said in an April 2020 F1 Instagram live. “On the podium, there were hundreds of thousands of people and 99% were wearing red… and they started singing the national anthem. It was a very special moment.”
“You could really feel that the whole country, the whole of Italy is with you and behind Ferrari in general, and you can feel they absolutely want you to win. It was very difficult to stay focused and I could see the Italian fans cheering in the grandstands; I was trying to force myself not to watch the fans in the grandstands and keep watching the track.”
But there is (even) more to this story. One Ferrari’s fans would prefer to forget.
The team proceeded to enjoy a third victory in a row, with Sebastian Vettel taking the checkered flag first in Singapore – his last of 14 wearing red. The fact that they had no wins that season before that three-race stint and were standing out so much out of a sudden didn’t go unnoticed.
Teams started to question the FIA (International Automobile Federation) about possible irregularities in the Italian team’s engines. Multiple theories were created, with Ferrari’s unit burning extra oil for a power benefit being the most popular.
“Right now, Renault, Honda and ourselves are at about the same level. Only Ferrari stands out, and in a pretty serious way,” Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff told Auto Motor und Sport.
Red Bull, the only team to win races that season other than Mercedes and Ferrari, joined the protests. “We sent a number of questions to the FIA, but have not received any answers,” team principal Christian Horner said ahead of the 2019 Singapore Grand Prix.
It’s believed the Scuderia toned down their engine following the controversy as they didn’t go on to win any more of the six races that year. The claim is seen as rubish by Ferrari team principal Mattia Binotto, who also denied any wrongdoing by the team. “We have never changed our way of operating the engine for the last part of the season, showing that somehow our power unit has full legality,” he said at a media launch in 2019.
Not only the debate kept going, but it also didn’t get a proper ending. The FIA struck a confidential deal with the Italian team in February 2020 after reviewing the matter, in a decision the rest of the grid deemed as lacking transparency.
“After thorough technical investigations, it (the FIA) has concluded its analysis of the operation of the Scuderia Ferrari Formula 1 Power Unit and reached a settlement with the team,” read a statement. “The specifics of the agreement will remain between the parties.”
Needles to say, rival teams weren’t happy.
“In this day and age of transparency, it’s extremely important, and good governance is extremely important,” said Toto Wolff ahead of the 2020 Austrian Grand Prix. “It may well have been good governance, but if you don’t know, it’s difficult to judge.”
“It does sit uncomfortably that there is an agreement that has been entered into about the legality and conformity of a car,” Christian Horner said that same weekend. “That immediately draws you to think what is in that agreement? What does it comprise of because obviously in our minds a car is either legal or illegal?”
Horner’s questions tend to remain unanswered, perhaps just adding to the aura surrounding the SF90. Either legal or illegal, it’s safe to say Leclerc is the car’s biggest beneficiary. Other than allowing him to get his first two wins, he now also owns a piece of Formula One history.