Ferrari: Charles Leclerc charts his journey to the top of Formula 1

He grew up in Monaco, home of the most famous grand prix of all, and he says his first memory of the race is playing with toy cars at a friend’s apartment on the exit of the first corner, watching the grand prix at the same time, “dreaming of being there one day”.

The car he dreamed about most was Michael Schumacher’s Ferrari. And now, 17 years on, the dream has come true. Leclerc is driving his own F1 Ferrari, and doing a rather good job of it.

While the headlines after last Sunday’s British Grand Prix focused on Lewis Hamilton’s record sixth victory at Silverstone, in many ways the highlight of the race was Leclerc’s epic battle with Red Bull’s Max Verstappen for the first 20 laps. It was just the latest indication that Leclerc could be a man with a very bright future.

At the halfway point of his first season at Ferrari, only his second in F1, the 21-year-old could have had at least one win – and possibly a couple more.

Leclerc is obviously disappointed that he missed out when his engine hit trouble in the closing laps in Bahrain after he had dominated the race. And he was mortified to crash in qualifying in Baku, when the race weekend looked to be his for the taking.

In Monaco, he had set the pace in final practice, only for a strategy error by Ferrari to see him knocked out of the first part of qualifying. Losing the lead to a charging Verstappen with two laps to go in Austria hurt, too.

But he says: “It motivates me even more to try to progress and take that first win as quickly as possible. That’s my target. I am trying to work as hard as possible and hopefully it will come soon.”

In an exclusive interview with BBC Sport, one of F1’s brightest new stars discusses: his formative years; the effect of the deaths of both his father and godfather – the former F1 driver Jules Bianchi; being team-mate to four-time champion Sebastian Vettel; his progress so far; and his ambitions for the future.

Leclerc’s father, HervĂ©, was a Formula Three driver and he introduced his son to karting, the nursery for nearly all F1 drivers, when he was three and a half years old.

“From that moment on,” Leclerc says, “it was pretty clear I wanted to do that.”

They lived in Monaco, with its reputation as a rich man’s playground, but Leclerc says they were “not particularly wealthy – in 2011, I had to stop karting because my father did not have enough money for me to continue and we did not have enough sponsors to help us”.

The then 14-year-old was able to continue his career because he was picked up by Nicholas Todt. The son of FIA president Jean Todt had built a substantial driver management stable, which included Bianchi, Leclerc’s godfather, who was then racing in GP2, the step below F1, and a Ferrari test driver.

Thanks to Todt, Leclerc followed Bianchi into the Ferrari driver academy.

Bianchi was only eight years older than Leclerc, more like an older brother, and was instrumental in tutoring the young driver during his formative years in karting.

But despite the motor racing background, and a stellar career in karting, Leclerc says he only began to think that he could actually make it to F1 “pretty late”.

“I never told myself that I actually could arrive there,” he says. “I just told myself to keep working and keep focusing on the present to try to improve what I could do now and then I would probably have the opportunity to get there.”

Did Bianchi and his father not tell him he had the talent to make it?

“Yeah,” Leclerc says, “but I think they were saying a lot more: ‘Keep your feet on the ground and keep working.’ So, yeah, in the end I think I took the other side and kept working and not thinking too much about Formula 1.”

This humility is something many have noticed about Leclerc since he made it to F1. He says: “I am pretty sure it comes from them. I don’t think I’ve ever been arrogant or anything like that, so it’s also a bit natural.

“I honestly believe it is the way forward. But the fact they kept telling it to me, I think it has helped me.”

On track, Leclerc progressed to F1 pretty much as seamlessly as possible, winning almost everything along the way.

Off track, though, he has had to deal with awful darkness – he lost both Bianchi and his father while he was making it through the ranks.

Bianchi was driving for Marussia in F1 when he suffered terrible head injuries in a crash during the 2014 Japanese Grand Prix. He died nine months later. Despite the tragedy, Leclerc says he never considered stopping motor racing.

“There was definitely no thoughts any time to stop my career because of that,” he says. “From the beginning when you go into this sport, you know how dangerous it is. It will never be a safe sport.

“Of course, the cars are getting safer and safer but, when you are going at 340km/h, it can never be safe. This I knew from the start. And I just wanted then to be good for him because he had taught me many things.

“He had always pushed me forward and helped me to get better, and the only thought I had when this happened was just to do good for him to make him proud.”

Then, when Leclerc was competing in Formula 2 in 2017, his father died on the eve of the race at the Azerbaijan Grand Prix.

Focusing on that weekend, Leclerc says, “was very, very difficult”. Practice was “very bad”. But then he had a talk to himself. “I just asked myself what he wanted me to achieve on a weekend like this, and the answer came back pretty quickly – that he wanted me to win.”

So he did – finishing first in both races, although a 10-second penalty in the second demoted him to second place.