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F1: Charles Leclerc not feeling the pressure ahead of Ferrari move

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ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates (AP) Pressure does not seem to affect Charles Leclerc, which is just as well given where his career is taking him.

The 21-year-old driver from Monaco has earned a prestigious move to Ferrari following strong performances for unheralded Sauber in his debut Formula One season.

Leclerc will race alongside four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel in 2019 at Ferrari. Vettel has 52 wins and 111 podiums, but Leclerc is expected to be free to compete evenly against the German driver.

Along with Red Bull’s Max Verstappen – who is the same age – Leclerc is tipped to follow Lewis Hamilton and Vettel as F1’s next stars.

Leclerc won last year’s F2 championship at the first attempt, fast-tracking him into F1 and casting him into the spotlight. But by his own admission, he made errors as he forced the car too much on track, finishing 13th, 12th and 19th in his first three races.

“I remember when I made mistakes three weekends in a row it seemed like an eternity,” Leclerc told The Associated Press on the Sauber motorhome rooftop at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. “From the outside it didn’t go unnoticed either and people were asking questions of me.”

Asked if he is affected by any questioning of him, Leclerc replied firmly.

“No, not at all,” he said, “It doesn’t get to me.”

A veneer of confidence can be quickly exposed in the hard-nosed world of elite competition. But Leclerc speaks without a hint of arrogance and in precise sentences woven around an immense inner belief. One of Leclerc’s strengths, and a key reason why Ferrari rates him highly, is a capacity for self-appraisal. Leclerc did not hide from his errors but embraced them and worked through them.

“I don’t have many regrets because, even in the weekends things went badly, that’s when I learnt the most,” he told the AP. “They helped me become the driver I am now. I learned the mistakes you shouldn’t make in Formula One.”

Leclerc has already experienced a lot of emotional turmoil – losing his father and his close friend Jules Bianchi – and those setbacks forged a remarkably strong mental strength.

Last year in F2, Leclerc took pole position and won in Baku, Azerbaijan, shortly after the death of his father. That was only two years after losing his childhood friend Bianchi, the highly rated French driver who died in July 2015 at the age of 25 from head injuries sustained in a collision during the 2014 Japanese GP.

Adversity helped Leclerc withstand other pressures and develop a clinical perspective.

“It’s obvious I wasn’t in a comfortable position because people were expecting big things from me straight away in my first races,” he said. “I knew in my head this wasn’t realistic because Formula 1 really is very different from Formula 2. After that things clicked.”

Leclerc bounced back with an impressive sixth place at the next race in Baku and then secured top-10 finishes in four of the next five.

He underlined his consistency in one of the weaker cars on the grid – Sauber finished eighth out of 10 teams in the constructors’ championship – by finishing in the points in 10 of 21 races.

His more experienced teammate, Marcus Ericsson, scored only nine points compared with Leclerc’s 39.

Leclerc was voted driver of the race after finishing seventh at the Russian GP, and qualified in in eighth place at the French GP and the Brazilian GP.

“There were key moments in the year, because we hadn’t expected to be so competitive,” said Leclerc, who finished seventh in his final race for Sauber on Sunday and 13th overall in the championship. Veteran Kimi Raikkonen is leaving Ferrari to replace Leclerc at Sauber.

Leclerc first tested his driving skills at age 3+ on a karting track owned by Bianchi’s father, a friend of Leclerc’s father. Early promise quickly materialized when Leclerc won the 2009 French championship and then he later took on Verstappen, Pierre Gasly and Esteban Ocon in karting.

All are now promising F1 drivers and could again become Leclerc’s rivals in coming years.

Before that, Leclerc begins testing with Ferrari next week.

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Newgarden tries to regain control of IndyCar championship race at Iowa

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NEWTON, Iowa – There are just six races left in the 2019 NTT IndyCar Series championship and Team Penske driver Josef Newgarden has a hard-charging Alexander Rossi closing in on his gearbox. Newgarden’s lead is down to just three points after last Sunday’s Honda Indy Toronto.

Newgarden has been the leader in the standings after every race this season, with the exception of the 103rdIndianapolis 500, when he trailed Team Penske teammate and Indy 500 winner Josef Newgarden by one point.

Is Newgarden worried entering Saturday night’s Iowa 300 at Iowa Speedway?

“I’m confident we have good cars,” Newgarden told NBC Sports.com. “You can have bad weekends here and there. I think we can have a good result the rest of the year. But there are a lot of guys still in it. Rossi is the guy who is the closest, but you can’t count out Simon Pagenaud, Scott Dixon or Will Power. It’s going to be a fight until the end for this championship.

“We briefly lost the points lead after the Indy 500. Simon and I were one point apart. We’ve had better consistency this year. That is what is going to pay off at the end. We’ve been consistent up to this point and we have to continue it to the end.

“Look at all of these championship runs, most of the times it goes to the most consistent driver. You have to have clean finishes for every run. If you don’t, it’s pretty tough to make up the deficit.”

Newgarden has had a remarkably consistent season with three wins, six podiums (top three) and nine top-five finishes in 11 races.

Rossi has nearly matched him with two wins, six podiums and nine top-five finishes in 11 races.

These two drivers are nearly in a dead heat, so as the championship leader, can Newgarden force his fiercest foes into making mistakes?

“I’m a little bit boring,” Newgarden said. “I do the same thing every time. It puts more pressure on guys like Scott Dixon, who has to win races to catch up. They are going to be more aggressive. Our program is boring and that is trying to maximize each race individually. That is what we have to do.

“I don’t know if it is that different than being in a fight with Will Power or Simon Pagenaud or Scott Dixon. They have different tendencies. Alex is the more aggressive of those other drivers. It’s fun going up against all of them. Alex is really good. He has a certain style you have to play against. If it was Scott, it would be just as exciting, but it would be a different game.

“Alex brings a more aggressive side to the conversation.”

That aggressive fight continues to the .875-mile short oval at Iowa Speedway, site of Saturday night’s Iowa 300.

It’s one of Newgarden’s better tracks. He set an IndyCar Series record for leading the most laps in a single race when he was in front for 282 laps in his 2016 Iowa win with Ed Carpenter Racing. That was preceded by two straight second place finishes at Iowa in 2014 and 2014.

Since joining Team Penske in 2017, Newgarden finished sixth that season and fourth in 2018 in a race where he led 211 laps.

“We were pretty good there last year,” Newgarden admitted. “We qualified well, but we were a little shy of what we needed last year. The race didn’t pan out the way we needed it to. Our strategy wasn’t perfect there. But those are things we can clean up. We have a really capable group. I think we’ll have a good car there, again. I feel good about it. We’ve had good cars there in the past, we were just a tick off. I think we will be better there this year.

“We should be fine.”

Short oval racing is a unique form that adds diversity to the schedule as drivers have to get on an off the accelerator and on and off the brake, all while dealing with traffic throughout the 300-lap contest.

It’s that type of close quarter racing that real racers love.

“Iowa, for sure is a racer’s track,” Newgarden said. “It’s very bumpy, with a lot of character. It’s one of my favorite short ovals that we go to. I love that place. A lot of the tracks we go to are racer’s race tracks. There aren’t a lot of bad ones of the schedule. There are tracks with diverse challenges and you like that. Going from Toronto to Iowa to Mid-Ohio, they are all different tracks that require different setups, different driving styles.

“It’s like the championship is a driver’s championship. That is what it demands.”

An NTT IndyCar Series race at Iowa Speedway is a special experience because it’s played out in front of grass-roots racing fans. These are the fans that following auto racing on a regular basis, many of which are regulars for sprint car racing down the road at Knoxville Speedway in Knoxville, Iowa.

“They are all different race fans,” Newgarden said. “Toronto has a bustling city vibe. Iowa is a bunch of farmers. Really nice people who are salt of the earth farmers who come out and enjoy racing. Mid-Ohio is a hybrid. It’s very much a Midwest race but different from Iowa.

“You get these different pockets of different fans, different people, different racers but they all like IndyCar racing and that’s pretty cool.”