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

Photo by Charles Coates/Getty Images
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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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Final 2023 Rolex 24 at Daytona results, stats

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — The 2023 Rolex 24 at Daytona overall results were all streaks: two consecutive victories in the endurance classic for Meyer Shank Racing and three in a row for Acura.

And Helio Castroneves became the second driver to win three consecutive Rolex 24s and the first to win in three straight years (Peter Gregg won in 1973, ’75 and ’76; the race wasn’t held in ’74 because of a global oil crisis).

Starting from the pole position, Tom Blomqvist took the checkered flag in the No. 60 ARX-06 that led a race-high 365 of 783 laps with co-drivers Castroneves, Simon Pagenaud and Colin Braun.

RESULTS: Click here for the finishing order in the 61st Rolex 24 at Daytona l By class

Meyer Shank Racing now has two Rolex 24 victories and the 2022 championship since entering the premier prototype category of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship in 2021.

“I think what’s so special about this team is we are a small team compared to some of our opponents, but the atmosphere, the way we work, enables people to get the best out of themselves, and I think that’s why we’re such high achievers,” Blomqvist said. “I think there’s no egos. It’s a very open book, and that just enables each and every one of us to reach our potential. I think that’s why we’ve achieved so much success in really a short time at this level of competition.”

It’s the 16th IMSA victory for MSR.

The 61st running of the Rolex 24 at Daytona marked the debut of the Grand Touring Prototype category that brought hybrid engine technology to IMSA’s top level.

In other categories:

LMP2: James Allen passed Ben Hanley on the final lap and delivered a victory in the No. 55 ORECA by 0.016 seconds. It’s the second IMSA victory for Proton Competition, which last won at Sebring in 2012. It was the first Rolex 24 victory for Allen and co-drivers Gianmaria Bruni, Fred Poordad and Francesco Pizzi.

GTD Pro: Cooper MacNeil won in the last start of his IMSA career as the No. 79 Mercedes-AMG GT3 scored the first Rolex 24 at Daytona for WeatherTech Racing and the team’s fourth career victory.

MacNeil, who co-drove with Maro Engel, Jules Gounon and Daniel Juncadella, earned his 12th career victory and first at the Rolex 24.

“Winning by last IMSA race is tremendous,” MacNeil said.

GTD: The No. 27 Heart of Racing Team delivered the first Rolex 24 at Daytona for Aston Martin, which has been competing in endurance races at Daytona International Speedway since 1964. Drivers Marco Sorensen, Roman De Angelis, Darren Turner and Ian James (also the team principal) earned the victory in the English brand’s 13th attempt.

It’s also the first Rolex 24 at Daytona win for Heart of Racing, which has seven IMSA wins.

LMP3: Anthony Mantella, Wayne Boyd, Nico Varrone and Thomas Merrill drove the No. 17 AWA Duqueine D08 to victory by 12 laps for the team’s first class win in IMSA.


STATS PACKAGE FOR ROLEX 24 HOURS OF DAYTONA:

Fastest laps by driver

Fastest laps by driver after race (over the weekend)

Fastest laps by driver and class after race

Fastest lap sequence

Lap chart

Leader sequence

Race analysis by lap

Stint analysis

Time cards

Pit stop time cards

Best sector times

Race distance and speed average

Flag analysis

Weather report

NEXT: The 2023 IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season will resume with the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring March 18 with coverage across NBC, USA and Peacock.