Charles Leclerc celebrated a remarkable Italian GP win and then remembered the day he was refused entry through the gates of Ferrari’s Maranello headquarters.
Aged just 21, Leclerc held off a Mercedes onslaught at Monza to become the youngest driver dressed in red to win Ferrari’s home race, ending a nine-year losing streak for the Italian team.
Following in the footsteps of Alberto Ascari, John Surtees, Michael Schumacher and Fernando Alonso, Leclerc became the 11th Ferrari driver to win here, completing the ultimate Italian job at his very first attempt.
The Tifosi have a new hero. Formula One’s fanatical army spilled over on to the pit striaght, lining up in their thousands to see Leclerc hoist the winners’ trophy into the air. Flares were lit, red, white and green ticker tape fell from the sky and giant Ferrari flags were unfurled as fans scaled the catch fencing just to get a glimpse of the team’s new star.
Pantomime boos rang out for Lewis Hamilton, who finished third – the world champion slipping behind Valtteri Bottas after falling off the road in his absorbing wheel-to-wheel battle with Leclerc. But this was a day in which the five-time world champion would play second fiddle to the sport’s rising star.
Leclerc’s young life has been tinged with tragedy. His father, Herve, died two years ago. He registered his first grand prix win in Belgium just 24 hours after the death of his friend Anthoine Hubert in a Formula Two crash. Leclerc was also the godson of Jules Bianchi, the Ferrari academy driver who died in July 2015, nine months after his devastating crash at the rain-hit Japanese Grand Prix.
“I first went to Maraenllo with Jules,” said Leclerc. “They wouldn’t let me in the factory. Now it is a little bit easier to go inside.
“I remember dreaming of one day going through those doors and seeing how a Formula One team works, especially Ferrari. As soon as you arrive in Maranello, you can feel that everyone is there to work for Ferrari, and that they are completely crazy for Ferrari.
“The podium here went beyond all the dreams I have had as a child. To see so many people cheering and singing for one team was amazing.
“During the race, I thought how much the win would mean to all those fans in the grandstands, and it was adding a bit of pressure.”
Yet Leclerc held his nerve. The young Monegasque’s credentials were tested to breaking point with Hamilton breathing down his neck for most of Sunday’s breathless 53-lap race.
First, Leclerc was shown a black-and-white flag, Formula One’s answer to a yellow card, after Hamilton claimed he was pushed off the road by the Ferrari driver at the Roggia chicane.
“He didn’t leave me a car’s width,” Hamilton yelled. “He pushed me off.”
Thirteen laps later, Leclerc then ran over the kerbs at the Rettifilo chicane before rejoining in front of Hamilton. Hamilton was hot on Leclerc’s heels through the ensuing high-speed Curve Grande. The 21-year-old’s defence was aggressive, but fair, according to the stewards, who noted but did not investigate the incident.
Hamilton did not concur. “There is some dangerous driving going on,” he said on the radio.
“I had to avoid colliding with him a couple of times, but that is how racing is today,” said Hamilton after the race. “I can talk to Charles in private about it. It is nothing major.
“We constantly asked for consistency from stewards. There was a rule put in place and it wasn’t abided by today. Maybe the stewards woke up on the wrong side of bed.”
Hamilton was forced into an extra stop, his tyres shot following his thrilling, but fruitless pursuit of Leclerc. The 34-year-old Briton secured a bonus point for posting the fastest lap of the race, and will head to the Singapore Grand Prix in a fortnight with a reduced 63-point championship lead over Bottas ahead of the final seven rounds.
Leclerc moves up to fourth in the standings, 13 points ahead of Ferrari team-mate Sebastian Vettel, after his win at the Italian GP. In contrast to Leclerc’s heroics, the four-time world champion took the chequered flag a dismal 13th and one lap down after he spun on lap six.