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Getting to know the real Charles Leclerc ... online

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If you want to know the real Charles Leclerc, he recommends watching his Twitch feed while he is racing online with his friends. It might sound like a sales pitch for his latest social media account, but anyone who has watched him gaming (a number already in the millions) will have seen a very different side to Ferrari's racing prodigy.

Once it became clear that turning up to real racetracks was no longer an option, Leclerc started devoting more and more time to esports. Stuck in the confines of his Monaco flat, he is gaming for roughly five hours a day to ensure he is as competitive as he can be for F1's official esports events every other weekend.

Remarkably, just eight days after downloading the official F1 game, Leclerc won on his online debut at Formula One's Virtual Vietnam Grand Prix -- a race held in lieu of the real Vietnam Grand Prix on April 5. Two weeks later, he followed it up with a second victory, at the Virtual Chinese Grand Prix, after a tight battle with real-world rival Red Bull's Alex Albon.

"It's a lot of practice," he admits during a Ferrari news conference held over Webex. "Since I had the game, I've played quite a lot. Probably five hours a day, something like this. There's nothing else to do..."

Although Leclerc takes online racing seriously, for his viewers on Twitch half the fun is seeing him go up against and communicate with other F1 drivers. Leclerc is the shining light in a new generation of F1 talent that emerged in the past two years, including Albon, George Russell and Lando Norris. And whether it's an official race on the F1 game or trying to roll an articulated lorry on Euro Truck Simulator 2, Leclerc interacts with his rivals in a way we never see at a real racetrack -- and for fans of the Ferrari driver, it's all free to watch on Twitch.

"Twitch is something I never thought I'd enjoy and I never saw myself doing," Leclerc says. "But actually I really enjoyed it. For the people that follow me, I think it's the closest you can get to the real me.

"At a track, it's different, there's pressure, things like this, so to be yourself is a bit different. But playing with all the other drivers, and friends, we've been friends for a long time, with Lando, George, Alex, so we can be ourselves and I enjoy it a lot more than I thought."

Of course, Leclerc still has an image to uphold. When he is racing online, he is often wearing his Ferrari team clothing and, in doing so, representing a number of million-dollar sponsors on a worldwide platform. But while he still keeps some filter on his thoughts, watching him on Twitch is as close as you can get (certainly in the current environment) to meeting Leclerc in a bar or chatting with him over a coffee.

"We are all very respectful," he says. "We also need to be careful because we know a lot of people are watching us, but on the other hand I try to be myself as much as possible. You need to be careful because it's still social and a lot of people can see it.

"It helped me quite a lot to play and stream at the same time to be my real self and show more of my real self, which I sometimes struggled to do at races due to the pressure when things are different. But on this social platform, I feel I am more myself and I am definitely enjoying it without thinking too much about saying something wrong."

Leclerc believes online racing will help when his world returns to normality and he is back behind the wheel of a 200mph Ferrari race car. Although the physics of the game are not quite right and there are no G-forces at play, Leclerc believes there are still transferable skills.

"Oh yeah, for sure. The behaviour of the car is never going to be the same as the real one because we don't have G-forces and the car always feels a little bit different, but at the end it helps me to get my reflexes right and train my reflexes every day.

"And also to drive a car, which might be different from the real one, but this is the closest I can get to it for now. All simulators are going to be different compared to reality, that's how I see it. I'm pretty happy with the F1 game.

"There are definitely things we can do better on the virtual side, which is damages on and maybe the track limits which we've had during the races are a bit too easy. These few things we can look into for the future to make the racing better and maybe more realistic for the people watching, but overall, I'm happy with it."

But, at the end of the day, isn't it all just a big game?

"I think there's a lot of fun to be had, but then there are some races where we take it quite seriously. So the official Formula One races, it is actually quite serious and we all want to win and are practicing quite seriously.

"But other races we are doing all together, this is mostly for fun, and I think we'll organise some other races with Alex, George and some other drivers to try and have fun, more than the competition of it.

"But the competition is always there, that's what is fun."