Leclerc believes he can complete title 'mission' with Ferrari

Has a driver ever had as much bad luck as Charles Leclerc? (2:05)

Laurence Edmondson looks back on the issues that have hampered Charles Leclerc in 2023. (2:05)

At the end of 2019, Charles Leclerc signed a five-year deal to remain as a Ferrari driver until 2024. It was big news at the time and a huge show of faith as Formula One's oldest team named a 22-year-old as the driver to lead it into a new decade.

Leclerc had made his debut with Ferrari earlier that year and went on to outperform his teammate, four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel, over the course of the 2019 season. The bumper five-year contract, starting in 2020, was his reward, underlining Ferrari's belief that Leclerc, rather than Vettel, would be the driver to end the team's then 13-year title drought.

Fast forward to today and nearly four of those five contractual years have elapsed, yet title success seems as elusive as ever for Ferrari. Without a car capable of sustaining a title challenge, the closest Leclerc has come to his goal was a distant second place to world champion Max Verstappen in last year's standings and he has scored just three more wins to add to the two he already had at the end of 2019.

This year the points gap to Verstappen at the front of the field has more than doubled to 354 (with two races remaining) and Leclerc looks unlikely to finish higher than seventh in the standings. It would be understandable if the lofty hope and expectation that surrounded his arrival at Ferrari five years ago had descended into intense pressure and frustration, but speaking to ESPN in a recent interview Leclerc insists that is not the case.

"There is so much passion around the team that you of course feel the responsibility, but that doesn't add pressure to me," he said. "I'm not someone that is getting pressure, I just enjoy what I do with a lot of passion and a lot of dedication in trying to do the best job possible and hopefully becoming a world champion as soon as possible."

At the start of the 2022 season it looked as though Leclerc might fulfil his Ferrari destiny. He started the year with two wins from three races and led eventual-champion Verstappen by 46 points in the standings after the Australian Grand Prix in April.

What happened next was a story of mistakes -- both by Ferrari and himself -- and misfortune that ultimately left Leclerc second in the standings, 146 points shy of Verstappen. This year the performance of the car has slid further relative to Red Bull, with Leclerc seventh in the drivers' standings and behind Ferrari teammate Carlos Sainz.

With his contract up at the end of next year and the potential for openings at a number of other teams on the grid, has he thought about what he could achieve in a different car?

"I don't really think to that because Ferrari is so special and I wouldn't change my position with anyone else on the grid.

"Do I want to win world championships? Of course, this is the same for everybody, but do I want to change my place with anyone? No, I don't."

To understand Leclerc's connection with Ferrari is to understand what it means to have a second family in sport. Leclerc's godfather, the late Jules Bianchi, was being prepared to drive for Ferrari when he suffered fatal head injuries in an accident at the 2014 Japanese Grand Prix while racing for the now-defunct Marussia team.

Bianchi's manager Nicolas Todt, who had signed Leclerc as a go-karter in 2011, ensured the Monaco native became part of the Ferrari Driver Academy from 2016 onwards, providing crucial support at a time when Leclerc's self-raised funds were unlikely to cover his next step up the motorsport ladder to the GP3 Series. Leclerc then trod the path to F1 that had been cleared for Bianchi before him, arriving at the pinnacle of the sport with Alfa Romeo in 2018 before making his Ferrari debut in 2019 at just 21 years old.

At the 2019 Belgian Grand Prix he secured his first win for the team and from that point onwards the next goal was always going to be a world championship.

"I have always been dreaming of being a Formula One driver, and even more so with Ferrari," he said. "It's a bit of a family feeling now, it's been so many years I have been within the team, whether it is as an actual race driver for Ferrari or at the Ferrari Driver Academy in the years before.

"It's been many years together and I want to finish the mission with a world championship."

When Ferrari launched this year's car in February, the stated intention was to challenge for the 2023 title. But from the moment the SF-23 hit the track in preseason testing, it became clear that the team's goal was extremely unlikely. Since then, Leclerc says he has seen progress, but remains realistic about the gap to Red Bull and Verstappen, who secured both titles in October this year.

"There's been quite a bit of progress, especially in the second half of the season. When we started after the summer break we really did big steps forward in terms of understanding our car, and that is a good positive step in terms of the future and for future development.

"This is positive, but on the other hand it is true that it has been a disappointing season. We ended up last year being second in the championship for both titles and this year we had a target to be winning the championship. At the moment that is definitely not what we are fighting for, and obviously Max just won as well as Red Bull.

"I think we've seen two teams this year, Aston Martin at the start of the year and McLaren more recently, have made big steps forward. This is what gives us the confidence that these big steps can be done, but we need to understand exactly where the problems are coming from.

"We think we understand that but until we put the car down and see huge improvements, it's difficult to predict. It's also all relative in this sport and you are fighting against other cars and it depends on what the others will find. If Red Bull has found something again that will put them again better next year.

"I am personally very confident about the direction we have been taking in terms of development and I'm sure it will pay from next year onwards."

Leclerc is set to discuss his next contract with Ferrari over the winter. Neither side has given so much as a hint in public that they will not renew and it's clear that Ferrari still holds a special place for Leclerc that no other team, regardless of success, can match.

"Most of all it was what made me dream of becoming a Formula One driver when I was very young," Leclerc says of his ongoing passion for Ferrari. "I think this is the same for many of the drivers. It was the case for me, and I have always been dreaming of being a Formula One driver, and even more so with Ferrari.

"Second is a point that someone told me yesterday, I have spent a quarter of my life in the Ferrari family, which is quite a lot and that represents a lot to me too. You get to know lots of people inside the team, you get to understand how much it means to them to work for Ferrari and how much it means to them to get back to winning.

"I know that I feel the same way, I want to be back to winning as soon as possible. It's a bit of a family feeling now, it's been so many years I have been within the team, whether it is as an actual race driver for Ferrari or at the Ferrari Driver Academy in the years before.

"It's been many years together and I want to finish the mission with a world championship."