How heartbreak and tragedy led to one of F1’s most emotional wins at the Monaco GP for Charles Leclerc

Photo Credit: Scuderia Ferrari
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Charles Leclerc’s win at the Monaco Grand Prix on Sunday was a moment where a lifelong ambition was fulfilled. The Monégasque driver finally took victory in his home race following a lot of gut-wrenching moments over the previous few years.

At Imola, Scuderia Ferrari had been very competitive. Leclerc and Sainz finished P3 and P5 respectively, with the 26-year-old finishing only 7.9s behind race winner Max Verstappen. The updates brought to their first home race of 2024 helped them move a little bit closer to Red Bull and McLaren.

Dominant from FP1

Heading into Monaco, McLaren and Ferrari were predicted to be battling it out for the pole and win due to the deficiencies of the RB20 on street circuits.

However, from first practice it was clear one driver was above the rest on a track where they can make a massive difference if they feel confident in their car — and that was Charles Leclerc.

At one stage in the opening 20 minutes of FP1, he was 0.591s clear of the field. As Ferrari decided not to run on the softs in opening practice, he finished up P5, 0.228s off the benchmark set by Lewis Hamilton.

In FP2 inside the opening 20 minutes, Leclerc’s gap to the rest of the pack was a whopping 0.957s as he was in a different league on the medium tyre. Eventually he ended up just under 0.2s quicker than Hamilton when the session finished.

The field naturally got closer on Saturday as drivers started to get closer towards the limit on the narrow streets and improve the balance of their cars ahead of qualifying. Nonetheless, Leclerc stayed fastest in final practice by 0.197s to Max Verstappen.

Although Russell and Norris topped Q1 and Q2 respectively, a big lap in Q3 from the Ferrari driver felt inevitable considering his practice form. Unlike in Australia when he had a very strong Friday and fell way come qualifying, he delivered a 1:10.270 in Q3 to take pole from Oscar Piastri by 0.154s.

In the race itself, he got away well on both standing starts. Following the red flag to clear the debris and cars of Kevin Magnussen, Sergio Perez and Nico Hülkenberg, a pit stop was taken out of the equation and the key for the remaining 77 laps was to manage things at the front. He did that perfectly, pulling away from Piastri in the closing laps to win by 7.1s.

Finally getting over the line at his home race after near misses

Even before he reached F1, Leclerc suffered a heartbreaking weekend on his home streets in 2017.

On pole position for the F2 feature race during a very dominant campaign, a badly timed Safety Car saw him drop out of a comfortable lead and fell to P4. He ended up retiring with a suspension upright failure a few laps later.

The Monaco round was the last one he drove in before the tragic passing of his father Hervé following a brave fight with illness. It was also a very hard time off the track at that stage, as he explained in 2018.

“The F2 race in Monaco was also very hard because it was his dream since I was a child to see me racing here, and on the Wednesday before that race they put him in the coma because the illness was becoming too much. It was also a very difficult race weekend.”

Leclerc failed to finish in 2018 and 2019. Neither the C37 and the SF90 were capable of winning the race, however.

After taking a shock pole position in 2021, Leclerc failed to start the race. He crashed on his final run in Q3, causing a crack in the driveshaft hub.

As it went undetected by Ferrari as they did not check that particular part of the car, the problem was only picked up as the home hero did a reconnaissance lap to the grid ahead of the race. He was at the front of the grid for the anthem knowing he would not start the race.

Worse was to follow a year later. He took a commanding pole position for the 2022 edition and was in complete control of the race. He was 5s ahead of his teammate and a gap of 8s to Perez — and looked set for a home win until Ferrari completely butchered the strategy.

Monaco is a track position race, of course. Ferrari responded a lap too late following Perez’s switch to inters, losing Leclerc track position to the Mexican. With Sainz staying on wets until it was time for dry tyres, he was down to P3.

They compounded it by double stacking their cars for the switch to slicks. It allowed Verstappen to jump the Monégasque for P3 once he pitted a lap later as he could do a quick lap on his warm inters. Leclerc was livid — and rightly so.

Nonetheless, things finally worked out in 2024. Fastest in practice 2 and 3, he delivered in Q3 by taking the pole for a third time in four seasons. Winning the race itself on Sunday was what ultimately mattered the most — and he finally achieved it.

It was as close to a perfect weekend as you will see from any driver.

Breaking through a very emotional barrier

Leclerc is only 26 and has faced a lot of adversity in his young life so far.

In June of 2017, he lost his father Hervé Leclerc at far too young an age following a battle with illness.

Days before his death, Leclerc told his father that he had signed a contract in Formula One. Although he had not at that time, it did happen a few months later as he agreed to join Sauber in 2018.

Leclerc went on to take pole for the F2 feature race in Baku, just a few days on from his father’s death. He converted that into a win, and he almost did the double until he was given a penalty in the Sprint that dropped him to P2 after starting 8th.

A few years ago, the 6-time Grand Prix winner opened up on the emotions of that weekend in the Azerbaijani capital.

“It felt amazing, obviously.

“I mean, amazing is not the word, but on the other side everything was so raw for me… I think the hardest moment emotionally was the pole position. It was the first time I have cried for anything. I was crying in the helmet because I couldn’t believe we did pole.

“After three practices we had a very difficult time and before the weekend I didn’t know what to expect because my head was completely somewhere else.

“I sat myself down and I said now I need to focus and make the best possible race for my father, because he deserves that.

“He was there any time I won. I had to give everything for that race weekend and a lot of things were making me think the pole would be very hard.

“And when I crossed the line and they told me I had it, I think all of the pressure and the emotions and what happened two days before just went…

“It was a very hard period but to finish that with a pole and two race wins [P2 in the Sprint following the penalty] in Baku, it was a very positive weekend and it had cheered me up a little bit. But it was definitely the hardest time of my career.”

In July 2015, his mentor and incredibly talented racing driver Jules Bianchi tragically passed away following injuries sustained in a crash at the 2014 Japanese Grand Prix.

Bianchi played a massive role in getting Leclerc to where he is today, helping the Monégasque driver continue his career when financial difficulties seemed set to end it.

The former Marussia driver put Nicolas Todt — son of former Ferrari team boss and FIA President Jean Todt — in contact with Leclerc, and he could continue his racing journey under the management of the Frenchman.

He also opened up on the loss of his father and Jules Bianchi during his year at Sauber and then his first campaign at Ferrari, explaining how his outlook on life and racing changed, as well as becoming a very different person and driver.

“There have been moments that I wish never happened but they have made me grow as a driver and helped me.

“The loss of my father and Jules. Two incredibly hard moments in my life that made me stronger as a person and a driver. Mentally I am stronger than I used to be. They definitely stay with you forever. Unfortunately I lost my father quite early, it changes you. It changes you forever.

“I became a lot more mature and now I see things completely differently. The pressure, I feel it, but 20 times less. It put all of life into a different perspective, because you realise what are the really important things.

“And I realise that there were lots of things I didn’t make the most out of, the small things. I think it has changed me as a person, and also how I see things now.”

As he headed for his first Monaco GP victory on Sunday afternoon on the streets where he grew up, emotions understandably took over as he started to think of his late father in the closing stages and everyone else who has helped him reach this point.

Leclerc spoke in the post-race press conference about trying to keep things together inside the cockpit as he gapped Oscar Piastri.

“I think where I struggled most to actually contain my emotions was during the last 10 laps of the race. More than on the podium. I realised actually two laps to the end that I was struggling to see out of the tunnel just because I had tears in my eyes.

“And I was like, ‘f**k, Charles, you cannot do that now. You still have two laps to finish’. And especially on a track like Monaco, you have to be on it all the way to the end.

“It was very difficult to contain those emotions, those thoughts again, of the people that have helped me to get to where I am today.”

Explaining the only other time he thought about his dad whilst racing was Baku 2017 in the days following Hervé’s death, Leclerc explained he had flashbacks to treasured moments he spent with his father as he grew up driving karts in his ambition to make Formula One.

“It was very much in my mind. As I said, I think in every race I have done, there’s been not one race where I was thinking about this kind of personal stuff inside the car, because you’ve got to stay on it.

“Maybe Baku in 2017. Obviously, everything was still very fresh for me, so it was difficult to manage mentally.

“However, it’s probably the first time in my career that it happened again while driving, where you’ve got these flashbacks of all these moments that we have spent together, all the sacrifices that he has done for me to get to where I am.

“And as I said earlier, it’s not only my dream, but it was both of our dreams to get there. And obviously, my whole family was supporting and was obviously dreaming of that moment, which makes it even more special.

“But yeah, that was, again, as I said earlier, probably the moment that was the most difficult to manage today.

From his words on Sunday after the race, it’s clear that winning his home race meant everything to Charles Leclerc. It was a burden on his shoulders. That weight has now been lifted and can drive with more freedom now.

Scuderia Ferrari team principal Fred Vasseur hinted at it after the race when speaking to Channel 4 and written media. The Frenchman said the F1 world will see a different version of the 26-year-old from now on following that win on Sunday.

“We have a Charles after Monaco and before Monaco — and it won’t be the same one.

Leclerc also deserves a lot of credit for being so open and honest about his feelings and emotions. The mental and emotional strength he has shown over the years has been truly remarkable.

After dealing with the losses of his father and Jules Bianchi, Leclerc had to face more grief as his friend Anthoine Hubert passed away in a crash during an F2 race at Spa, less than 24 hours before he took his first F1 win.

There was a lot of emotion throughout the paddock, on the podium and around the track on Sunday afternoon as Leclerc crossed the line to take victory. Smiles and joyful tears were the order of the day as it proved to be a hugely popular win.

Along with achieving a massive personal milestone by winning his home Grand Prix, Leclerc made his later father Hervé and Jules Bianchi extremely proud on Sunday, as well as the rest of his family, friends and team who got to celebrate with him after the race.