No-one can possibly doubt that Charles Leclerc is a car racing prodigy. At just 21, on 16 October, he has already won the GP3 and Formula 2 championships - in 2016 and 2017 respectively - and will join the Scuderia Ferrari racing team next season.
His talent was carefully nurtured through the Ferrari Driver Academy (FDA) at Maranello. The élite school prepares talented young drivers to become the Formula 1 racing stars of tomorrow. Participants - some barely in their teens - are selected from junior kart and car racing championships around the world. Based at the Fiorano circuit, the Academy is run with almost-military precision; expectations are high. Apart from Leclerc, other graduates include Sauber driver Antonio Giovinazzi and Mexican F1 driver Sergio Pérez (Force India).
On the day TOFM visited, Marcus Armstrong (New Zealand), Enzo Fittipaldi (Brazil - grandson of Emerson), Callum Ilot (Britain), Robert Shwartzman (Russia) and Guanyu Zhou (China) were on site. Asked what his goals were, 18 year-old Marcus Armstrong, winner of the Italian Formula 4 championship in 2017 as well as placing second in the German equivalent, insisted: "Of course I want to be driving for Ferrari F1." Then he added, "In 12-13 years I would like to be a complete driver, like Alonso, Hamilton and Räikkönen."
By "complete", Armstrong - who races with Team Prema - means he wants to be not just an excellent driver, but also a good public speaker, for example. Enzo Fittipaldi, 17, placed just behind Armstrong in the Italian Formula 4 last season - also with Team Prema - put it differently: "For every driver in junior series, the ambition is to be an F1 driver. But to me it’s to be the best person possible, in everything I do.
I always try my hardest, always. I want to be the 'best me' while enjoying every step of the way." The Academy 'cadets' do not have much free time: each follows a very personalised training course, planned months in advance. Driving practice includes using a giant simulator nicknamed 'the spider' - as well as gym time and theory classes with Academy engineers. But there is also a strong focus on what the FDA calls 'mental coaching'.
Academy head, Massimo Rivola, explained that some ninety percent of a pilot's performance is in the mind, controlling stress, which is why a team of psychologists follows the students. "The hardest thing about this year was learning how to change on a mental level," explained Robert Shwartzman, a 19 year-old driver from Saint Petersburg. He finished third in the 2017 Eurocup Formula Renault 2.0 and this year won the Toyota Racing Series.
"I learned to not think about the 'wrong' things but only about those things that help you do your job better, and this helped me be more calm in races, right from the beginning," he said. Now competing in the FIA F3 championship, with Team Prema, he added, "I learned that I have to listen to myself more, to what I feel." Indeed, helping students to get to know themselves is one of the FDA's main aims. "And today," says FDA chief, Rivola, "we have many instruments - like bio-feedback - which allow us to understand what we need to work on with each student."
Those bio-feedback sessions involve students sitting at a three-screen mini driving-simulator, a crucial part of every driver's training. The bio-feedback allows instructors to monitor various factors in near real-life circuit conditions, recording heart rates, pulse, muscle tension, and steering wheel grip. And also to determine which situations cause greatest stress. This assists trainers to determine the best ways to help students learn to deal with these particular stresses, enabling them to improve their performance.
Another key ingredient of the FDA experience is living at Maranello. This helps students grow up faster. Separated from their families, they understand that becoming a racing driver is a life choice, involving sacrifices. It can be tough, which is another reason for the strong focus on mental coaching. It also helps form the Ferrarista mindset. "From a lifestyle point of view, you learn to live and breathe in a competition environment," explains 19 year-old Briton Callum Ilott. "The people you live with are the ones you compete with, too.
Then there’s everything else that comes with being a racing driver and being involved in an F1 team: working with engineers, learning to understand the cars, the training and having good mental well-being. Once you’ve got into the rhythm it’s good." And Ilott's 'rhythm' has been very good indeed: in 2017, he finished fourth overall in the FIA F3 European Championship; in 2018 he debuted in GP3 with team ART Grand Prix. The students are not together often. They do share moments - classroom lessons, gym time - but the mental coaching is done one-on-one. However, it's not all-work-and-no-play.
Guanyu Zhou, the 19-year old Shanghai-born racer, with Team Prema, took five podia in the 2017 European Formula 3 championship and dreams of becoming the first Chinese F1 driver. He told TOFM about when he and some other Academy mates were playing football in the gym, and a certain Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa showed up, and joined in. "It was fun," said Zhou. "As a young driver these are your idols." The Academy also holds 'camps' in mountain retreats or at beach resorts, where the students can relax together. But there is always a higher purpose: 'cadets' are in fact developing other skill-sets.
This not only helps stimulate new learning; it also helps level out the playing field: whilst one student may be better than others behind the wheel, that may not be the case on the ski slopes or in the swimming pool. And the sense of not being unbeatable at everything helps keep any runaway ego in check. The FDA is a demanding institution. But when it produces the likes of Leclerc, its students know that all the hard work is well worth it.