When Charles Leclerc won last year’s Belgian Grand Prix, it was the 235th victory for Ferrari in Formula 1. That also made him the first graduate of the Ferrari Driver Academy to win a race in Formula 1.
Leclerc’s promotion to Ferrari in 2019 at 21, after racing for Sauber in 2018, was a gamble by a team that has historically used experienced drivers. Leclerc replaced Kimi Raikkonen, 18 years his senior, and was rewarded with a revised five-year deal last year. The four-time champion Sebastian Vettel, 33, was not offered a new contract beyond 2020.
“He is the concrete example,” Laurent Mekies, the head of the academy, said of Leclerc. “It is a great incentive for all the boys and the girls.”
Ferrari was slower than many other teams to start developing its own young talent. The team started the academy in 2009, when Lewis Hamilton, the product of a McLaren youth program that embraced him when he was 13, was already defending his first world title. A year later, Red Bull’s protégé Vettel won his first crown. Between them, they have 10 titles.
There are 16 drivers, including Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo, in Formula 1 who have come up in youth programs run by teams, which also include Renault, Honda, Williams, Sauber and Mercedes.
The Ferrari academy has graduated 10 students, and there are nine, ages 16 to 21, in the class of 2020. They include the Formula 2 race winner Callum Ilott, last year’s Formula 3 champion Robert Shwartzman, and Mick Schumacher, who won that championship in 2018 and is the son of the retired Ferrari championship driver Michael Schumacher, who sustained a traumatic head injury in a skiing accident in 2013. Five of the students compete in Formula 2, the Formula 1 feeder championship that Leclerc won in 2017.
“I have been a member of the F.D.A. for three years, and I have made a lot of progress over this period of time,” Shwartzman said. “We focus our work on continuously making progress. We do a lot of training — physical, mental, with the simulator. We have also started working with Formula 1 engineers recently, who are helping us and explaining how the Formula 1 car works from a technical perspective.”
The academy had high hopes for its first recruit, Jules Bianchi, but he died in 2015 from injuries he received in a crash during the 2014 Japanese Grand Prix while driving for the Ferrari-powered Marussia team. Bianchi was Leclerc’s godfather.
“In terms of raw talent and potential, Charles was ticking all the boxes straight away,” Mekies said. “Then after that, he was also ticking all the boxes in terms of how he was growing within Ferrari and the F.D.A. environment.”
Leclerc, whose first visit to Ferrari was with Bianchi as a teenager, has said that the academy was a vital part of his development.
“I remember watching the Ferrari facilities from the outside and being very impressed and dreaming of being in there one day,” he said in a Ferrari video this year. “I was very shy, very afraid when I went in 2016.”
The drivers spend their days in Maranello, Italy, where Ferrari has its headquarters, enhancing the familial feel that the academy promotes.
“It is similar to being in a large family,” Ilott said. “I have spent the majority of the last two or three years in Italy with the other drivers. Obviously we are all pretty good friends, but with a strong competitive nature.”
Schumacher said it was a prestigious team with an incredible history in motorsports.
“We have regular meetings and workshops where we get to understand better what it takes to be an F1 driver and how to get there,” he said. “Plus, it’s very motivating to feel the support of Ferrari for my career.”
The aim is to train a driver who will eventually not only win, but also win for Ferrari.
“Ultimately, the goal is that he is in the red car,” Mekies said. “Otherwise, it will be effectively a waste of energy.”