Ferrari Drivers Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz Are Racing Back to the Top of F1

In the hangar, as classic cars are spruced and renewed all around, I ask him about that juvenile first image he had of the Ferrari compound. He once pictured Wonka-like magic taking place beyond the gate, industrious Oompa Loompas everywhere. Has the adult reality been underwhelming, set against an adolescent’s imagination? Leclerc, in answer, gestures around the garage, where seamstresses restitch ancient leather seats and a convertible worth $8 million has been plucked to bits by mechanics, its engine forged over from scratch. Wonkas, Oompa Loompas all, the employees here help turn unlikely ideas into something tangible. “It’s beyond what I imagined,” he says.

During my visit to Maranello, the Ferrari publicists made it clear they would not tolerate their drivers being questioned about getting injured or dying in the course of the job. Now, in the garage, Leclerc brings up the forbidden subject himself—better to explain how much he relishes being here. His mother sometimes telephones, scared, Leclerc says. That friend of the family—Charles’s godfather and the person who first brought him to Maranello—was a young trainee racer named Jules Bianchi. Later, Bianchi graduated to become a full-fledged F1 driver. He died as the result of a crash, in 2014, at the age of 25.

Leclerc’s younger brother, Arthur, is a racer as well. The family has been, and continues to be, exposed to risk. There is nowhere to hide from it. It can seem like audience interest in F1 races is highest at the start when collisions are more common; interest afterward appears to jag up and down, as and when accidents are reported on social media. Netflix, inclined to treat drivers as real people with real families, still foregrounds the crashes repeatedly and in slow motion. Are Ferraris ever funny? Not for the parents, not for the partners.

“So it’s tough on my mother,” Leclerc says. “And I don’t know what to tell her. Other than: I love what I do. There’s nothing in particular I can say to make her feel better. I’m not going to say I’ll be careful. That wouldn’t be true. I’m going to give it my best, whatever. She knows: It’s a dangerous sport. It got massively safer through the years. But it will remain forever a dangerous sport.” Leclerc offers an incongruous smile. There’s a faint piratical glint in his eye. “She knows,” he says, “I’m the happiest once I’m in that car.”

The afternoon storm over Maranello clears in time to reveal the beginnings of a spectacular sunset. With ciaos, with handshakes, Leclerc and Sainz depart for the parking lot and their homes. Should they have trouble sleeping, they may try to soothe themselves by turning phantom laps in their minds, visualizing rev counters, seeing their truncated surnames LEC and SAI rise and fall on fictional leaderboards. In the morning they will regather with the team management at the Bologna airport, to board a private jet and fly away to race.

I’m due to leave Italy from the same airport, at the same hour, and I get there earlier than everybody after a bracing outbound ride from Maranello. The taxi driver tackles the road single–handedly, while on his phone, with that artisanal blend of minimum brake to maximum gas that I’ve started to appreciate like a challenging local delicacy. Last to disappear in the rearview mirror is Maranello’s church, and with it Ferrari Land’s priest, his bulletin board pinned with reminders about the coming Grand Prix, his bells waiting to clang again. On the airport concourse there’s a Ferrari store that has a family of mannequins in its window, each wearing a team-branded bomber jacket, each gazing out in the direction of the runways. They look as if they’re holding their breaths too.

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