Charles Leclerc Wins the 2017 Formula 2 Championship
With destroyed rear tires and four cars chasing him down, he won the feature race in Jerez which won him the championship.
If you were wondering why Charles Leclerc wasn't driving for Sauber in Free Practice One at the Formula One race in Japan this weekend, it's because his day job in Formula 2 is racing in Jerez, Spain. This is the penultimate race weekend of the 2017 Formula 2 season and is one of the few times that Formula 2 doesn't follow its big brother around to run as a support series. Leclerc still had a championship to win, so he was unable to run in practice for Sauber in Japan, though he will do so in the United States, Mexico, and Brazil.
Going into today's Formula 2 feature race, Leclerc added four points to his championship lead by taking pole position for the race. His lead was up 63 points over Oliver Rowland. A win in Jerez would add another 25 points to his total of 222 and would clinch the championship. And win is exactly what he did; though, in the end, he had to fight for the victory to earn the championship.
Leclerc held the lead of the race through the first corners and immediately started to open up a gap on the field. Rowland started from fourth and was up to third after the first few corners. Rowland needed a win to keep his championship hopes alive and was doing everything he could to catch Leclerc.
By lap ten, Rowland had passed Luca Ghiotto for second place, but it all seemed in vain. Leclerc was already ten seconds ahead of him and showed no signs of slowing up. Both drivers pitted for tires at end of lap 12. Leclerc rejoined the field in sixth place while Rowland came out in tenth. By lap 20, Leclerc had fought his way back to the lead. Rowland was in pursuit, having worked his way forward to third place. Two laps later, Rowland was in second place and the gap between them was down to just over six seconds.
Things were going as planned for Leclerc until lap 32 when Nobuharu Matsushita braked a little late trying to pass Santino Ferrucci on the inside of turn one. Matsushita punted Ferrucci up in the air and into the gravel. With debris, including Matsushita's entire front wing everywhere and a stranded car, the safety car was deployed.
When everything was cleaned up, the race went green again on lap 36 Leclerc had a lapped car between himself and Rowland, which would at least give Leclerc a chance to open a small gap in the first few corners. The lapped car quickly moved out of the way and Rowland was keeping pace with Leclerc. This is where things started to get interesting again.
There was another lapped car behind Rowland, that of Sean Gelael who was in 17th place. He had on much newer tires than Rowland and was fighting to get by in an effort to "unlap" himself. Rowland was hounding Leclerc for the lead as Leclerc's rear tires were shot at this point.
Behind Galael were three cars, all fighting for third position. They too had on fresher tires than the race leaders. For a lap, it seemed as if Nicholas Latifi in fourth place had the pace to take the fight to Rowland and Leclerc. Out of nowhere, Leclerc's teammate, Antonio Fuoco jumped from fifth to third in one corner. Fuoco was all over Gelael and Rowland, trying to get by to win the race.
As the final lap started, the top five cars, plus the lapped car of Gelael were separated by little more than one second. Leclerc was barely holding the lead. The fighting for position behind him was the only thing that was keeping him out front. Rowland must have been furious at this point, having to fight with a lapped car, rather than concentrating on Leclerc.
Through the final corner and down the straight to the finsh line, Leclerc held on to the lead with Rowland just 0.230 seconds behind him. Fuoco held on to third place as the six cars crossed the line in a pack that looked more like the start of a race than the finish.
While being interviewed on the podium about his race and championship win, Leclerc had something very telling to say. Rather than having a freak-out that he just won the championship, he was wondering about the tires in his second stint. Leclerc said he and the team would be looking into why the tires lost so much pace at the end so that they could have a good race on Sunday.
There is still a team championship to be won. Leclerc will be starting in eighth position in Sunday's sprint race. His team, Prema Racing hold only a small lead over Russian Time, which is Rowland's team, in the F2 Team standings. That fight will most likely go on to the final race weekend of the year in Abu Dhabi.
Leclerc will no doubt celebrate his driver's championship once Sunday's race is over. By winning the championship in his rookie year, he joins (going back to when the series was called GP2) Nico Rosberg (2005), Lewis Hamilton (2006), and Nico Hulkenberg (2009) as those who have won the driver's title in their rookie year. That's some pretty good company to be in. What Leclerc accomplished in Formula 2 this season is nothing short of sensational. He is immensely talented and drives with a maturity well beyond his years. This was something truly special to watch.
Leclerc will likely end up driving for Sauber in Formula One next year. Unless something extraordinary happens, he probably will not be fighting for race wins in his rookie F1 season. He is a Ferrari junior driver and should end up driving the red horse as soon as a seat opens up. The entire Formula One field needs to be on notice because Leclerc is coming for them. We can't wait to see what he can do in a Formula One car.