F1 takes on the French accent


After years of famine in F1, Prost, Laffite, Alesi have found contenders for their succession.

“When I start the warm-up lap, confides Pierre Gasly, 25, I am aware. But on the starting grid, when the lights come on, I switch to another dimension. No more emotion or thought comes to parasitize my brain. Esteban Ocon, he allows himself fifteen minutes to warm up his muscles by listening to his playlist. Everyone has their own technique, with the same result for everyone: in the passenger compartment, there is no fear. No doubt either. You don’t drive a 700-kilo, 1,050 horsepower racing car at 370 km / h without enjoying danger, speed, adrenaline. Pierre Gasly, Esteban Ocon or Charles Leclerc… Formula 1 uses the French accent. Between them, respect, always, solid friendships, sometimes, but also frank rivalries born of thousands of kilometers of brawl.
Since childhood, in karting then in single-seater, they have all dreamed of becoming world champion. “Esteban is Norman like me, says Gasly. It’s crazy to think that there are two pilots from the same region among the twenty best! « 

He was born in Rouen; Esteban, in Évreux. Both were bottle-fed with the scent of gasoline. “We have that in our genes”, proclaims Jean-Jacques, the father of Pierre Gasly, who practiced the rally. The grandfather, Jean, was already in the French karting team in the 1960s. Évelyne, the grandmother, French champion. Esteban also comes from a family passionate about motorsport. His father, Laurent, a mechanic, gave him his first kart at the age of 4 and a half. With his wife, he follows the son in a motorhome on his errands. The same goes for the Gasly parents. You have to play the drivers, the coaches, the mechanics, the agents. And the financiers. The cost of a season is around ten thousand euros in karting. It will be 100 times more in F2, not to mention F1. The two clans meet at the edge of the circuits. We start by helping each other; but, as the budding Fangios move up the ranks, the bonds are loosened.

After a kart competition, in Menton in 2005. From dr.  to g.  : Pierre Gasly (9 years old), Esteban Ocon (9 years old), Charles Leclerc (8 years old).  The only missing today is Valentin Bréaux (left), 8 years old, victim of an accident in 2013.

After a kart competition, in Menton in 2005. From dr. to g. : Pierre Gasly (9 years old), Esteban Ocon (9 years old), Charles Leclerc (8 years old). The only missing today is Valentin Bréaux (left), 8 years old, victim of an accident in 2013. © DR

Since 2005, the two French have crossed the path of Charles Leclerc. This one, born in Monaco, honors his weapons on the hexagonal competitions. “Our first duel, remembers Esteban Ocon, it was in the final of the Coupe de France minikart, at 6 or 7 years old. Last corner: I’m on the inside, he’s in front of me and he hits me. Unless I braked too late … Anyway, racing incident. I finished sixth, Charles gave up. We spent the end of the day crying with our parents. »That day, Anthoine Hubert was the strongest, a young Lyonnais also programmed to reach the highest steps of the podiums. But, in 2019, his ascent was stopped dead at the bend of a bend in the Spa circuit, in Belgium.

In the passenger compartment, there is no fear. Nor doubt

“He was my best friend,” admits Gasly. We lived together for six years at the time of the Sport Academy of Le Mans [le sports-études des pilotes]. If I became the man I am, it is also thanks to him. Pierre was working with his engineers to prepare for the race the next day when the accident happened. When Anthoine’s death was announced, he joined Leclerc in his paddock and whispered in his ear: “Please, win the race for him! »In pole position, the Monegasque has the opportunity to win his first Grand Prix. The heart is big but the nerves hold, and talent does the rest. The promise is kept. « Close the visor and pass at the same speed in front of the place where Anthoine was killed: it’s the job! » »Explained Charles Leclerc at a press conference.

In 2009, Pierre, 13, came third at the Kart World Cup.  On the right, Charles Leclerc, (12 years old), French champion, junior and winner of the Bridgestone Cup.

In 2009, Pierre, 13, came third at the Kart World Cup. On the right, Charles Leclerc, (12 years old), French champion, junior and winner of the Bridgestone Cup. © DR

Modesty and restraint. As in 2015, when we had to mourn Jules Bianchi, this talented and charismatic “big brother”. An inspiring “godfather”, they say, who died after nine months in a coma, following his crash at the Japanese Grand Prix. For this generation, it is the discovery of the reality of the circuits. The last fatal accident for a Formula 1 driver, that of Ayrton Senna, at the San Marino Grand Prix, dated back to 1994. For everyone, Jules was a role model; for the “little Charlot”, as Charles Leclerc was nicknamed at the time, he was also a mentor. It was on the kart circuit of Jules Bianchi’s father, in Brignoles, that the youngster made his first laps, at the age of 4. The Leclerc families (Hervé, the father, is a former driver who retired in Formula 3) and Bianchi also share the same passion. It was again Jules who, in 2011, got Nicolas Todt, pilot agent, to take Charles under his wing when his parents no longer had the means to finance him. And it was again Jules Bianchi who advised him to calm his impetuous temper. “I was very emotional, said Charles Leclerc, but I worked on it. Now that is one of my strong points. « 

Pierre Gasly at 8, on his first mini-kart, tinkered with a lawn mower engine.  Anneville-Ambourville circuit, in Normandy.

Pierre Gasly at 8, on his first mini-kart, tinkered with a lawn mower engine. Anneville-Ambourville circuit, in Normandy. © DR

A steel mind but also an athletic body, because we sometimes forget that F1 is first and foremost a sport. Between accelerations, decelerations and turns, the pilots lose on average 2 to 3 kilos per race and can collect up to 5 to 6 g. “We train every day to be enduring, strong, and have a good cardio, explains Esteban Ocon. Three qualities that are difficult to combine but essential to be responsive and coordinated. The muscles must be able to withstand very intense efforts, the heart of hellish rhythms. Hence the importance of aerobic preparation: running, cycling… “If we don’t get enough oxygen, our vision can become blurry after an hour of running,” says Ocon. In addition to a well-developed torso and forearm, part of their training focuses on the neck: each turn imposes a load of 20 to 25 kilos! As testing is now prohibited during the season, these elite drivers mainly train in a simulator, configured with the settings of their car and the specifics of the track. The sessions serve as a dress rehearsal. “The level of realism is around 90%,” Ocon specifies. We even partly feel the gs. « 

In Rouen, September 28, 2020.

In Rouen, September 28, 2020. © Philippe Petit / Paris Match

Race report: Charles Leclerc has two Grands Prix to his credit. In 2016, at 19 years and 345 days, Esteban became the youngest Frenchman to evolve in Formula 1. On August 1, on Alpine, he won his first Grand Prix at Hungaroring, Hungary. “Seeing French pilots winning,” comments Pierre Gasly, “it creates enthusiasm. There are more and more supporters behind us. This victory is very good for Esteban. But I’m happy to remain the youngest Frenchman to have won an F1 Grand Prix! It was September 6, 2020, in Monza, Italy. Pierre was 24 years old. It put an end to “famine”, as we say in the jargon. France had not experienced any victory since that of Olivier Panis in Monaco in 1996.

Prohibited from testing in season for economy and ecology, elite pilots train on simulator

Another prodigy of this generation, Max Verstappen, son of Jos, former F1 driver. The Dutchman makes his ranges in Belgium and the Netherlands, his two homelands, in the karting stable created for him by his father. In 2011, he began to scrape together with francophones. Sometimes winners, sometimes vanquished, in karting as in single-seater, the four gladiators have been fighting each other for ten years. Verstappen will be the first to enter F1, in 2015. He is 17 years and 5 months old. A year later, in Spain, he set another record by becoming the youngest Grand Prix winner. At 24, he was crowned world champion by dethroning the “King Hamilton”. Something to give desire and hope to Leclerc, Ocon or Gasly, who have only one obsession: to wear, in turn, the crown of laurels.

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