“Charles, Charles, over here!”

Twelve months ago, Charles Leclerc may have passed through a fan area at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya with only a handful of people really knowing who he was.

But a lot has changed since the 21-year-old from Monaco began preparing for his rookie year in Formula 1.

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And now, while a circuit official fumbles at a set of keys to get Leclerc into a suite where his media briefing is due to take place, and a Ferrari press officer gets uncomfortable over the time it is taking, Leclerc is the man the fans swarming around him all want a glimpse of.

Charles is his usual gracious self. He shows no signs of frustration, instead taking time to pose and smile for a couple of selfies before – at last! The right key! – he is ushered into the suite. Handshakes with the journalists also waiting to get inside follow, wishing them a happy new year.

It’s the first of many press commitments in what will inevitably be a big year for Leclerc.

Driving for Ferrari is an honour bestowed on very few of the drivers that have passed through F1 history. Doing so in only your second F1 season is practically unheard of. And at the age of 21? Only once before has Ferrari employed a more junior driver (Ricardo Rodriguez was 19 when he raced for Ferrari at the 1961 Italian Grand Prix). Clearly, Leclerc has the makings of something special.

And that is something we have seen so clearly in recent years during his rise to a Ferrari seat. After marching to the GP3 and Formula 2 titles in consecutive years, Leclerc seemed to take to F1 with relative ease in 2018, leading Sauber’s charge through the season as it rose from the back of the grid to lead the midfield come the end of the year.

A case for Kimi Raikkonen to be replaced at Ferrari had been made for each of the past four years, with recurring questions about his motivation and ability to still fight at the front of the pack. But only when Leclerc came on the scene did the argument become so compelling that bosses at Maranello decided it was finally time to make a change.

Much of the narrative regarding Leclerc’s arrival has centred on how it will change the dynamic with new teammate Sebastian Vettel, who had always valued the “no bullshit” relationship he’d enjoyed with Raikkonen. Leclerc has been seen by many as the man to either make or break Vettel at Ferrari, ramping up the pressure on the four-time world champion whose slip-ups last year cost the Italian marque the chance to end its decade-long title drought.

Relations have been cordial thus far, though. “We are working very well together,” Leclerc said. “Seb is a very nice guy, not very difficult to get on with him so that’s good. We’re working on different things with the car. It’s quite good to see what his strong points are and what I can learn from him. It has been interesting in many senses.”

Vettel has always been highly complimentary of Leclerc, using the phrase “nice kid” or “good kid” regularly. But he is under no illusions of the threat the Monegasque poses, even if it is only his second F1 season.

“He got the seat for a reason,” Vettel said. “I’ve got to take him very seriously. You always have a close rivalry with your teammate. But priority number one is trying to bring the team forward.

“Obviously I’ve been around a lot longer compared to him, different things here he will have on his plate in the beginning. But he’s a nice kid. In a positive way, leave him alone, let him do his job. I’m certain he will be quick enough and put me under pressure.”

Ferrari is also already giving thought to how the intra-team battle will play out. The team’s F1 chief, Mattia Binotto, said at the launch of the team’s new car that while priority would be given to Vettel in the early part of the season while Leclerc assimilated to life at the front of the grid, he hoped the problem – or “opportunity” as he called it – of having to manage the pair would arise sooner rather than later. It is an opportunity Leclerc hopes to create within Ferrari quickly.

“Obviously I will be happy if I get used to this car as quickly as possible, and that I’m straight on-pace. But I’m realistic too - it’s only my second season in Formula 1,” Leclerc said.

“I have a lot to learn, and there is a long road ahead. But I can’t hide that I’m pushing to be as ready as possible for the first race, and if Mattia has the problem to manage two quick drivers, then it’s a good sign for me!

“But for now I’m just focusing on myself, trying to improve every lap I am doing in the car. It is a top team, and there are procedures that are quite different from the team I was in before. There is a bit of adaptation, but I will push to be as ready as possible for Australia.”

Leclerc is very grounded and measured in his thinking. Naturally, there is a huge amount of hype surrounding him, as is the case with any youngster moving into a top seat so soon. Talk of a winning debut for the Prancing Horse – something previously achieved by Juan Manuel Fangio, Mario Andretti, Nigel Mansell, Kimi Raikkonen and Fernando Alonso – has begun in light of Ferrari’s strong start to testing last week. Again though, Leclerc pays the talk little attention.

“I don’t want to put in my head I want to win the first race,” Leclerc said. “That is not what is in my head at the moment.

“I just want to grow as much as possible to the first race and be as comfortable in the team and in the car, and then the results will come.”

It is a calm approach that has served Leclerc well throughout his career so far. Only once last year did we appear to see frustrations really boil over: in Bahrain, when a mistake in qualifying caused him to drop out in Q1, and he called himself “stupid” in a self-inflicted radio fume. He quickly learned, and, after recognising there was no need to overdrive the car, flourished from Baku onwards.

The quiet yet productive approach also yielded an outstanding moment in Brazil. With rain falling and the Q2 order seemingly set, Leclerc was told to pit, only for him to tell his engineer softly: “I want to stay out. We go for one more and I try.” He tried, and succeeded, somehow finding the time to squeeze through to Q3. It could end up being remembered as an early sign of greatness in years to come.

The coolness Leclerc showed throughout his rookie F1 season has carried into the new campaign. As sizeable as the move from a small operation like Sauber to F1’s most famous team may seem, the only change he has noticed is a swell in support at Ferrari: “My life on-track does not change. My goals are the same, to try and improve myself as much as possible. On that, it didn’t really change.”

But surely the pressure changes as well? Leclerc said himself there is “the whole of Italy” behind Ferrari when discussing the added support he felt – would that not bring a far greater weight of expectation?

“I don’t think about it. I think it’s more or less the same thing as I’ve said before, just focusing on myself trying to erase and delete what everyone is expecting from me,” Leclerc said.

“Obviously anytime you are driving a Ferrari the expectations are big because it’s a top team and as earlier said it’s probably the most legendary Formula 1 team. Expectations are always high when you’re driving for a team like this.

“Putting pressure on myself won’t change anything. It won’t make me perform better. If anything it’ll make me perform worse.”

It is easy to be impressed by how cool and mature Leclerc is for someone so young. But he has squeezed an awful lot into his 21 years. He’s tasted glory on the race track – but he’s also faced great losses, notably those of his father, Hervé, who passed away days before Leclerc took an emotional Formula 2 victory in Baku in 2017; and of his great friend and mentor, Jules Bianchi.

All youngsters have to grow up fast in F1. But that is no truer than with Leclerc.

His calm, collected attitude will be crucial to Ferrari this year. We’ve seen the fire within Sebastian Vettel get out of control in recent times. It burned his title bid last year after a string of errors handed Lewis Hamilton the momentum he needed to clinch a fifth drivers’ crown.

So to have a new ‘Iceman’ across the garage in Leclerc will be crucially important, even if he is a very different kind of ‘Iceman’ to Raikkonen. Kimi’s nickname had a number of layers, reflecting not only his calmness under pressure, but also his seemingly-cold attitude to anything he deemed to be a distraction from racing. (Oh, and the fact he comes from Finland…)

With Leclerc, things are more straightforward – for now, at least. Quite how the reality of racing for Ferrari, carrying the hopes of a nation, and fighting for race wins and championships changes things will be a fascinating storyline to follow this year.

Currently, Leclerc taking everything in his stride. And his approach is making Ferrari’s decision to put its faith in him so soon look more and more justified by the day.

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