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Why this esteemed F1 stalwart rates Charles Leclerc the highest

One of Formula 1's most experienced team personnel celebrated his 30th year in the sport in 2023. Beat Zehnder has been with Sauber since the start, overseeing its various incarnations and working with some of the best drivers to come out of the sport. RacingNews365.com speaks to him exclusively about his career and what it takes to be a world champion.

On the 14th March 1993, Sauber made their Formula 1 debut at the opening round for the South African Grand Prix in Kyalami. JJ Lehto finished in fifth place and scored their first points on debut, kickstarting the illustrious career at the pinnacle of motorsport for the Swiss team. Over the years Sauber has raced under various manufacturer guises including BMW and now Alfa Romeo, while also giving top drivers their debut including Kimi Raikkonen, Sergio Perez, Felipe Massa, Robert Kubica, and Charles Leclerc. A man that has been with them throughout those 30 years is Beat Zehnder, who has now attended all 550 Grands Prix events (and counting!) with the team. It's fair to say that Zehnder has seen the world through the eyes of F1, but what is the one thing that has changed after all those years? "The biggest change probably is email!" says Zehnder. "Because when I started, I was driving to Spa by car and first I had to go to the hotel to collect the faxes, which were sent in since our driving time. "Today you're connected all the time, the world is moving faster. And the same applies maybe even more for F1 because the development and work never stops."

One of the biggest differences has been the cars change aesthetically, which has largely been driven by the safety advances that were pushed in the late 90s and early 00s as F1 experienced a boom in TV audiences. "The machines we are designing are masterpieces of engineering. We used to run steel wishbones, for example, and most of the of the suspension parts were made out of steel - now everything has changed," recalls Zehnder. "The sport itself has also changed. At the moment, we have a huge interest in the sport, then the technological side on safety. We've done a lot for safety with F1 and the FIA together, and we're still doing everything to make the machines as safe as possible."

Zehnder: Raikkonen could drive every machine very quick

Zehnder's official role at Alfa Romeo is Sporting Director, although this encompasses many jobs including looking after the logistics, overall team organisation at events, keeping in contact with the FIA over matters, and helping run the Sauber Academy junior driver programme. An eye for spotting talent has become one of Zehnder's traits over the years, as he has worked with some drivers that have gone on to win or challenge for world titles. He was the first point of contact for Kimi Raikkonen when he made his controversial debut in F1 at the age of 20 years old in 2001, describing the Finn as "pure driving talent" that never lost it when he moved back to the team in 2020. "Kimi is pure driving talent, he's unbelievable," he says. "Even when he was a little bit older when he came back, he can [still] drive every machine very quick - quicker than probably someone else without spending too much time in setup so he can sit in something and he feels [comfortable]." Raikkonen is often known for his laid back and relaxed attitude to F1. Whether it's leaping out of the car during a monsoon at Malaysia for an ice cream or relaxing on a boat in the Monaco harbour after retiring with an engine failure, he's always been a cool customer according to Zehnder. "At his very first race Melbourne everyone 10 minutes before the pit lane opens for the reconnaissance lap, no one can find Kimi," recalls Zehnder. "Kimi was sleeping underneath a table covered by a blanket. He's told 'Come on, get up! We have seven minutes until pit lane opens!' And he said 'Give me another three, four minutes to sleep!' So he was the coolest guy from the beginning."

Leclerc the 'most perfect' driver Zehnder has worked with

Out of all the drivers that have passed through the Sauber junior stable through the years, Zehnder points to Charles Leclerc as "the most perfect" that he has worked with. Leclerc made his F1 debut with the team in 2018 after winning the Formula 2 championship in 2017, and was tipped as the spiritual successor to Raikkonen as he neared the end of his Ferrari career. Zehnder credits Leclerc for his eagerness to learn in those early races with the team, rating him the highest in F1 at the moment. "Charles for me is a huge talent and probably the most perfect driver I've worked with," says Zehnder. "Looking at his eagerness to understand the sport, the technical side, questioning himself - probably every now and then a little bit too much - he's got a very healthy portion of self criticism." Leclerc has often been heard over team radio giving himself a brutal assessment: "I'm so stupid" when he crashed at Baku during qualifying springs to mind. While these outbursts can be the subject of internet memes, Zehnder believes this self introspection is a key trait that can make a difference at the pinnacle. Zehnder continued: "This for me makes a difference to a lot of drivers, not blaming someone else it's first blaming yourself."

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