Through the first quarter of the 2022 season, Charles Leclerc enjoyed one of the strongest starts to a Formula 1 campaign a Ferrari driver has had in the last decade.Max Verstappen and would have felt confident of growing that advantage by at least another seven points by the chequered flag. Moments later, his turbo failed. Instead, it was Verstappen who left Barcelona with a six-point lead.
The five-race stretch between Spain and Silverstone which followed was surely the most agonising sequence of races in Leclerc’s F1 career. At the end of each race, the two words that Leclerc would regularly use to sum up how he felt at the end of the weekend were “frustrated” and “disappointed”.
But at the end of Saturday’s sprint race at the Red Bull Ring, where Verstappen securing the number one spot yet again, Leclerc’s demeanour on the radio was that of a driver who knew it was all to play for on Sunday.
“You’ve done a good job,” his race engineer Xavier Marco Padros told him after crossing the line.
“Yeah, we have,” Leclerc replied, calmly. “We can get them tomorrow.”
With Saturday’s sprint race producing the same top three starters that Friday’s qualifying session had, Leclerc had a whole evening on which to work out how to improve his getaway off the line on Sunday, after team mate Carlos Sainz Jnr had beaten him off the line the first time around. With everyone in the top ten starting on medium tyres, it would be another straight fight on the opening lap to determine which of those at the front would emerge with the lead.
As the lights went out for the second time in the weekend, Leclerc got a better launch than he did the first time on Saturday. Unfortunately, so too did Verstappen. Kissing the turn one apex for the first time, the Red Bull was one-and-a-half car lengths in front of the Ferrari, Verstappen having successfully held his lead.
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Behind, however, George Russell was poking his nose up the inside of Sainz and the pair ran side-by-side through the corner, Sainz making liberal use of the run-off to stay alongside the Mercedes as the field charged through the coral-coloured haze and up the hill to turn three.
Sainz managed to pull ahead of Russell before aggressively covering the inside line to deny him passage through the tight right-hander. That allowed Sergio Perez to stake a claim for fourth. This was a vital move for the Red Bull driver, as clearing Russell on the first lap would undo the last of the damage from his Friday qualifying penalty, and bring him into the fight between his team mate and the Ferraris.
Perez dived to the outside of the Mercedes under braking for turn four. Russell, trying to stick to the inside line as tightly as possible, clipped the inside kerb just enough to cause his car to drift into the rear of the Red Bull, sending Perez spinning through the gravel – his chances of a salvaging a podium disappearing like the flare smoke around the Red Bull Ring grandstands.
“You saw it clear, no?,” a disgruntled Perez asked his team over radio. “I gave him enough room.”
The stewards agreed, handing Russell a five-second time penalty for the contact. Not that that was of much comfort to Perez, whose race was now effectively over well before it officially ended due to his damage 23 laps later.
“The fact was Checo was on my outside and I needed to leave him space,” Russell conceded after the race. “But if he puts me in a position when I’m already at the limit of my car and somebody turns in, who’s got more grip, there’s nowhere I can go.”
In the sprint race, Verstappen’s lead over Leclerc never exceeded three seconds barrier, but nor had the Ferrari got come close enough to trouble the championship leader. On Sunday, Leclerc only allowed Verstappen to get more than a second ahead of him for a single lap in the early phase of the grand prix.
Try as he might, Verstappen was struggling to pull away not just from Leclerc, but from the exit of the corners too. “Rear tyres are shit,” the leader casually informed engineer Gianpiero Lambiase.
Leclerc was not only quicker than Verstappen, but visibly more confident too. The Ferrari’s superior traction out of turn three on lap 10 gave Leclerc a genuine run up the hill to turn three, diving to the inside. Verstappen held firm and held the lead, but the Ferrari had momentum along the winding downhill straight to turn four. Leclerc braved a look around the outside, but Verstappen defended. The Ferrari driver wisely recognised his advantage and backed out, happy to wait for a better opportunity.
“I cannot hold this long,” Verstappen warned. He was proven correct two laps later when Leclerc made a bold lunge from a considerable distance back behind to bully his way into the lead. At the end of the lap, Leclerc officially broke Verstappen’s stunning streak of 176 consecutive racing laps in the lead around the Red Bull Ring, stretching back to the start of last year’s Styrian Grand Prix.
Having lost the lead, Red Bull took stock of Verstappen’s higher-than-anticipated tyre wear and their driver’s claims he had flat-spotted his tyres and brought him in at the end of the next lap, replacing his medium compound with hards. He rejoined over 21 seconds behind the new leader in seventh place. With the benefit of fresh tyres – and arguably the fastest car on the grid – Verstappen made quick work of those in front of him, passing Mick Schumacher and, a handful of laps later, Lewis Hamilton to move up to third, 17 seconds behind Sainz.
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Verstappen was now comfortably the fastest driver on the circuit and eating into the Ferraris advantage. But Red Bull were becoming concerned about how Leclerc and Sainz ahead were clearly pacing themselves on their mediums. “Looks like they could be going on a one stop,” Lambiase alerted his driver. “So we’ll be pushing all the way to the end of the race here, Max.”
However long Red Bull expected Ferrari to stay out for, it was probably longer than lap 27, when Leclerc was called in to move onto hard tyres at the end of lap 26. Crucially, he emerged only just ahead of Hamilton, with just over six seconds of clear track between him and Verstappen. One lap later, Sainz was in and Verstappen was back out front.
“How many laps do I need to do now?,” queried leader. “That would be 45 laps,” replied Lambiase. A tall order.
Now it was Leclerc’s turn as the fastest driver on track. Despite being instructed to “take care of these tyres,” Leclerc was not so much tapping away at Verstappen’s lead as he was hammering it. Just five laps out of the pits, the Ferrari was already within a sniff of DRS range of the Red Bull.
As soon as Leclerc had earned the ability to open up his rear wing on lap 33, he could simply pick his moment to set himself up for the pass. He chose the run up the hill to draw alongside at turn two and pass Verstappen up the inside, the world champion offering little resistance.
“My tyres are dead again,” Verstappen reported two laps later. But despite being told he was still on “optimum strategy” and to carry on as best he could, Red Bull bowed to the inevitable and called their sole remaining driver in at the end of lap 36 for another set of hard tyres.
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Out ahead of Hamilton in third, Verstappen was immediately quickest. Instructions to pace himself were soon rescinded, with Red Bull instead telling him he was “free to push”. However, he was not catching Leclerc at anything close to the same rate he had the first time around.
From lap 38 until Leclerc eventually pitted for a second time at the completion of his 49th lap, Verstappen gained only eight seconds on him. That was sufficient for Verstappen to regain the lead when Leclerc made his second pit stop for another set of hard tyres, but the Ferrari driver had the Red Bull in his sights as he made his way up the hill for the 50th time.
The boost of the fresh rubber was immediate. With Sainz pitting on the following lap, Leclerc began gaining tenths on Verstappen on the exit of the slow right-handers of turns three and four. The Ferrari cruised up to the back of the Red Bull for a third time at the start of lap 52. Heading up the hill, Verstappen covered the inside line that he had failed to during their previous battle, but Leclerc deliberately positioned his car to take an early apex and out-dragged Verstappen to take the lead for a third time in just a single afternoon.
“What a joke, that traction is,” a bemused Verstappen uttered. But now behind him, Sainz was only four seconds back from the Red Bull and gaining at a rate of well over half a second a lap, including 1.4 second on lap 55 alone.
Sainz broke into DRS range of Verstappen at the end of lap 56 and appeared to be well on his way to breezing past the Red Bull. But then, heading down the hill, Sainz suddenly began falling back.
“No, engine! Engine!,” Sainz frantically called over the radio. “No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no…”
“Yep,” was all his race engineer Ricciardo Adami could muster in reply to yet another power unit related disappointment.
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There were frightening scenes as Sainz clambered out of his Ferrari as flames engulfed it, and the car began rolling backwards as the marshals came to his aid. Meanwhile Red Bull knew they had to react to the only opportunity they would likely get to be able to beat the sole remaining Ferrari for that afternoon.
“If you see ‘Safety Car’ or ‘VSC’, box, Max,” came the clear instruction. Moments later, the Virtual Safety Car was deployed. That put Ferrari on the spot for a second weekend in a row: Leclerc lost his shot at victory in Silverstone when the Safety Car appeared in the final laps. But this situation played out differently.
“Verstappen will box,” Marcos Padros warned the race leader.
“Should we box? We are in front,” asked Leclerc in response.
“We want to box and Verstappen will box,” came the reply. “Box now, box.”
Both came in and moved onto the medium tyres for the final 13 laps of the race. Such was the gap to third-placed Hamilton, neither Red Bull nor Ferrari had to question whether they would lose track position by doing so. When the race eventually resumed the moment Leclerc started lap 60, his first few laps following the restart were slower than Verstappen’s behind. Was this cold tyres, or something more troubling?
“Throttle pedal feels a bit strange” Leclerc reported on the radio. Despite lifting off his throttle pedal completely, his power unit was still registering throttle input in a range of 5-15%. Not enough to prevent him missing the apexes of the first four corners on the circuit, but enough to worry both the driver and the pit wall. This, surely, would not be yet another Sunday of “frustration” and “disappointment”?
Despite his impediment, Leclerc was somehow maintaining a relatively consistent pace – Verstappen only able to whittle small amounts of time out of the Ferrari’s lead.
“You cannot imagine what I’m doing with the pedals,” Leclerc said. “It’s a mess.” Verstappen lowered the fastest lap of the race but could not seem to take advantage of Leclerc’s compromised speed to ever get within two seconds of the leader, let alone DRS range.
After the most nervous final laps of the season for the Ferrari team, they could breathe a collective sigh of relief as Leclerc ticked off the final laps to cross the line and secure his first victory since the Australian Grand Prix, all the way back in April. But had it been a stressful finish for Leclerc?
“Oh, not only a little bit stressful, very stressful!,” Leclerc laughed afterwards. “The throttle was really inconsistent and in the middle of the corner it would get stuck to whatever percentage.
“In turn three, it was very, very tricky because that’s where you don’t want any more speed in mid-corner. It was quite tricky to manage – not so much in the high-speed but mostly in the low-speed but at the end we managed to get the car to the end, which is great.”
Having been beaten in a straight fight – a rare occurrence in 2022 – Verstappen was grateful he had not lost out to both Ferraris by the chequered flag, but admitted he was concerned over his race pace and tyre wear levels relative to his rival.
“Tricky race, but still, second is better than third, which it was looking like,” he mused on the cooldown lap back to the grid.
“It was a bit more difficult than I expected it to be,” he continued in the press conference later. “It’s something I cannot really explain right now, why [tyre wear] was so high. It’s just something we need to analyse and understand why this happened today. But even on a, let’s say, “off day”, to only lose five points over the whole weekend is I think still good.”
Hamilton may have completed the podium but was so far behind the leading pair it was like they had been in a different race. Still he had nothing but positives to take from a “massively satisfying” third place – and having entertained himself by watching the leaders scrap on the video screens around the circuit during the race.
“I was just watching their race on the TV,” Hamilton explained. “I could see them coming through turn six as I was coming out of turn one. But after such a difficult weekend, you know, with the crash [on Friday], with a monumental effort from the team to rebuild the car this is a really great result. So I’m very grateful.”
Russell’s efforts to fight his way back through the field following his opening lap contact with Perez were rewarded with fourth by the chequered flag. Esteban Ocon drove another lonely race for the afternoon to claim fifth for Alpine, while Mick Schumacher backed up his maiden points in Formula 1 the previous weekend with a fighting drive to sixth – his season appearing to have finally gotten started.
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A total of 64 lap times were deleted by the stewards for 43 track limits infringements over the course of the race, resulting in seven black-and-white warning flags and four five-second time penalties being handed out. Seventh-placed Lando Norris was one of these and he could not help but wonder if a top six might have been on the cards if he had kept inside the margins just one more time.
Kevin Magnussen secured another double points finish for Haas in eighth, with Daniel Ricciardo in ninth, just eight seconds adrift of his team mate this time around. Fernando Alonso recovered from the very back of the grid to take the final point in tenth, and kept it despite a stewards investigation over a late pit stop following which a wheel worked loose.
But after five weekends of heartache, setbacks and missed opportunities, Leclerc had no qualms in admitting that this victory was the “breakthrough” he had been desperately looking for to shift the paradigm in his battle against Verstappen.
“I definitely needed it,” he said. “Whenever I get to a new race since [these] five races, I have a smile on my face and I kept being optimistic. But obviously [it’s] hard race after hard race, it just felt like everything was against me. So, finally we had a breakthrough good race today and it really feels good to have a win again.”
With half of the 2022 season complete, Verstappen still holds a commanding 38-point lead in the drivers’ championship. But with so much racing still to play out until November, Leclerc and Ferrari can take heart from the knowledge that, at least based on Sunday, they are currently faster than the team they’re chasing.
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