ANALYSIS: The good, the bad and the future – What's next for Charles Leclerc after his 2022 title defeat?
Before Charles Leclerc – the 2022 Formula 1 World Championship runner-up – engaged his end-of-season switch off button and began the recharging process, the Ferrari driver chatted to F1 Correspondent Lawrence Barretto about his undulating campaign...
The negatives are headlined – obviously – by a title defeat, the 24-year-old leading the championship by a massive 46 points after three races in a car that was Ferrari’s most competitive for more than a decade, only to end the season 146 behind champion Max Verstappen.
But he’s been hampered by team mistakes, too. Bad strategy calls dropped him out of the lead in Monaco, Silverstone and Hungary. Twice his engine failed while he headed the field (in Spain and Azerbaijan).
Ferrari’s lack of in-season development meant not only did they lose touch with eventual runaway champions Red Bull, but in the closing stages, were overhauled performance-wise by a Mercedes team that started the year mired in the midfield.
It meant that after Spa, with eight races still to go, Leclerc realised the title was likely gone. “Spa was the first race where we really struggled for pace [Red Bull took a one-two], and it made me think it would be difficult to win the title,” he says when we chat overlooking the marina that straddles Abu Dhabi’s impressive paddock.
“We had quite a big points deficit. It wasn’t easy to accept, but you just have to give your best until the end of season, which is what I’ve done.”
That’s quite a list of woe – but one which is intertwined with positive shoots of hope in what was, statistically, the most successful campaign of his career.
A tally of nine pole positions was the best of anyone in 2022, the Monegasque making the most of a Ferrari which was in its comfort zone over one lap while excelling in those high-pressure moments when you only have one shot at pole.
He comfortably won the team mate head-to-head in qualifying, beating Carlos Sainz 15-7, and while it was closer in race trim, he topped that metric too, 12-9, winning three Grands Prix – his best season haul – to Sainz’s one.
And his points haul of 308 is 44 clear of his previous best.
This was a good year for Leclerc, and had there been better reliability, better strategic calls and fewer driver errors – coupled with a little bit of luck – it could have been so different.
“It’s been very up and down, so it’s difficult to judge a season like this,” he adds. “When I do a step back and look at 2020 and 2021 and how difficult those years were – to now be fighting for the positions we are fighting for is incredible.
“It’s an amazing step forward. On the other hand, if you focus only on this season, I don’t feel like we’ve optimised everything we’ve had. It’s a very good transition from struggling last year to hopefully winning the championship next year.”
Once the dust has settled, Leclerc should emerge ahead of the 2023 season in a stronger frame of mind and says he will take a lot of confidence into next year “because the step we have done from last year to this year has been huge”.
He adds: “We’ve been working well this year in terms of identifying areas we need to work on this car for next year. I’m sure we will do a great job.”
Those areas of improvement centre around putting everything together in the perfect way on Sunday. Ferrari did the hard bit for 2022 – they built a fast race car that started the year as the best of them all. That is a fine achievement considering how dramatically the rules had changed.
However, a brittle engine meant not only did they pay for it early doors – when they lost at least two Grand Prix wins and a one-two – but they suffered grid penalty pain later on when they inevitably exceeded their permitted allocation of engine components.
That is why it’s believed the power unit has been a key focus of the team’s resource and time, primarily focused on reliability in a bid to make the most out of the potential power output.
The other big focus has been on tyre management, which has been the team’s biggest weakness on Sunday. They simply couldn’t get the rubber into the right operating window – and thus it was difficult for the drivers to make the tyres last while lapping competitively.
Part of that learning will have been enhanced by the tyre testing they have taken part in with Pirelli, most recently at Fiorano this month with Sainz and then Leclerc. While these are blind tests, the more time the team can spend running the tyres, the more data they will have to try and understand how they can move forward.
It's then down to Leclerc cut out the mistakes, like the error while leading at Paul Ricard that cost him the win, and get the job done on a consistent basis. We were robbed of the chance to see if he could do that this year, but every Ferrari fan will be hoping it all comes together in 2023.