RACE DEBRIEF

    “I will believe in the championship until the very end.” As Charles Leclerc left Budapest after another emotional weekend that has characterised his and his Ferrari team’s first half of the 2022 F1 campaign, the young Monegasque remained bullishly and refreshingly optimistic.

    That is a remarkable character trait for a driver who has endured a relentless run of frustrations that would test anyone’s patience. The 24-year-old, fighting for the title for the first time in his still young career, delivered the kind of performances that scream world champion material in the opening three races of the season.

    His reward was a 46-point lead (a near two-race advantage) over reigning world champion Max Verstappen. His efforts when behind the wheel were near faultless, his speed stunning, the Ferrari package he was given the best they’ve delivered in decades. Leclerc and Ferrari were genuine title contenders – and deservedly so.

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    The season started perfectly for Leclerc with a win in Bahrain

    “The last two years have been very difficult for the team, and now to be back at the top the expectations are high, and I’m fine with it,” he told me when we chatted on the balcony of Ferrari’s motorhome back in Spain. “Now we need to live up to these expectations.”

    For the first three races, they did. Then the wheel-nuts loosened and they couldn’t fasten them back on.

    Aside from a brilliant win in Austria, every other race since has been filled with heartache. Leclerc uncharacteristically spun in Imola and third became sixth. Engine failures struck when leading in Spain and Azerbaijan. Bad strategy calls in Monaco and Silverstone lost him the lead. A strange tyre strategy in Hungary saw him go from leading the race to finishing sixth. And a mistake when trying to build a gap to Verstappen saw him crash out of the lead in France.

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    That leaves Leclerc 80 points behind Verstappen with nine Grands Prix to go (three of which his Red Bull rival could sit out and he’d still be leading). Leclerc has cut a disconsolate figure when he’s arrived in the TV pen after those painful defeats. His face gives away the disappointment that is eating away at him. When it’s a team mistake, Leclerc shields Ferrari as he’s a true team player. When it’s his own mistake, there’s no shield there – he is very critical of himself. In both scenarios, he faces up to the music.

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    Strategy proved to be Ferrari's downfall in Monaco as Leclerc went from leading to finishing fourth

    He owned up to his error in France. He didn’t blame the wind or try to make another excuse. That’s not his style. But nor did he apologise for pushing to make a gap and searching for that extra tenth of a second because in his mind, if he isn’t doing that, he isn’t doing everything he can to win the championship and bring the title back to Ferrari for the first time in more than a decade.

    “Many times it [the misfortune] was out of my control, which in those cases is very easy to put behind,” said Leclerc, whose mental toughness has emerged as one of his greatest strengths this year. “In some other cases it was in my control. In this particular case, I just go through the process of analysing why I did the mistake – and then you move on. Never been a person who stays too much on mistakes, I prefer to move on.”

    Leclerc is clearly driving at a high level – he sits second in F1’s Power Rankings with a score of 8.3 out of 10, 0.5 adrift of Verstappen, and has scored seven poles in 13 races so far this season. The pain, though, is that he only converted two of those P1 slots into wins and has a record of just five podiums, one shy of his team mate Carlos Sainz.

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    Of the top four drivers in the championship, he has the worst average race finishing position. Verstappen stands at 1.82, Sergio Perez at 2.80 and Sainz at 2.89 with the Monegasque on a 3.20. Leclerc, though, isn’t getting downbeat.

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    Reliability hasn't always been Ferrari's forte this season - and has cost Leclerc valuable points

    “As a team, looking where we are coming from in the last few years, I do believe that it's an incredible step forward,” he said. “On the other hand, obviously there's another step that we need to do. And we are working on that. But I'm confident that we will do it.”

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    He added: “It looks like we have a strong car. What is surprising me the most is mostly our race pace and tyre management since Austria has been good. We changed a few things on the Saturday night after the Sprint, especially driving-wise and this seems to make quite a step for me. This is positive for the rest of the season. But in qualifying Red Bull seem to be pretty strong.

    “The pace is there to win a championship, we just have to put everything together. Reliability has been a problem this year, we’ve lost loads of points. We’ll try to grow from that. Hopefully we don’t have these for the rest of the year, things are still possible. I remain positive for the rest of the year.”

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    It's going to be an uphill battle in the championship if Leclerc wants to overhaul his rival from here on in

    And so he should. There are still 242 points left on the table – taking into account fastest lap points and scores for the Sprint in Brazil. Just as the championship swung 46 points to Leclerc and then 80 to Verstappen, it can swing back the other way – even if his Dutch rival has some incredible momentum right now.

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    Ferrari's F1-75, as Leclerc says, is fast. That’s the hardest bit. They just need to cut the mistakes out, both inside the cockpit and on the pit wall, and hope for a bit of luck along the way. Leclerc’s ability to compartmentalise the misery of the poor reliability or erroneous strategy calls plus his own errors means he can make the most of a fast car once those issues are ironed out.

    His target now is a simple one: win each remaining race of the season, and hope that's enough to overhaul Verstappen.

    “I’m relying on myself to do that even though it’s quite a challenging task," he says. "But let’s see how it goes. Obviously it’s a very optimistic goal. I don’t want to look into it any more negatively.”