After just three races, I’m already having to change my tune with regard to Charles Leclerc.
Prior to this season, there had always been that feeling when watching Leclerc that there was a mistake or two lurking around the corner. Usually, it would be one that he would take full responsibility for and perhaps even be too hard on himself over, but small errors seemed to punctuate the excellent performances.
A greater level of consistency is what formed the foundation of Carlos Sainz’s first season at Ferrari last year, when he managed to finish ahead of Leclerc in the drivers’ championship by a little over five points, securing best-of-the-rest status behind the Red Bull and Mercedes pairs.
And it was that dynamic that made it tough to separate Leclerc and Sainz heading into this season. Spaniard seemed destined to be more reliable while Leclerc might enjoy higher highs but lower lows.
So far, it has only been the higher highs – in every race weekend to date – and something Leclerc said after his comfortable victory in Australia reminded me just why that should really have been expected.
“Obviously, the mindset is a bit different compared to the last two years,” Leclerc said. “Now, I know that underneath me I’ve got a car that is capable of winning and I don’t really have to overdo things or to do something extremely special and spectacular to actually get one or two positions, because I know that it’s in the car and I just have to do the job.”
It’s easy to forget just how bad Ferrari has been at times in recent years, and those problems have almost exclusively coincided with Leclerc’s time at the team. While he made an impressive start to his Ferrari career in what was just his second season in F1 – an unprecedented step by the Scuderia to promote someone so inexperienced, don’t forget – the early-season promise faded away with reliability problems and a car that was rarely a contender for victories.
Leclerc took the two main chances that came his way at Spa-Francorchamps and Monza in front of the adoring Tifosi, but soon after that Ferrari’s power unit came under more intense focus and the car was far less competitive in the closing stages of 2019.
You probably don’t need me to tell you how bad 2020 was for the team, and last year it was still a long way from having a car that was capable of contenting with Red Bull and Mercedes, so this year is Leclerc’s first chance to truly show what he can do at the front. And it’s something that he is actually well-accustomed to.
When Leclerc won the 2017 Formula 2 championship he was in a class of his own. Driving for Prema, he took pole position at all but one round that season, although he also lost a pole for a technical infringement that even his main title rival Oliver Rowland conceded did not benefit Leclerc’s performance.
It might be a spec series, but F2 clearly has stronger and weaker teams and Prema has tended to be the place to be, providing three of the past five drivers’ champions. As part of what was clearly the best package in 2017, Leclerc was sublime as a rookie, backing up his GP3 title against more experienced opposition at a time when the chassis was already quite dated and so rookies faced a tougher challenge.
It’s an experience Leclerc clearly takes confidence from this year.
“I’ve been in this situation in the junior categories,” he said. “But then to be in this situation in Formula 1 means a lot, and especially after the last few years, and with a team like Ferrari. So it feels incredible.”
Back then, Leclerc could see the benefit of not trying to overdrive. He knew that if he drove to the car’s potential in F2, then he would more often than not come out with a big result. That approach is only being magnified this year where Ferrari has a clear car advantage over at least eight other teams, and based on it’s performance relative to Red Bull in Melbourne, too.
Sometimes when drivers try to talk down their chances it sounds like they’re speaking in cliches. With Leclerc, the smile on his face after he climbed out of his car in Melbourne betrayed the words that were coming out of his mouth.
“Obviously we only had the third race, so it’s difficult to think about the championship, but to be honest, we’ve got a very strong car, a very reliable car too,” he said.
“And for now, we’ve always been there, so I hope it continues like this and if it does, then we probably have chances for the championship, which obviously makes me smile after the last two years that have been difficult for the team and obviously for myself. So it’s great to be back in this position.”
There is so much of this season to go. A 20-race schedule is longer than the majority of F1 seasons have been in the past, but Leclerc’s early performances mark him out as the clear favorite for this year’s championship. Heading into what will be a frenzied atmosphere with a Ferrari driver leading the title race at Imola, he knows the pressure is surely going to increase.
“Thirty-four points is always good to take wherever you are in the calendar but, yeah, I don’t want to focus too much on the championship for now,” he said. “Italy will be incredible, but we need to approach the race weekend just like we approached the first three weekends.
“I think it’s extremely important not to put extra pressure on ourselves and not try to overdo things. We’ve been working as a team extremely well since the beginning of the season and we just need to keep doing our job, just like we did in the first three weekends.”
Saying it is one thing and doing it is very much another, but the manner of his approach to being in such a position in the past really makes you believe Leclerc has got no concerns when it comes to being the title favorite. In fact, it might just bring the best out of him, by making him drive to his limits but not beyond.