Let’s be honest: 2022 hasn’t had the fireworks that 2021 had, despite there being so many similarities between the two seasons.
Last year, it felt like Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton had to race each other at some stage of most races, and it led to a few flashpoints and robust moves that eventually spilled over into the Silverstone and Monza collisions. So by this point in the season the touch paper had really been lit, and the fire wasn’t going to die down.
Fast-forward 12 months and we’ve seen both Verstappen and Charles Leclerc regularly go wheel-to-wheel as well, with battles in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Imola and Miami setting the tone.
Yet that spark is somewhat lacking at the moment, despite Verstappen and Leclerc having many a tough fight in the past. These two do know each other really well, and have history, but there’s an edge that is missing.
Part of that is surely down to Verstappen’s experience. For all the confidence he has in his own ability, and belief that he did nothing wrong in the collision with Hamilton at Silverstone last year, he’s very aware that the points he missed by not conceding the corner nearly cost him the championship.
Incidents like the Baku puncture were out of his hands, but ones such as Silverstone were within them and he could have entered that final race with a much easier task to try and secure the title.
So when he and Leclerc were fighting over the lead in Austria, there was a maturity to Verstappen that came through. He wasn’t going to compound a bad day for Red Bull by being overly aggressive and potentially opening the door for another 25-point swing, as happened last year. He’d already learned how painful those could be this season with reliability issues in Bahrain and Australia where Leclerc won.
After the latter of those two failures, it felt like Verstappen would have a long, hard road back to the title fight, as Leclerc had taken two wins and a second place and Ferrari looked consistent as well as quick. But that has turned around rapidly, with the two retirements when leading from pole position in Spain and Azerbaijan part of a run of five races without a podium.
That run came to an end in Austria, and it needed to, just to create a little bit of doubt in Red Bull’s mind.
Either Leclerc has led comfortably, or Verstappen has, but even at the crossover point the momentum was clearly with the Red Bull driver. Now Leclerc needs to start turning that momentum back his way, and Ferrari appears to have done its part with car upgrades that have closed the gap to Red Bull and given the Monegasque the machinery with which to deliver, as long as it holds up.
It very much feels like Leclerc needs to outscore Verstappen across these next two races – however that may look – to put some actual pressure on. At 38 points, Verstappen’s lead is still comfortable. He could finish second to Leclerc and watch the Ferrari driver set the fastest lap all the way through to the end of the European season in Monza before he would relinquish the lead of the championship. (Spin that round and imagine Leclerc wins every race but Verstappen is second with fastest lap, and it would be Japan before the lead changes hands).
You don’t need me to tell you where the problem with those scenarios lies. And it’s not necessarily in Red Bull’s pace, but in Ferrari’s ongoing ability to trip over itself. Even in Austria – where credit must be given to Ferrari for the way it executed on Sunday by putting pressure on Verstappen early on and forcing the leader into a sub-optimal strategy – there was what I’ve started terming as the ‘Ferrari moment’ where something major goes wrong. On this occasion, it was Carlos Sainz’s retirement.
Leclerc has been on the receiving end of far too many Ferrari moments already this season, with the Barcelona and Baku DNFs being added to by strategic errors in Monaco and Silverstone. Execute those two races correctly and Leclerc has an extra 26 points to his name, and the gap to Verstappen would be 12 at worst.
If I keep stretching the realms of the hypothetical, then without the scale of the failures that took him out of the lead twice, Leclerc also wouldn’t have needed to start from the back in Canada, where Ferrari had the car to beat Verstappen, too.
The reason I’m allowing ifs, buts and maybes come into play is because it shows how strong Ferrari has been this year, and just what a chance it has been blowing in terms of the championship battle.
But it also provides that little bit of hope that there still could be another epic season on our hands.
It doesn’t take Ferrari to win every race to make a fight of it, because with 11 races to go there is still plenty of time to chip away at Verstappen’s current advantage. But it could send out a statement to Red Bull with a pair of strong results in France and Hungary, because on the balance of performance Christian Horner must be fearing one thing more than anything else from Ferrari and that’s consistency.
Paul Ricard was a nightmare venue for Ferrari a year ago as Sainz and Leclerc qualified fifth and seventh respectively but slipped rapidly out of the points with excessive tire wear and the current championship contender was lapped on a way to an embarrassing 16th place.
It’s a very different landscape this time around, but there will still be lessons to be learned, just as there have been at multiple races so far this season. If Ferrari lean them quickly, the promise of a close battle for the title could start becoming a reality once again.