Should we call last week’s column a commentator’s curse?
For the first 10 laps of the French Grand Prix it felt like one of those races where Charles Leclerc was likely going to be passed by Max Verstappen and need to just limit the damage with a second place after his recent win in Austria.
But as he held off his title rival and slowly started to edge away in the following laps, the momentum was swinging Ferrari’s way again.
With Verstappen having to pit early for what was clearly going to be a very long stint (or a two-stop race), Leclerc suddenly was in control, with the ability to extend that first stint and make use of Ferrari’s better tire preservation in the heat.
That was the moment when the pressure should have been slightly reduced, so maybe that was the catalyst for Leclerc to completely lose the control he had gained. Literally.
Earlier in the battle with Verstappen, Leclerc ran slightly deep at the Turn 8/9 chicane when the championship leader just showed his nose approaching the braking zone. A move was never on, but it seemed enough to distract Leclerc on that occasion and he was then forced to get defensive at Turn 11.
It prompted a colleague to say, “You always feel Charles has got a mistake in him, don’t you?”. I couldn’t help but agree, but can’t say I was expecting such a big one to follow.
Mistakes had appeared to have been ironed out in the opening three races of this season, when things were going so well for Ferrari. Leclerc put it down to the fact he finally had a car capable of winning races and being at the front, so he wasn’t having to overdrive it to try and put it in a competitive position as he had in the previous seasons.
Given Ferrari’s ambitions and stature, perhaps it was more accepting of that approach in 2020 and 2021, when it wasn’t keen to play it conservatively when chasing midfield results. But this year, it couldn’t afford to take the same risks because the downside is so great.
Leclerc doesn’t need telling twice. He took full responsibility for the error he made at Paul Ricard, coming out and stating he simply lost control of the rear trying to push too hard at that moment in the race, with tires starting to degrade.
There was clarity too over his comments relating to the throttle when the car was in the barrier, as it wasn’t a potential cause for the incident but in reference to the procedure required to try and get the car to go into reverse. Once it was clear he couldn’t try and back out of the tires, that’s what prompted Leclerc’s outburst on team radio.
It was a mistake prompted by trying to drive on the limit and going slightly over it, but now Ferrari is going to need to take that risky approach more and more often, and that is going to open up the potential for more mistakes to be made. With a 63-point deficit for Leclerc to try and close to Verstappen – not to mention the 82-point advantage Red Bull now holds in the constructors’ standings – being conservative is unlikely to do the trick.
Leclerc highlights the 32 points he has thrown away with his crash in Imola and retirement in France as the portion of the gap he will need to take the blame for if he does indeed miss out on the championship this year, but that also perfectly illustrates how there’s a pretty even split between team and driver at this stage.
Ferrari has cost Leclerc two wins due to reliability, but Red Bull cost Verstappen any chance of the same in two of the opening three rounds, so it’s the strategic blunders that really account for the rest of the difference between the two.
And it’s those fine margins that separate the great from the very good both from a driver and team perspective.
When Verstappen or Lewis Hamilton have been in a position to win races over recent years, they’ve executed. When the other has been beaten, they so regularly finished second to limit the damage. Individual mistakes that took them out of the race from overdriving have become so rare even in the heat of a title battle that you can’t help but admire their consistency.
It’s something other drivers – such as Fernando Alonso – were also able to do on a regular basis when in race-winning machinery, but only Hamilton and Verstappen have really had that luxury in recent seasons until this year.
Even when strategies have not been perfect, the scale of the error from the likes of Red Bull or Mercedes has been so small. Leclerc had wins turned into missed podiums, whereas in races like Austria, Verstappen finished second with the fastest lap and taking away serious points.
“It’s all about scoring points every single race, even when it’s not your day,” Verstappen said on Sunday night, after what had turned into a very boring run to the flag for him and his team. So boring in fact that his race engineer Gianpiero Lambiase had called it “a shame” over team radio that Leclerc crashed out as it would have been a good race.
I’m sure the level of disappointment on the Red Bull pit wall was minuscule compared to the way millions of neutrals around the world will have reacted when Leclerc crashed out, but it was a telling comment, and it comes from a team that can be termed “great” for the car it has built and the way it operates.
Even if they’re struggling comparatively from an outright car performance point of view, Mercedes can still be seen the same way, and both have great drivers as part of those teams.
But Ferrari can’t escape the realms of “very good” just yet, and nor can its driver. That’s not to say they can’t both make mistakes, but to reach the very top level they need to shake off the feeling that something costly is always just around the corner.