Few things are as disappointing to see in Formula 1 as a driver whose natural flair is dampened. And there have been times this season where Charles Leclerc, one of the grid’s great entertainers, has lacked his.
Leclerc’s peaks have remained as high as ever. He has five poles this year, as many as every other non-Max Verstappen driver on the grid combined.
But whether bitten by the traits of Ferraari’s unpredictable SF-23, or seeing his attacking style restrained by his and his team’s methods of taming the beast, he has also had some ineffective weekends.
That has been compounded at times by circumstance rendering him a bit-part player – Ferrari’s communications blunder in Monaco qualifying, sacrificing his race to support team-mate Carlos Sainz’s victory bid in Singapore, or a luckless failure that caused a formation lap crash in Brazil.
F1’s most enjoyable best is when its top drivers are front and centre. It is naturally poorer without a combative, swashbuckling Leclerc at full tilt. But in the last few races, Leclerc’s been back at his most effective best.
Since a run of races being second-best to Sainz culminated with missing Ferrari’s big chance to win in Singapore – he admitted he only had to play the support role to Sainz because he was not quick enough – Leclerc has been in a purple patch of form.
He’s been on pole at three of the last six grands prix, finished on the podium twice, and (despite being disqualified from the United States Grand Prix because of a Ferrari technical infringement, and not getting to start from second in Brazil) has contributed more points than Sainz in that time as Ferrari has clawed its way back to near-level with Mercedes in a valuable fight for second in the constructors’ championship.
And, of course, he grabbed second from Sergio Perez in Las Vegas last weekend with a stunning final lap pass.
"It was [the] limit!" Ferrari team boss Fred Vasseur exclaimed when asked by The Race’s Edd Straw if that move was Leclerc on the limit and at his best.
"The lap before, at one stage I said 'OK we will try to do it' but I had the gap on my dash and I said 'ah it's too far away, it's too far away'.
"The lap after, I was a bit surprised but probably less than Checo.
"It was a mega good move. He was so motivated, he had to do it."
That capped a great weekend from Leclerc, although he made life harder for himself with an unforced error that had allowed Perez to slip past in the first place.
But the move was so good that it more than just ‘cancels out’ his original mistake.
And Leclerc had only really been vulnerable to the two Red Bulls because of an ill-timed safety car that undid the hard work he had put in to repass Verstappen at the end of the first stint after being unfairly run off the road at the first corner, then brought his hard tyres in very kindly without sacrificing the lead in the second stint.
There was a lot about the Las Vegas weekend that signified Leclerc at his best – supreme confidence and speed in qualifying, a feisty performance in the race twinned with some sound judgement, and a defter touch at tyre management than he is sometimes given credit for.
Overtaking a Red Bull in such a way brought together a lot of that.
"Once I went for it, I was pretty confident it would work out," said Leclerc.
"It was basically the only opportunity I had. It's the only place where you can really go for an overtake. And I also had in mind that Checo had done a small mistake four or five laps before so I knew he was being a little bit on braking.
"In the second to last lap, I started to recharge the batteries in order to get ready for that last lap and it worked out.
"It was obviously very, very tight but I was really happy and I really enjoyed the fight."
Leclerc seems to be revelling in his recent form. And the timing could not be better for Ferrari.
Returning to the scene of a superb drive 12 months ago that gave him an unlikely victory over Perez in the fight to finish second in the world championship, Leclerc has little to play for himself.
He only has an outside shot at fourth in the championship but probably cares little about that compared to snatching runner-up a year ago. A win looks unlikely given Red Bull and Verstappen can hardly be beaten on their weaker weekends, let alone at a recent stranglehold.
Ferrari, though, has something tangible to fight for. Mercedes is just four points ahead in the championship.
It’s a battle of pride, significant financial reward, and maybe even ‘race zero’ for a 2024 season that both wounded giants are trying to map out as a full-on title challenge.
Leclerc, revitalised and finishing a testing 2023 with a flourish, looks ready for a defining role in how that battle plays out.