In a chastening 2023 Formula 1 season for Ferrari, Charles Leclerc has had some specific issues to deal with. That hasn’t always been easy and at times Leclerc has made things worse for himself.
The upshot has been a volatile season of grand peaks, low troughs, quiet races of real class and some rather anonymous ones too.
If the Ferrari SF-23 had been the car Leclerc and the team hoped it would be, chances are his personal performances would look rather different. But Leclerc rarely needs a second invitation to comment on his own weaknesses or where he needs to improve, and that's very much the case when he sits with The Race to reflect upon a challenging season that has not lived up to any of the expectations that he or Ferrari had at the start of the year.
The weaknesses of the Ferrari car have been apparent since very early on, since the first time it ran in anger at the Bahrain pre-season test. And they were proved as the season developed. Jeddah was particularly bad. The car’s wind sensitivity became a running theme through the first half of the year.
“We straight away knew what our weaknesses were,” says Leclerc.
“We were, at least at the beginning of the year, super wind-sensitive, which is something I guess is quite difficult to understand for fans that are not properly into Formula 1.
“There were some off-examples like Baku, where the wind was quite high, but we were super strong [Leclerc was on pole and finished on the podium], which was difficult to understand.
"But then as a general trend, we were struggling quite a lot. Even in one weekend, we could see a lot of very good sessions and also very difficult sessions.
“That was very, very difficult for us because also as a driver, it's very difficult to set up the car in a particular way, because you will get one car one session and a very different one the one after.
“And especially me, who likes to have a very strong front end, I was going from a very, very, very oversteery car that was very difficult to drive, to a car that I quite liked.
"It was difficult to find that consistency as a driver and as a team.”
In that first part of the season, Leclerc pushed very hard to have the strong front end that he wants and that he flourishes with. He has a brilliant ability to live with movement and rear instability. As long as the front goes where he wants it to go, Leclerc can mop up anything else that the car does around that - usually.
So, he persevered with that in the first part of the season. But the tendencies of the Ferrari were incompatible. This manifested itself in some tremendous peaks, but also some punishing moments like the crashes in Miami and at Zandvoort, with Leclerc guilty of chasing what he needed, rather than the car.
“I mean, I've always been challenging the rear, a lot!” Leclerc says with a smile. “For sure. And definitely too much at some points at the beginning of the season.
“But it's something that I hate to find excuses for, in a way. In the end, I am the driver, I am the one setting up the car. And this was my choice to have such a strong front at the beginning of the season, when maybe the car couldn't handle it because it was inconsistent.
“So, at the end, it's still from me. Those mistakes, I know exactly why they arrived. And why it happened. And this is the most important because then you learn from it for the rest of the season.
“We are obviously in a very different place compared to where we were last year. We had a very, very strong front end, and it was very consistent throughout the whole year. This year is a bit more difficult to manage.
“But that's OK, you need to adapt from one season to the other. And at the beginning of the season, I was a bit too much on the other side, having too much oversteer.
“It was good in ideal conditions but unfortunately, the conditions always change. And whenever they were changing, then I was struggling more.”
As Ferrari has learned more about its car it has addressed some areas but ultimately had some underlying weaknesses that need to be mitigated against, by dialling some understeer into the set-up.
This was talked about quite prominently around the Singapore Grand Prix weekend when team-mate Carlos Sainz clearly had the upper hand. And Leclerc has openly admitted for a long time that he struggles with understeer.
“It's very difficult to drive an inconsistent car on the oversteery side,” says Leclerc.
“So you need to go on the understeery side and this is not what I like. I don't like driving an understeery car.
“I had to do some work to try and fit my driving a bit better to an understeery car which is not my biggest strength, and I know it. I tried to go a bit more in my direction with the car set-up as much as it could be done, which was not a lot for this year, but at the same time try to adapt my driving to these more understeery set-ups that we need at the moment.
“So, there you are just going through data, videos and try to understand what you are doing with the car that is not exactly right. And try to learn from that.”
It exposes a limitation on his side that’s more pronounced but kind of similar to what Max Verstappen had to deal with mainly in the first part of last year in an overweight Red Bull.
A driver that thrives so much with the rear end moving because they can manipulate its rotation so effectively can then struggle when the front is weak. It imposes a limit on the car that an objectively faster driver can simply find it tough to get around.
It's a driver’s job to work through that though and that’s what Leclerc has been trying to do, to see if he can get on top of it in the way Sainz has - Sainz being a driver who thrives with more of that understeering balance.
Maybe Leclerc's much better weekend in Japan was a sign that it’s working.
FERRARI'S NEW BOSS 'EXACTLY WHAT I NEED'
Even if this car will not go down as Leclerc’s favourite Ferrari, he is clearly in an environment that should get more out of him in the future.
Though Leclerc doesn't need to be told what he's not doing well, he will be hearing it if he needs to. Leclerc talks effusively about the relationship he has with Fred Vasseur, and the way that Vasseur deals with him, which Leclerc claims is exactly what he needs.
“Fred has known me for a very, very long time,” says Leclerc. “So, there were no surprises in a way, because I knew exactly what to expect when Fred arrived. And I knew how good he is.
“Everybody's different. With Fred there's always been a special connection in the past, and also now.
“He’s really good at motivating you when you need it, and to calm you down when you need it too. And he's always been very, very straightforward with me.
“This is exactly what I need - a person that is harsh on me when I'm not doing great, and a person that is telling me that I'm doing good. Which seems super simple, but then once you arrive in Formula 1, and you are a Ferrari driver, not as many people are as honest as that, and it's difficult to find those kinds of people.
“This has been super helpful for me.”
There is clearly a degree of honesty and trust in that long-standing relationship that Leclerc really values. It may also be that what Vasseur offers him isn't what Leclerc had with the previous team boss Mattia Binotto. And there’s some evidence that Vasseur’s Ferrari is a better place for Leclerc to be.
Sainz was a Binotto signing and seemed like the kind of driver and personality that Binotto really responded well to - engineering focused, technically driven with off-track methodologies that Binotto talked about and admired a lot.
And if you consider what Leclerc’s said about what he has with Vasseur, given Leclerc’s only ever had one other team boss in F1, it’s tempting to infer that is what he didn’t with Binotto.
That’s the past, though. Leclerc is extremely optimistic about the present and the future, and Leclerc thinks Vasseur is good for a lot more people than just himself.
He feels Ferrari’s response to its 2023 problems has been better than it's been in the past and even specifically referenced his 2020 experience, where there were a lot of problems on the car and engine side.
This year, Leclerc is very happy with the way that Ferrari has gone about identifying its weaknesses and believes it has been effective in enacting change, both in the short-term and with what it has planned for 2024. Leclerc feels that the understanding that Ferrari’s gained this season has been significant and he really emphasises that.
“It was very difficult to comment on the first few months because it's such a big team that you need a bit of time to get used to all the people, to get to know how Ferrari works as it's very different to any other team,” Leclerc says.
“But then as soon as he got at ease with the team, it was super good. As I've been saying many times, I think the biggest strength of Fred is to extract the absolute maximum out of everybody in the factory - and when I say everybody, it's really everybody.
“That really makes a difference. Because at the end, we are many, many people in a Formula 1 team. And when you are as good as Fred is to extract the maximum out of every single person, this makes a big difference.
“Of course, he found himself with a car that was a bit difficult at the beginning of the year. So, it takes time now to get back to the top level.
“But I have no doubt that we'll come back there with Fred.”
ADDING PERSPECTIVE TO FERRARI EMOTIONS
It seems like a key factor in why, even in a season like this, when the car's not where Leclerc wants it to be, when the expectations have not been met and he's got a team-mate who's given him plenty to worry about, Leclerc seems more committed to the Ferrari dream than ever before.
It’s obvious that Leclerc barely needs convincing to stay with Ferrari. There's clearly a great deal of affection there. He doesn’t just buy into how special Ferrari is, he believes it and lives it. As he says: “It's always been the red car for me, since I was younger.
“But this is not the whole reason why I am so attached to Ferrari. I am also super grateful for everything they've done for me. I'm also aware that Nicolas Todt helped me from 2011, but without Ferrari, I wouldn't have made it to Formula 1. And they've always been there supporting me when I needed it.
“Ferrari is just special. Whenever you get to Ferrari, and you go around the factory and you speak to the people, you can feel something that is super special, you can understand how much passion and how much it means to them. When you go to the production, and you see how much it means for them to see the driver. It's something very strong.”
Beyond the emotional connection and simply wanting Ferrari to succeed, Leclerc feels Vasseur has given the team direction and impetus that makes Leclerc believe that there really is a vision to buy into, and that the project is something that can succeed.
OK, it’s back to being a medium-term thing rather than the short-term, which is frustrating after last season’s progress. But that’s better than fearing a terminal decline. And the fact that Vasseur is a big part of Leclerc’s confidence is important to Ferrari.
Whether this was a primary motivation for recruiting him or not, it shows that bringing Vasseur in has played a role in convincing Ferrari’s star driver to want to stick around.
The impression Leclerc gives of Vasseur’s Ferrari is that everyone seems to know what they're working towards, and is working towards it in the right way. Again, it's hard not to hear that and draw a contrast to what life was like under Binotto. He always seemed to be trying to engender the right culture within Ferrari and was an engineer by trade, so the processes and expertise should have been there.
Something didn’t work, though. And for now, Leclerc does not believe Ferrari is repeating the same mistakes. Which Leclerc suggests is down to Vasseur offering some much-needed perspective and rationality in an emotional environment.
“What makes Ferrari great and amazing, and this is why I love Ferrari so much, is the emotions and the passion that there is within the team,” says Leclerc.
“I also believe, though, that this passion and emotions in some moments can be something that is a bit more difficult to manage than other teams, because it means so much to the people inside Ferrari that it can be difficult to manage those emotions sometimes.
“Where Fred is great, he's a racer, he's been in motorsports since a very, very long time, and he's always super rational and calm. And has always a very good vision of whatever is happening, whether we are in a very difficult moment, or whether we are in a really good moment.
“His emotions are quite flat in a way, which I think is great for the team because this puts everything back in perspective.
"The highs are not as high as what we all feel when everything goes well! And the lows are not as low than what we all feel when it's not going great.
“That is a super huge strength of Fred. And that has helped the team a lot.”
WHAT IT WOULD TAKE TO LEAVE FERRARI
What nobody can be sure of, even Leclerc, is whether this really will pay off the way he wants or needs it to. Ferrari has failed to win a championship since 2008 for a reason. And this has been a tough season that started with hopes of a title bid that never even materialised. Ferrari fell at the very first hurdle.
Leclerc’s glass is half full for now, and he’ll go into next year believing that Ferrari can win, and hoping Red Bull will hit a performance ceiling and Ferrari can make a big gain. But Vasseur’s talking about a project that is a lot longer-term, weaknesses to address gradually, and recruitment that will only pay off in the next 18 months to two years. The real benefits may even be beyond that.
The crucial thing is Leclerc seems to want to be a part of that, even in a season of yet more Ferrari frustration, more Ferrari technical limitations, more teams getting into the mix, and specific issues for Leclerc in the car. It’s a cocktail of factors that could easily lead to Leclerc wanting out. That's partly why there's been so much speculation this year that other teams might be interested in him, with links to Mercedes and Aston Martin.
One view might be that of course Leclerc is going to be very positive about Ferrari and say all these nice things now because he's got no other immediate alternatives. Where's the new contract, if he cares that much?
Much like his last renewal, it just isn't an in-season priority. But his contract runs through to the end of next year and there is always the possibility for movement in the driver market.
If Leclerc did want to be selfish and felt that there was no chance of Ferrari giving him the car he needs, he could run the clock down and play the field. Especially as he has at least acknowledged the possibility that sooner or later it’s possible he will have to cut ties and if that’s the case emotion won't be a factor in that because he has to do what's best for him.
“I view it in a way that whenever I won't believe in the project anymore, that probably will be the time when I'll have to go away,” Leclerc says.
“Because it’s in these kinds of situations that you don't get the best out of yourself, that you don't help the team as much as it needs to be helped.
“But this is definitely not the case at the moment. I believe in the project as much as I've ever believed in the project before. Especially since Fred arrived.
“So for now it's clear. Then it's also clear that I want to win. But I believe in this project and I'm sure we are working in the right direction.”
If Leclerc can feel like that in a season like this, and really believe in it, then it's not just a matter of affection. And that could turn out to be a bright silver lining for Ferrari from a season that has offered so few.