Charles Leclerc really, really loves Ferrari. How sweet it clearly is for him to be on top of the world with Formula 1’s most famous team – however fleeting those moments that may be.
And they are fleeting in the context of Red Bull dominating the championship. But where there is Charles Leclerc, there is hope. As the Azerbaijan Grand Prix weekend proved.
Normal order was eventually restored in Baku but given the weekend had started with Leclerc and Ferrari facing questions about his future beyond his end-2024 contract, Leclerc’s stunning pole position and first podium of the year were well-timed.
If, and right now it seems a big if, Leclerc does leave Ferrari at the end of 2024 it will be with a heavy heart and only because he’s lost the last dregs of confidence in Ferrari’s ability to finally come good.
The badge-pointing after taking pole and the obvious glee of turning around a terrible start to the season (which Ferrari had harboured title aspirations for) combined to show two things after qualifying on Friday: Leclerc wants to succeed with Ferrari more than anything else, and his peaks make you believe that it might just be possible in the end.
By Sunday evening that belief had been eroded by reality, as Leclerc’s mighty pole turned into a distant third – and would have been worse but for a perfectly judged drive that kept him just out of reach of Aston Martin’s Fernando Alonso.
The Baku weekend was better from Ferrari but not a transformation of its performance. It was just at the upper end of what it has been able to achieve all year so far.
Ferrari did not end any of the first three weekends with the result that it should have had. Bahrain was the most complete performance-wise, but Leclerc didn’t finish the race because of his engine problem. When Ferrari hooked it all up, it would be in the mix to be second-best with Aston Martin and Mercedes.
That finally happened in Baku, where some specific elements worked in its favour to help Leclerc to shock Red Bull in qualifying – the way the Red Bull and Ferrari work their front tyres, and the nature of this track, combined quite nicely, plus bringing a low-drag rear wing helped further cut the straightline speed deficit Ferrari has improved over the winter.
But the biggest factor was Leclerc and his trademark sprinkling of one-lap magic on a street track, riding a wave of sheer confidence to tip the car into the corners without hesitation and gather up any moment with ultra-fast micro-corrections. It was peak Leclerc.
His race performance shouldn’t go unappreciated either. Swiftly losing the lead in both the sprint and the qualifying could have caused his head to drop but Leclerc was attuned to this inevitability and knew his fight was elsewhere. Exquisite judgement of how hard to push and when was key to splitting the Red Bulls in the sprint and scoring a podium on Sunday.
Alonso was so convinced the Ferrari’s tyres would fade and Leclerc would become an easy target that he felt comfortable voicing that over the radio in the grand prix. Perhaps he slightly underestimated Leclerc’s race management.
As the Red Bulls disappeared up the road at the start of the second stint, Leclerc did not care about chasing them. It took him 14 laps after the safety car just to get down to the pace Perez set straight away. Yet by the end of the grand prix he was, give or take a tenth or two, matching the Red Bulls as he continued to keep Alonso at arm’s length.
Leclerc could have gone faster at the start of the stint, but it would have come at a greater cost at the end of the grand prix. He’d be more vulnerable to Alonso for the sake of being a bit closer to the Red Bulls (before probably dropping away anyway).
Managing the tyres was paramount – “we have to with our car otherwise we kill them” – so Leclerc was just immensely focused on driving his own race.
“I knew what his intentions were at the beginning,” said Leclerc. “He always does that, trying to keep the tyres at the beginning of the stint and pushing at the end.
“So, I tried to do the same. And at the end, it was close, but not enough for Fernando.”
This was masterful. But unfortunately the race obliterated any notion after Leclerc’s pole that Ferrari might be back in the reckoning against Red Bull. It was, at best, slightly more competitive relative to the Red Bull. Leclerc just flattered the situation.
He had the car, the ability, and the willingness to take risks to overachieve over a single lap and grab two pole positions. Then gave Ferrari the best realistic result in the race. Which, it must be said, was still a comprehensive defeat.
That’s the reality. And Leclerc’s body language afterwards underlined that. There was a resigned air to how he looked and how he spoke – he was not frustrated with Ferrari, but with the situation. Nothing else could be asked of him from this weekend and he was still nowhere near winning.
“Happy is probably not the word,” he said of his result. “It’s good to finally score some points, as I’ve said many times, I don’t think that the six points we had coming here was really representative of our true performance.
“But of course, we are lacking a lot of performance compared to the Red Bull guys and also to the Astons in the race.
“We deserved more points, so it’s good to finally have those points. But now we just need to work extremely hard to be fighting with those guys again in the race.”
It’s down to Ferrari to make that happen. And it will be key to repaying Leclerc’s loyalty to the team.
We saw in Baku how desperate he is for the Ferrari dream to come true. Just when you think he might be losing faith, that Ferrari is a lost cause, that he will need to cut ties eventually, a moment of magic like the Baku pole reignites the fire.
The entire weekend underlined that Ferrari has an F1 driver capable of special things and must stop wasting him. It gave a glimpse of what’s possible and dangled a carrot that maybe, just maybe, this could all come together, while also showing how far that is from being a reality.
Leclerc magic cannot be the only thing that keeps this dream alive. Some way, somehow, Ferrari must start to offer something more to believe in.