Charles Leclerc has been waiting for a car that allows him to show the full extent of his potential in Formula 1. At the start of the 2022 season, he has that car. Surprise surprise, he leads the championship for the first time in his career.
That Leclerc can qualify on pole and win races in a fast car is nothing new. We saw this in 2019, his very first season at Ferrari and only his second in F1. That was the only time in Leclerc’s four seasons in F1 (before this year) he had the opportunity to win races, and he did exactly that.
But he was a more nervous driver when he won at Spa and Monza in 2019. Leclerc made some small mistakes and in Italy got away with shoving Lewis Hamilton into the run-off area at the second chicane. He admits now: “There were some parts of the race where I wasn’t managing the situation very well and I felt a bit overwhelmed.”
Being hunted by a driver like Hamilton while chasing your first win, and then again while chasing a win for Ferrari on its home soil at Monza, are extraordinary high-pressure situations.
It was testament to Leclerc’s ability and mental resolve that he could cope. Just. In both instances, he was hanging on at times. Is that sustainable over a full season, to fight for a championship? It at least makes the task a lot harder.
Performing at a level that can yield a title bid is different to putting things together on a single day or weekend. So what we saw in 2019 was as much evidence of the calibre of driver Leclerc could become as it was proof of how damn good he already was.
On the eve of the 2022 season, Leclerc said this: “I definitely feel much more ready than compared to the first year with Ferrari.
“The first year I also felt ready to show my potential. But now seeing the past three years and how much I’ve learned; I definitely feel much more ready and a much more grown driver.
“I feel a better driver today.”
When Leclerc last fought for wins he was exciting and effective at his best but rough around the edges and inconsistent, like all prodigiously talented, inexperienced drivers are.
With a bit more confidence and composure, Leclerc could be…well, exactly what we’ve seen so far in 2022.
Leclerc had a great command of the situation in the Bahrain Grand Prix, where he outwitted and outfought Max Verstappen. And he came very, very close to doing the same in Saudi Arabia, cleverly rebuffing Verstappen’s attempts before finally being outgunned by the Red Bull’s superior straightline speed.
There have been no slip-ups, not even the sign of one. That’s the difference to 2019. In Leclerc, Ferrari has always had a driver capable of the exceptional in any qualifying or any race. It knew that. The significance of this evolved version of Leclerc is it’s exactly what Ferrari was betting on when it awarded him a long-term contract at the end of that season.
Asked by The Race if Leclerc is driving like someone capable of fighting for the title, Ferrari team principal Mattia Binotto says: “I think he is. But it’s something which I was expecting when renewing as well with him up to the end of 2024, because we know what he’s capable of.
“I think he is simply demonstrating that he’s capable of fighting for the championship.
“No doubt he’s got the talent, he’s got the capacity. He is a very good racer and we’re very happy with what he’s proving in these two races.”
Bahrain was particularly impressive, and not because it ended in victory rather than defeat. Leclerc kept great clarity of thought at a crucial point when Verstappen got close enough to launch an attack.
Leclerc saved his battery down the start-finish straight – as evidenced by his holding the car in seventh gear – to tempt Verstappen into a move at Turn 1. That would give Leclerc the DRS on the run to Turn 4, where he could also deploy his reserved electrical power to take back control.
“It definitely felt very nice,” Leclerc says of the nature of that win.
“I was also in a very critical state with my battery so I couldn’t use any extra power to defend it on the main straight. And I didn’t want to, to at least have this power for the second straight and overtake him back.
“It wasn’t an easy situation to manage. But I think we managed it as a team in the best way possible and did quite a good job to always get the DRS on the second straight, which eventually helped me to keep the lead. It was very important for the rest of the race.”
Leclerc showed in Bahrain three years ago that he can control a race superbly. Once he fought back from a poor first lap, Leclerc dominated the 2019 grand prix and only a cruel late engine problem denied him his first win much sooner – and in much more commanding fashion – than Spa.
What was different about that race is that, first couple of laps aside, Leclerc had a trouble-free run for the majority. The race didn’t build to a tense crescendo, it didn’t test him in the same way others have since.
What we’ve seen across both these races in 2022 is the progress Leclerc feels he has made as a driver in terms of his race management and his mental resolve.
“As a driver, I felt like I’m better than what I was in 2019, especially in the race pace,” says Leclerc.
“I think it was definitely one of my weakest points in 2019, I was always quite strong in qualifying, always managed to put the lap [together] when it mattered, but then on tyre management especially I was quite weak.
“So I put a lot of work into it. 2020 I got much better. 2021, again much better, and actually, it was probably my strongest point – the tyre management and the race management.
“In Bahrain everything was much more under control. There were obviously moments where it was very tricky with Max pushing massively behind but overall, I had the control of my pace, of my tyres and everything felt good.”
Like the circumstances of these first two races have been different to the two Leclerc won in 2019, so the rest of the season will bring a different challenge.
He’s gradually ticking off the boxes. He’s shown he can win, that he can withstand pressure, that he can keep his head at moments of intense stress in any given race situation.
The final question is: can Leclerc do all of that in the white-hot intensity of a title fight, when the stakes are as high as they can possibly be?
He hasn’t been exposed to this yet. But this is quite easy to predict the answer to. Leclerc’s make-up has always included extraordinary mental fortitude. He has made mistakes and he has got emotional in the car. In big situations, though, he has always shone – whether that’s dealing with ridiculous expectations, like winning at Monza for Ferrari, or coping with deep internal distress, such as the death of his father during his title-winning F2 season.
So, the prospect of keeping this up doesn’t faze him. Asked how he intends to handle expectations around a Ferrari title challenge, he says: “The same way as I’ve approached the expectations in the past.
“There’s always been, at some times in my career, some moments where I had very high expectations on me.
“I just tried to delete them, to not focus on them at all and to just focus on myself.”
Simple, right? But it works. Leclerc is, quite famously, an extremely harsh self-critic. Whether that’s being broadcast to the world via an emotional radio message, or the way he works behind the scenes.
It’s why he’s the driver he is now, someone looking less and less rough around the edges each season. And why, even atop the championship, he is still not entirely satisfied.
“I’m quite happy about this start of the season,” Leclerc says. “I’m working well with the team and the preparation for the first races was very good, so I feel good in general.
“But there’s definitely more to come. The thing I’m happy about is not really the performance, but I know exactly where I still need to work and what I need to improve to unlock more performance.
“Whether it will be enough or not to win the world championship, I have no idea. It’s still very early on in the season.
“But…let’s say that it’s a very good start.”