After retiring on the first lap of the Australian Grand Prix, a “frustrated” Charles Leclerc declared he was having his “worst-ever start” to a Formula 1 season.
In terms of his Ferrari career, that dubious accolade is now certainly true.
But as long as Leclerc adds at least two points to his meagre current 2023 tally of six at the Azerbaijan Grand Prix, it won’t become statistically his worst-ever start.
That came in his rookie campaign with Sauber in 2018, during which he failed to score on the first three weekends before getting off the mark with a superb sixth place in – appropriately – Baku.
Then the reigning Formula 2 champion, Leclerc had failed in his ambition of landing in F1 not looking like a rookie. Thirteenth on his debut in Australia was a solid start and he showed good race pace despite not being as on top of the fuel-saving as he needed to be, but he overdrove in qualifying both there and in Bahrain next time out, admitting “I just need to calm down a little bit”.
He then struggled with tyre degradation in a tricky Sakhir race, pushing for an early stop against the team’s wishes after getting a flat-spot and being surprised that his tyres didn’t last.
Third time out in China, Leclerc’s personal qualifying performance was reasonably good despite a spin and a Sauber that couldn’t do better than 19th on the grid. An off in the race that damaged his floor meant he finished in the same position.
Across his first three F1 races Leclerc hadn’t qualified above 18th or finished above 12th and was being generally outperformed by more experienced team-mate Marcus Ericsson, who’d scored points for ninth in Bahrain.
But the Sauber team, headed by now-Ferrari team principal Frederic Vasseur, was happy to let its new driver make mistakes, knowing he was a quick study.
Leclerc had realised the driving style that had taken him to back-to-back GP3 and Formula 2 titles was the root cause of his problems
“You drive GP3 and Formula 2 cars with a lot of oversteer and this is the way to go fast,” Leclerc said.
“I did not expect to go quicker when going towards an understeer set-up in F1, but this seems the way these cars work.
“I just need to get on with it. I made quite a lot of mistakes in the first three races.”
Leclerc refined his approach, modified his set-up direction to a more understeering balance that he described as a “night and day” performance difference and quickly learned from the mistakes.
That set the stage for Azerbaijan. From Friday practice, he was on it and set an impressive long-run pace. He qualified 14th and ensured he kept his head while others made errors.
The reward was sixth place and proof that the hype was justified. He never looked back, producing a superb rookie season that ensured he was fast-tracked into Ferrari’s line-up.
Though he’s never been on the podium there in F1, Baku has a special place in Leclerc’s career.
His first Baku race weekend was an F2 masterclass in which only a contentious yellow flag penalty denied him a double win in the emotional circumstances of the recent passing of his father.
He’s taken two pole positions there, including a surprise one in 2021 when Ferrari was not on Mercedes and Red Bull’s level. He led from another pole in 2022 and was in victory contention after an early VSC pitstop when he suffered an engine failure – although a win was far from guaranteed given the Red Bulls’ pace and how strategies were playing out.
Leclerc’s Baku CV also includes his famous “I am stupid, I am stupid, I am stupid” moment from qualifying in 2019 – the radio message that followed misjudging his braking and hitting the wall on his first Q3 run while favourite for pole position. That accident is totemic of Baku being a track where Leclerc excels, but often things don’t go right.
📻 "I am stupid, I am stupid"
— Formula 1 (@F1) April 27, 2019
The 2018 breakthrough having come in Baku would make Azerbaijan a poetic place for his 2023 to improve too. The biggest difference to five years ago, though, is how little Leclerc can actually contribute to whether that breakthrough happens.
Though there’s nothing in Leclerc’s driving style – beyond a general willingness to get close to walls on qualifying laps – that is a specific to Baku strength, he is always rapid there. He’s capable of stunning, on-the-edge qualifying performances dancing on the limit, so his driving is not the problem.
The question is whether the Ferrari will be reliable and whether he can deliver the first ‘proper’ result of a difficult season that’s comprised an engine failure while third in Bahrain, seventh after a grid penalty in Saudi Arabia and that first-lap collision in Australia.
Leclerc has always derived strength from self-criticism, his 2019 Baku qualifying tirade at himself the most famous example. There was a degree of that after his disappointing seventh on the grid in Melbourne last time out, but most of his description of the circumstances centred on how Ferrari had mismanaged the session.
What currently stands as Leclerc’s worst ever start to an F1 season was due to his own inexperience and needing time and mileage to adapt his driving and mental approach to the top level. He made the changes he needed for things to click, and then he thrived.
In 2023, apart from a small contribution to the Melbourne qualifying underperformance from his own errors and perhaps slightly less than ideal first-lap positioning in his collision with Lance Stroll there, there is little where Leclerc can look to himself to smooth a rough edge and get Ferrari closer to the front via his own effort.
His Azerbaijan targets are modest, given he knows beating Red Bull is a long shot. As he put it after the Australian Grand Prix, “instead of thinking of long-term targets, just finishing a race without any penalties or issues is the priority and getting some momentum and seeing what’s possible” is the limit of his ambition.
For a driver who had a substantial championship lead at this point 12 months ago and went into 2023 thinking that at the very least his team would be in better shape than it was in the latter part of 2022, that’s a demoralising place to be.
A Baku 2018-style kickstart to Leclerc’s stuttering season is desperately needed.