Formula 1: The bitter downfall of a championship favorite

Charles Leclerc, Ferrari, Formula 1 (Photo by Eva Marie Uzcategul T/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
Charles Leclerc, Ferrari, Formula 1 (Photo by Eva Marie Uzcategul T/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images) /

Things were much different for Charles Leclerc the last time Formula 1 left Spain, and the bitter downfall has been hard to watch.

The last time Formula 1 left Spain, Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc had only just lost the lead of the championship, a lead he had never held before the 2022 season.

He won two of the season’s first three races, with the lone non-win being a runner-up finish in somewhat of a 50/50 battle with Red Bull’s Max Verstappen in Jeddah.

Thanks to terrible reliability from Red Bull, Leclerc had a 46-point advantage over reigning world champion Verstappen down in sixth place in the standings. That deficit was three times larger than anything Verstappen faced during his 2021 battle with Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton.

Even crazier? The driver in second place in the standings, Mercedes’ George Russell, had a worse best finish (third) than Leclerc’s worst finish (second). The gap was already 34 points, which is more than a single race win.

When he was signed by Ferrari in 2018 for 2019 and beyond, Leclerc was seen as the future face of the team who could bring the glory days back to Maranello.

The Monegasque driver was going to be the driver to end their title drought, becoming the first Ferrari world champion since Kimi Raikkonen in 2007. Ferrari had not won a constructor title since 2008.

Early in the 2022 season, Leclerc was the betting favorite to win the title at all the sportsbooks. Ferrari had the long term in mind when they signed Leclerc, and things were finally coming together. The Italian team appeared to have nailed the new regulations, and they had a car capable of taking the fight to Red Bull and Verstappen. They were a force to be reckoned with.

They were “back”.

But since Leclerc’s hot start to 2022, Ferrari have won twice in 26 Formula 1 races. Leclerc is only responsible for one of those wins.

Before he lost the lead in Spain, things went south in Imola, and they simply haven’t turned around since. Poised to win the sprint race, which would have marked his first win of any kind from a position other than pole, Leclerc lost the lead to Verstappen late.

During the race itself, an unforced spin meant that he needed to fight back just to finish in sixth place, and just two races later, Verstappen suddenly had the points lead, a lead he has not relinquished since.

It’s easy to blame Ferrari for Leclerc’s struggles since his dream start to the 2022 season. Poor strategy and poor reliability have, in fact, cost him chances to compete for race wins. Spain, Monaco, Baku, and Hungary come to mind from last year. He should have won all four of those races, beginning in Barcelona.

Instead? Two retirements and no podiums.

But some of the fault belongs to Leclerc himself, and the many mistakes he has made on the race track. It’s almost like he has reverted back to 2020 form.

Take the Miami race back in May, for example. It was far from the first time that he has brought an early end to qualifying with a crash because he was pushing too hard. He had also crashed earlier in the weekend. In a car that should have started in the top three, he started in seventh place.

Then in the race itself, he wasn’t able to go anywhere, despite the fact that passing wasn’t as hard as many thought it might be on the tight streets outside Hard Rock Stadium.

He finished more than 10 seconds behind teammate Carlos Sainz Jr., who had even been issued a five-second time penalty. Two races later, he remains behind him in the standings, having beaten him just twice in seven races this year.

These struggles didn’t just start this year for Leclerc. In fact, if they had, it wouldn’t actually matter all that much, as Ferrari haven’t been nearly as strong as Red Bull anyway.

But what about Leclerc totally throwing away an almost certain win in France last season, when Ferrari were actually capable of challenging regularly for race wins? The statistics show runaway championship victories for Verstappen and Red Bull, but Leclerc and Ferrari should have been much, much closer than they were.

Though Red Bull had a stronger race car down the stretch last season, Leclerc should have been able to capitalize on leading Formula 1 with 10 pole positions. There were seven or eight wins, at a minimum, for the taking.

Now Ferrari are nowhere near the Milton Keynes-based team, and there is little reason to believe that they can change that anytime soon. They certainly won’t change it with Leclerc making the mistakes he has made.

Whether or not Leclerc extends his stay with Ferrari beyond 2024 remains to be seen. Suggesting that he needs a change of scenery would have seemed ridiculous the last time Formula 1 left Spain, even though he had just lost the points lead.

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But now, after everything that has happened since? It’s perhaps no less logical than suggesting that perhaps Ferrari need a new number one driver to lead them back to Formula 1 glory.