After just three races I have to change my mind about Charles Leclerc.
Before this season, watching Leclerc always had the feeling that one or the other mistake was lurking around the next corner. Normally he would take full responsibility for this and maybe even be too hard on himself, but small mistakes seemed to underline the excellence.
A greater degree of consistency laid the foundation for Carlos Sainz’s first season at Ferrari last year, when he managed to finish just over five points clear of Leclerc in the Drivers’ Championship, securing status as the best of the other Red Pairs Bull and Mercedes.
And it was this dynamic that made it difficult to separate Leclerc and Sainz this season. The Spaniard seemed destined to be more reliable, while Leclerc might enjoy higher highs but lower lows.
So far it’s only been the higher altitudes – every race weekend so far – and something Leclerc said after his comfortable win in Australia reminded me why that should have been expected.
“Obviously the mindset is a bit different compared to the last two years,” Leclerc said. “Now I know I’ve got a car under me that’s capable of winning and I don’t really have to overdo it or do anything really special and spectacular to actually get a place or two because I know that’s what it’s in car and I just have to do the job.”
It’s easy to forget how poor Ferrari has been at times in recent years and those problems have almost entirely coincided with Leclerc’s time with the team. While he made an impressive start to his Ferrari career in just his second season in F1 – an unprecedented move by Scuderia to promote someone so inexperienced, remember – early-season promise faded with reliability issues and a Car that was rarely a contender for victories.
Leclerc capitalized on the two key chances he faced at Spa-Francorchamps and Monza in front of the adoring Tifosi, but soon after, Ferrari’s power unit came under more focus and the car was far less competitive in the closing stages of 2019.
I probably don’t need to tell you how bad 2020 has been for the team and last year it was a long way from having a car that was capable of being happy with Red Bull and Mercedes so this year is Leclerc’s first chance to show what he can do up front. And that’s something he’s actually used to.
When Leclerc won the Formula 2 championship in 2017, he was in a class of his own. Driving for Prema, he took all but one lap of pole that season, although he also lost a pole to a technical infraction acknowledged even by his main title rival Oliver Rowland, which didn’t benefit Leclerc’s performance.
It may be a spec series but F2 clearly has stronger and weaker teams and Prema has tended to be the place to be as they have provided three of the last five Drivers’ Championships. Part of what was clearly the best package of 2017, Leclerc was great as a rookie, securing his GP3 title against more experienced opponents at a time when the chassis was already quite dated and rookies therefore faced a tougher challenge.
It’s an experience Leclerc is clearly drawing confidence from this year.
“I was in that situation in the junior categories,” he said. “But to be in this situation in Formula 1 means a lot, especially after the last few years and with a team like Ferrari. So it feels incredible.”
Back then, Leclerc could see the benefit of not trying to oversteer. He knew that if he used the car’s potential in F2, most of the time he would get a great result. That approach is only reinforced this year where Ferrari has a clear car advantage over at least eight other teams and also based on its performance compared to Red Bull in Melbourne.
Sometimes, when drivers try to downplay their chances, it sounds like they’re talking in clichés. For Leclerc, the smile on his face after stepping out of his car in Melbourne betrayed the words that came out of his mouth.
“Of course we’ve only had the third race, so it’s difficult to think about the championship, but to be honest we have a very strong car, a very reliable car,” he said.
“And at the moment we’ve always been there, so I hope it continues like this and if that’s the case then we probably have chances for the championship, which of course makes me smile after the last two years that have been difficult for the team brings and of course for me. So it’s great to be back in this position.”
There’s so much to go from this season. A 20-race schedule is longer than most F1 seasons in the past, but Leclerc’s early performances make him the clear favorite for this year’s championship. Heading into a hectic atmosphere with a Ferrari driver leading the title race at Imola, he knows the pressure is sure to increase.
“Thirty-four points is always good to get wherever you are on the calendar, but yeah, I don’t want to focus too much on the championship right now,” he said. “Italy is going to be amazing, but we have to approach the race weekend the same way we did the first three weekends.
“I think it’s extremely important not to push yourself and not try to overdo it. We’ve been working very well together as a team since the start of the season and we just have to keep going like we did the first three weekends.”
Saying it is one thing and doing it quite another, but the way he’s been in such a position in the past really makes you think Leclerc has no qualms when it comes to conceding title favourite be. In fact, it might get the best out of him, pushing him to push his limits, but not beyond.