Charles Leclerc won two of the first three races this year and had a 46-point lead over reigning champion Max Verstappen. The Ferrari was quick and reliable while the Red Bull was overweight, fragile and slightly slower in qualifying with Verstappen failing to finish in two of the first three and winning the other one.
But come to the end of the Canadian Grand Prix — six races later — the roles have been completely reversed with the Ferrari now facing woeful reliability issues and the Red Bull by far the fastest car on a Sunday.
Verstappen won his sixth race of the season in the Canadian GP after taking pole position in a rain-affected qualifying session.
Throughout these six races, Verstappen has outscored the early championship leader and now leads the title race by 49 points.
The reigning champion’s nearest challenger right now is his teammate Sergio Perez, who is 46 points behind. Through the course of a championship, the law of averages usually cancels out each other and on the face of it, this might seem like that. Leclerc has now retired from two of the last four races which Verstappen has gone on to win.
The last two races have been races from hell for Ferrari and Leclerc as they lost ground drastically to Red Bull and Verstappen. With 13 races still left in the year, it is too early to confidently say Verstappen will run away with the title but if the Dutchman were to defend his crown, the last two weeks will surely go down as a pivotal moment in the season.
Engine trouble for Leclerc
After his Spanish GP retirement and disappointment in Monaco, Leclerc fought back strongly and qualified on pole at the Azerbaijan Grand Prix.
Even though he lost out on the start to Perez, he quickly regained the lead thanks to a smart pit stop under Virtual Safety Car with Verstappen well behind him on a slightly different strategy with slightly fresher tyres. It would have been interesting to see if Leclerc could have held off Verstappen but we never got to know about it as the Ferrari ground to a halt on lap 21 with smoke billowing out as the engine gave up. This was after the other Ferrari for Carlos Sainz had retired earlier in the race with a hydraulics issue.
It was a painful and agonising retirement, coming two weeks after his team’s strategic blunder at Leclerc’s home race in Monaco cost him the win and had to settle for only fourth.
The retirement allowed Verstappen and Perez to head home for a 1-2 finish for Red Bull with the former increasing his lead in the driver’s standings significantly.
It was the fifth straight win for Red Bull and like in Spain, the Ferrari driven by Leclerc was on course for a win until disaster struck.
To make things worse, the effect of the failure in Baku is set to have a cascading effect throughout the rest of the season as Leclerc will have to take a new power unit component outside of the three allotted for the season, meaning he will suffer grid penalties from his qualifying positions.
Verstappen vs Sainz
The Ferrari driver took the first such penalty when he fitted in a new power unit in Montreal for the Canadian GP. This meant he was forced to start from the back of the grid in 19th place on a weekend in which his teammate Sainz fought hard for victory till the end.
While Verstappen qualified on pole at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve, it was Fernando Alonso who starred on Saturday qualifying second ahead of fellow Spaniard Sainz. However, on Sunday, Sainz quickly deposed Alonso to take second place three laps into the race and was in a tight battle for the rest of the afternoon.
In a reverse of what happened in Baku, it was Verstappen who stopped early for his first pitstop under Virtual Safety Car (VSC) — cars have to stick to a set lap time and hold the gap to drivers around them — and gave up track position initially before Sainz had his stop under another VSC.
The early stop meant Verstappen was forced into a two-stop while the late-stopping Sainz had a chance to stop just once. However, 20 laps before the end of the race, AlphaTauri driver Yuki Tsunoda crashed while exiting the pits and brought a Safety Car period.
This meant Sainz could stop for his second stop and not lose a lot of time and was right behind Verstappen on fresher tyres for the restart.
What followed was 15 laps of thrilling action with Sainz on fresher tyres pursuing Verstappen. Though the Ferrari was slightly quicker, Verstappen was able to be quick through the long-straight heading into the last corner, which is the best part of the track for an overtaking move. The Red Bull Powertrain’s excellent top-end speed did enough to keep the Ferrari at bay till the end of the race. Sainz would rue the fact that he made a mistake in qualifying on his final run which meant he could only start third. In hindsight, Leclerc — who has been prolific on Saturdays — might have had a better shot at victory had he not been hit with the grid penalty.
One of the biggest gainers in the Canadian GP was seven-time champion Lewis Hamilton who got his second podium of the season after finishing third in what has been a subdued season so far. Hamilton has been outperformed by teammate George Russell. It was a great turnaround for him after the race in Baku where he suffered physical issues with the bouncing of cars at high speeds.
The Briton complained of back pain a lot during the race and struggled to get out of the car after the race and at one point was in serious doubt of missing the race in Montreal. Apart from the podium, what was more impressive was the fact that he was as quick as the two drivers ahead of him. Though the Mercedes is not as quick in qualifying, the impressive race pace bodes well for Hamilton ahead of his home race — the British Grand Prix in Silverstone.
After four races in five weeks, F1 will take a two-week breather ahead of the British GP.
Verstappen has well and truly come out on top of things during these run of races even as Ferrari dropped the ball big time.
The Prancing Horse will need to quickly regroup if it wants any chance of stopping Red Bull from further running away.