After Charles Leclerc won Red Bull’s home race in Austria, the Ferrari driver would have felt optimistic about his chances of winning the drivers’ championship despite being 38 points behind Max Verstappen, his chief rival. After all, he had just pipped Verstappen over two consecutive weekends.
However, the last two races heading into the summer break in France and Hungary saw Leclerc and Ferrari take a sledgehammer and break down whatever momentum they had built thus far. Driver error and the team’s failure to follow the right strategy strategy — once again — means Leclerc will return from the summer break 80 points behind Verstappen in the standings.
In France, Leclerc had no one else to blame but himself as, leading the pack, he crashed out of the race on lap 18.
He started on pole, and after being challenged by Verstappen during the opening laps, he was able to build a lead of a few seconds and had the measure of the reigning champion. Red Bull then opted to bring Verstappen into the pits for an early stop. The aim was to get the undercut on Leclerc by stopping on lap 16 and to make up time on fresh tyres before Leclerc made his stop.
While Leclerc would have eventually come out behind Verstappen, he would have had fresh tyres to attack and get ahead. But on lap 18, the Monegasque driver crashed into the tyre barriers. It was the third time this season that he retired from the lead of the race. Power unit issues in Barcelona and Baku — things out of his control — had cost him valuable points.
It was a brutal blow to Leclerc’s championship hopes as Verstappen won and increased his lead to 63 points.
Coming into the Hungarian Grand Prix, Verstappen’s Red Bull looked well off the pace during Friday’s practice sessions while Ferrari looked the fastest car. In qualifying, it was Mercedes’ George Russell who surprised everyone by snatching the pole position from Carlos Sainz’s Ferrari on the last lap. Leclerc qualified third.
Nonetheless, it was a great starting point for the two Ferrari cars considering Red Bull had a miserable qualifying session in which Verstappen and Sergio Perez could only qualify 10th and 11th. Ferrari and Leclerc could have maximised their chances of gaining points on their rival. Instead, what unfolded on Sunday at Hungaroring showed yet again why Ferrari is not yet ready to be the title contender.
The team was wedded to a strategy unmindful of how the conditions had changed from Friday to Sunday, and ultimately paid the price. The hot weather on Friday had given way to cooler conditions on Saturday and Sunday, and it seemed to have hurt Ferrari’s pace a bit. At the same time, the team still had everything in its hands when Leclerc took the lead of the race on lap 30 from Russell.
Leclerc was the last to make his first pit stop on lap 21, changing from one set of medium to another set, and had tyres that were five laps fresher than Russell’s. It forced him to make another stop, to ideally take the faster-but-less-durable soft tyres for a small sprint towards the end, because the rule states that a driver has to use two out of three compounds available.
It was a fairly doable strategy considering the one big learning for most teams before the race was that the hard tyre was not suited to these cool conditions and that it was not warming up enough to give grip. It is this crucial wisdom that Ferrari was seemingly oblivious to. The Alpines had also taken on hard tyres, in a one-stop strategy, and it was evident that their drivers were not liking it.
Verstappen, starting 10th, took on the faster soft tyres at the start to make up places on the grid before making an early stop for mediums on lap 16. He had by then jumped to fourth after the first round of pit stops behind Leclerc, Russell and Carlos Sainz. Having stopped early, Verstappen, who was only a few seconds behind race-leader Leclerc, stopped for the final time on lap 38 to take another set of medium tyres. It was here that Ferrari panicked and unravelled. The team, in trying to cover a possible undercut from Verstappen, brought in Leclerc on lap 39, after just running 18 laps on the medium tyres. Needing to race another 30 laps, the soft tyres were not an option for Ferrari and it had to take the hard tyres.
It was immediately evident that Leclerc had no pace on these tyres and Verstappen hunted him down on lap 41. There was an immediate reprieve when Verstappen spun on the following lap to allow Leclerc to take the lead again. But such was Verstappen’s pace that he was able to fight back immediately in the next few laps to take the lead for the second time from Leclerc.
The Ferrari’s pace was slow. Soon, Russell, too, overtook Leclerc. As he kept falling further behind, Ferrari stopped Leclerc for another time to put him out of his misery and fit a set of soft tyres to finish the race in sixth place.
With nine rounds left to go, Leclerc now finds himself 80 points behind Verstappen. For a season that promised so much, Ferrari is flattering to deceive yet again.
Even as Ferrari fumbles from one error to another, Verstappen and Red Bull are not leaving anything on the table. Sensational speed by the driver, clear thinking by the team and driver, and the ability to react on the fly have made them a potent combo to blitz the field.
On a weekend when four-time champion Sebastian Vettel — a former driver for Red Bull where he won all his titles — announced his retirement, Verstappen’s title defence is starting to mirror Vettel’s efforts in 2011 when he sealed his second title with a handful of races left in the season in a dominant Red Bull.
After a great 2021 and a lot of promise at the start of the year for another pulsating battle between two teams, the 2022 season may now become a bit underwhelming unless Ferrari can regroup during the summer break and come back swinging for the Belgian Grand Prix on August 28.
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