Scrutiny is fixated on Ferrari after a troubled start to 2023 – but Charles Leclerc arguably arrives at his home race next weekend in Monaco with an even bigger burden of pressure on his shoulders after an incident strewn time in Miami a fortnight ago that saw him come under fire.
Having already found the barrier at Turn 7 in the late stages of Friday in the States, Leclerc then pushed too hard during the dying embers of Q3 the next day to repeat his mistake. A minor error at Turn 17 on his opening run resigned the Ferrari man to rueing a seventh place starting spot – a position he would be unable to recover from as Ferrari struggled for speed on race day.
While Leclerc’s Sunday endeavours failed to flatter, it was his previous mistakes that caught the attention for all the wrong reasons. Ex-Formula 1 driver Jolyon Palmer pilloried Leclerc for his “win or bin” mindset, while former F1 race winner and current pundit David Coulthard contested that the Ferrari ace must learn to temper his lightning speed to avoid such mistakes.
However, only a week earlier Leclerc was being commended for his eccentric style behind the wheel that landed him top spot in both qualifying sessions in Azerbaijan, despite a front-on impact with a barrier at the conclusion of the Sprint Shootout.
The approach that Leclerc committed to in Baku – landing a morale-boosting pole for a despondent Ferrari squad – was precisely the same one that ended with his SF-23 in the barrier in Miami just seven days later.
The resulting media pile-on and dramatic shift in response towards the overall perception of his abilities that has followed, though, has shown more inconsistent discrepancies than the Monegasque’s contrasting Saturday fortunes.
Leclerc’s treacherous approach of being prepared to dance with lady luck shouldn’t be applauded one weekend and then criticised the next purely because the end result is different, particularly more so when both incidences came in the midst of daring to achieve the unlikely in defeating a Red Bull car that has currently shown to be largely unbeatable through recent times.
Perhaps Leclerc should have been prepared to play the percentages and compromise a little more on Saturday afternoon in Miami after already ruining his initial Q3 effort amid a battle to combat an aggressive set-up choice. But a driver that possesses the special innate talent that Leclerc has will always abandon every element of caution when the upside to getting it right can be so prosperous, and he had every reason to back his chances after the success he had enjoyed only the previous weekend.
Throughout his F1 career, Leclerc has always been characterised as a competitor that is willing to leave no stone unturned in order to chase unlikely feats – no matter how slim the chances may appear from the outset.
Coupled with his aggressive driving style of preferring a pointy front end that he use to chuck a car into corners alongside a dynamic use of the brake and throttle pedals, his preparedness to take more risks than other drivers runs a higher danger of him overstepping the mark.
However, that approach is not the sign of an aggressive, hot-headed driver that is struggling to define the limit, but rather one that is pursuing perfection and striving to extract the maximum from himself that sometimes certain cars are physically incapable of producing such demands.
When a driver is persistently flirting with such precarious boundaries continuously, the smallest detail throughout a circa 90-second lap can equate to either landing a big reward or suffering huge consequences, or both as the second qualifying session in Baku showcased.
Although Leclerc’s declaration he would be unwilling to change his driving style might ring sudden alarm bells of a driver that is too stubborn to change his ways, he has ample reason to back his outlook on matters. There’s previous evidence that with a competitive and compliant car, his mistakes drastically reduce in number. When Ferrari had a package that was both benign in its balance and capable of running at the front on pure pace at the start of 2022 Leclerc was able to rattle off six pole positions in eight qualifying sessions untroubled.
Now in a year where Ferrari’s evolutionary SF-23 has failed to scale the heights the team anticipated, Leclerc’s unwavering commitment to driving on the edge is being met with stern resistance on occasion and resulting in more high-speed shunts.
Ferrari’s ultimate aim with its 2023 car was to address its straight-line speed deficit to Red Bull from last season. While the team has partly been successful in its ambition, the F1-75’s predecessor is weaker in the corners and balance wise is prone to extreme understeer at both the entry point and mid-phase of corners – a trait that doesn’t play to Leclerc’s strengths, inevitably increasing the likelihood of incidents.
His recent qualifying crashes, nor his first-lap retirement in Australia, should be taken as a reflective barometer of his championship credentials, but as an inclination of the sort of bold risks that he is having to take to try and haul a mediocre car into a more competitive position.
During a difficult season in which the title is already a forlorn prospect for F1’s most successful side, Carlos Sainz’s more conservative approach might see the Spaniard have a cleaner time of things on the track, but it will unquestionably be Leclerc that unlocks the peak performance of Ferrari’s 2023 charger when it hits the sweet spot of a narrow operating window to deliver the team’s highest points of the year.
With aspirations of the World Championship in tatters, it should be celebrated, not ridiculed, that an individual has the mentality to chase those final hundredths or tenths that could make all the difference while simultaneously accepting the possibility that errors will materialise at points.
While that sort of gung-ho approach would come undone in competition for a title, early last season demonstrated that Leclerc is able to effortlessly adapt his audacious style when he is equipped with a car that is both fast and suited to his driving preferences.
Mistakes are always a possibility when drivers push right to the limit, even more so when battling with a car that fundamentally has a pace deficiency and is mercurial in its behaviour. Both drivers gave a damning assessment of the SF-23 after a wretched race in Miami, with Leclerc not alone in his criticism of a capricious car that offers the drivers little predictability.
While Ferrari’s form is nowhere near as disastrous as three years ago, the nascent part of this campaign conveys a range of similarities to 2020. For Leclerc, that year was accident filled, but it was also a result of him pushing the ceiling of an uncompetitive car in a way that an established four-time champion couldn’t manage, nor comprehend, in Sebastian Vettel.
As Ferrari team boss Frederic Vasseur highlighted after Miami: telling Leclerc to take fewer risks would be asking him to drive within himself, consequently removing a key essence of what makes him so daringly exhilarating to watch and capable of producing results – particularly in qualifying – that would defy the team’s pre-session estimations with an ordinary driver.
Certainly, there are times when reining it in might have been more applicable in the circumstances, but attempting to limit that creative freedom he exerts behind the wheel to string together such pulsating qualifying laps time and time again is not an asset that should be potentially diminished.
It’s worth remembering that Red Bull team boss Christian Horner fielded similar doubts to Vasseur from the outside when a hugely talented but error-prone and rash Verstappen had been involved in five incidents in only six races to start the 2018 season. But like Leclerc, he declared he wouldn’t change his driving style and sticking predominantly to his racing principles has since yielded the Dutchman two titles and 38 victories.
While it’s easy to point at Verstappen naturally maturing as a driver, an equally distinguishable factor has been the improved competitiveness of the machinery he has benefitted from in later years. Unlike his early Red Bull seasons, the reigning champion no longer has to take chances with a more stable platform, symbolically evident in Australia earlier this year when he opted to give up a corner to Lewis Hamilton on the opening lap – a contrast to his previous hardline attitude to racing the Brit.
Now, that’s not to downplay how Verstappen has evolved as a grand prix driver and to ignore that Leclerc will inevitably have to go through a similar phase of development to smooth out the rough edges that remain if he wants to realise his potential.
However, similar to Verstappen back then, Leclerc is a World Champion calibre driver that is experiencing the frustrating wait to be supplied the machinery that will enable him to best utilise his abundance of talent and having to make do with taking more risks than they would ideally like to elevate the package beneath them to a level that is comparable to their ability.
Following his Baku exploits there should remain a little remnant of doubt that over a single lap, Leclerc is the fastest driver in F1. When he’s fitted with the lowest possible fuel onboard and the maximum grip from a fresh set of soft Pirelli rubber his feel for the car is unrivalled on the entire grid.
The swirling narrative that Leclerc is poor in race in trim, too, is unfounded. The 25-year-old’s margin to Sainz has always grown over a race distance compared to in qualifying, with Leclerc’s exceptional form over a single lap continuously detracting from the advances he has made on a Sunday, particularly when it comes to improving his management of the tires.
The scathing criticism of Leclerc’s incident record is detracting away from Ferrari’s real issue: the regression that has seen it go from challenging Red Bull and possessing the fastest car at the start of the latest rules cycle to sitting beneath an Aston Martin side that was bottom three races into 2022.
Leclerc, as he has so often been since his promotion into the Italian team’s senior ranks, will assume the role of Ferrari’s leading light, but accidents will continue to be inevitable until he receives a complete set-up around him that can aspire to achieve the same lofty standards he is capable of.
The five-time F1 race winner has only been able to truly perform at Ferrari sparingly; he simply hasn’t been given the optimum conditions to expend his magic regularly enough to befit a driver of his standing in the same way Red Bull has provided for Verstappen since he burst onto the scene.
Leclerc’s greatest asset – his potent one-lap speed – is also potentially his biggest weakness, but Ferrari has to shoulder a large proportion of the blame for not granting the Monegasque racer the consistent platform for that to flourish. Now, that’s not to absolve Leclerc of any blame for his mishaps. Rather, it’s a recognition of how five years into his Ferrari stint, Leclerc is still waiting to be provided with a car and team throughout an entire F1 season that is reflective of his phenomenal level.
While Leclerc might need to change in some regards, Ferrari’s requirement to improve inarguably remains even greater to ensure their long-standing partnership continues. Failure to improve upon a disastrous opening to 2023, however, could result in Ferrari’s passionate Tifosi having to induce the envy of its star protege maximising his talents elsewhere.