Charles Leclerc’s exploits in Abu Dhabi may have ended up in vain in terms of Ferrari’s pursuit of second place in the Constructors’ Championship – but his late-season flourish provided a timely reaffirmation of precisely why he should remain the team’s priority.
The Italian marque was bidding to build on a relatively encouraging 2022 season that had seen it return to winning ways in the first year of F1’s latest ground effect regulation era.
However, Ferrari’s competitiveness was stymied from the outset this season by a capricious SF-23 car, an evolution of the F1-75 that placed second in the championship.
But despite being blighted by misfortune on his side of the garage from the outset with an engine issue from third place in the first race, Leclerc entered the summer break as the lead Ferrari driver in the standings for the first time all year and had been responsible for all three of the side’s podium finishes.
However, Ferrari’s attempts to get on top of its volatile creation, which had since been converted to the downwash sidepod solution pioneered by Red Bull, resulted in that momentum being swept from under Leclerc.
To address the car’s proneness to inconsistency, Ferrari accepted a set-up compromise Carlos Sainz had been lobbying for to counter the SF-23’s rear instability.
Sainz’s insistence on dialling in more understeer to the car immediately aided in improving the unpredictability that both drivers had continuously rued during the opening rounds. But it would also prove to shift the balance considerably more towards Sainz’s liking and further away from Leclerc.
Subsequently, having struggled before the shutdown, the Spaniard enjoyed a much-needed resurgence. That coincided with Ferrari sustaining its most competitive stretch of the entire season. But, more pertinently, it arrived as Red Bull was about to be vulnerable for the only time all year.
Although the RB19’s superior degradation ensured Verstappen broke Italian spirits and seized a record-breaking 10th consecutive victory, the Dutchman was powerless to buck the Prancing Horse’s gallop in Singapore.
Sainz had led the Ferrari charge on home soil at Monza, claiming pole position and then robustly defending from Leclerc in the closing exchanges to take a morale-boosting podium. He carried that confidence firmly into Singapore, pipping his team-mate to a vital pole that laid the foundation for him to then clinch the sole Red Bull win of 2023.
Meanwhile, another bout of bad luck and reliability concerns left Leclerc only fourth. Despite his season threatening to fizzle out, Leclerc vowed to get on top of his troubles.
Those words would not be unfulfilled as the Monegasque rebounded emphatically. Across the remaining seven rounds Leclerc out-qualified Sainz every single time and wasn’t beaten when both drivers classified.
Leclerc registered three podiums and three pole positions to Sainz’s none, while also ending the year with five straight front-row starts. The last statistic provided perhaps the clearest indication that he was back to his swashbuckling best behind the wheel.
The exhilarating sight of Leclerc, equipped with the lowest possible fuel and fresh tyres, hurtling a car into a sequence of corners and dancing perilously close to the extremities of the track had only been on display in flashes through the first two-thirds of the season.
Leclerc’s one-lap speed prospering again proved vital to his race prospects too as it enabled him to manage his pace in clear air, tempering Ferrari’s tyre degradation issue. That was especially clear in the final round at Abu Dhabi, when Leclerc produced a stunning last-gasp qualifying effort to mitigate Ferrari’s cornering deficit to beat McLaren and Mercedes to a front-row spot.
That feat granted him the platform to control proceedings on Sunday to effortlessly caress the tyres home on the optimal strategy without threat, affording him the capacity to display racing intelligence at either end of the encounter to pick his battles wisely and prioritise the team’s goals above his race.
The season finale marked one of Leclerc’s most complete showings in F1, following on from one of his highest peak performances in Vegas that should have yielded a victory.
Despite being usurped from the line by Verstappen, Leclerc outfoxed the Dutchman in managing the Medium tyre against graining in the cooler track temperatures to become the first driver to successfully overtake a Red Bull driver for the lead in ‘23.
That had set the ex-Sauber driver on course for a thoroughly well-deserved victory until Lady Luck intervened once more with an ill-timed Safety Car to swing the pendulum back in Red Bull and Verstappen’s favour. Nevertheless, Leclerc fought doggedly until the end and executed an audacious late braking lunge into Turn 14 on the last lap to steal second place back from Sergio Perez.
The manoeuvre alone reflected the reinvigorated confidence flowing through Leclerc, who had revealed he had lined up that move after noticing Perez’s struggles under braking in the preceding laps.
Raw speed has never been lacking from Leclerc’s standpoint, but he has refined his skillset over the intervening years to combine that blistering pace and combative race craft with more composed race day displays.
From the moment Ferrari provided him with the machinery to maximise his talent, Leclerc elevated his performances to a level that Sainz simply could not match. Leclerc is a special driver who possesses an innate ability that his current team-mate can’t unlock, no matter the analysis he conducts.
Even accounting for when Sainz had the slight edge from Zandvoort to Singapore, it was still clear who the stronger Ferrari driver remained at their respective peak levels.
Despite being limited by the car’s behavioural traits, it’s a testament to Leclerc that he got within 0.079s of Sainz on the most technically demanding circuit on the roster.
Regardless of how adept a driver is, even the best experience problems when placed in less-than-optimal conditions. Verstappen wasn’t blowing away Perez in the same way he’s done this past season when Red Bull’s RB18 challenger was overweight at the beginning of 2022, while Lewis Hamilton, arguably the greatest qualifier of all time, also endured complications over one lap with a W14 car not suited to his tendencies.
Like Hamilton and Verstappen, Leclerc hadn’t failed to adapt to the car. Instead, development had imposed a ceiling on his capabilities and brought him more into line with his team-mate’s lesser standing.
Those shackles were unleashed with a successful floor upgrade in Japan. The revision – Ferrari’s final upgrade in ‘23 – generated more consistent downforce, thus producing a more predictable package.
While not described as a massive performance differentiator on paper, by widening the car’s operating window into a place where he could manipulate the front end again in a sharper manner, Ferrari benefitted hugely from a renascent Leclerc.
“In terms of performance it was not mega. But in terms of comfort it was important and very beneficial for Charles,” Ferrari Team Principal Frederic Vasseur said in Abu Dhabi.
From Japan, a more stable platform meant Leclerc could revert to his natural style. A benign car that licensed him to drive with the oversteer he inherently favours revived the on-the-edge racing flair that Leclerc has been regularly lauded for since he strode into the top flight as a fresh-faced 20-year-old.
“Well, it’s not been easy. I think we’ve had two parts of the season: we’ve had pre-Japan and post-Japan at least on my side,” Leclerc assessed when reviewing his campaign.
“I feel much more at ease with the car since Japan. We’ve worked on the consistency of the car in different conditions which helped a lot my driving style. I like to have an oversteery car and a strong front which in the first part of the season I couldn’t quite do that.”
Leclerc treads an extremely fine line, but the upside and tangible rewards always outweigh the risk. Earlier in the year, that attitude landed him in the barrier during qualifying in Miami. Amid a backdrop of vehement criticism, Leclerc retained faith in his approach and he was rewarded on future trips Stateside this season when the car finally complied with his aggressive inputs.
Ferrari’s role is to ensure Leclerc has a platform to guarantee that particular outcome can become a constant rather than a rarity over the course of an F1 campaign.
For the time being, Leclerc’s stellar end-of-season run demonstrated that he resides as Ferrari’s greatest hope for future success and how the team must be built around him.
While members of Red Bull and former team-mates have denied the assertion that the car is tailored towards Verstappen, the Milton-Keynes squad is unquestionably geared towards extracting the best from his abilities.
Red Bull has reaped the rewards of deploying such a ruthless operation, with Verstappen scooping 34 wins from the 44 races to be held over the past two years alone.
By comparison, five years into his Ferrari career, Leclerc has yet to receive that same support in any season and the partnership has only comprised a pitiful five victories.
But through a period of adversity Leclerc and Ferrari’s collective bond, initiated in 2016, has grown ever stronger and is likely to lead towards an extension of their agreement.
Leclerc’s commitment means the sight of him dressed in scarlet red is set to remain for a while yet. Ferrari must reward that unwavering loyalty appropriately in the coming years or the Maranello camp could risk losing its most prized asset to a rival.
For Leclerc, an embodiment of the tifosi’s dreams, returning his childhood team to the pinnacle would represent the ultimate culmination of his racing career. Leclerc has proven he is up to the task of guiding F1’s fallen giant back onto the pedestal, but Ferrari must eradicate the half-measures of previous regimes and implement a worthy supporting cast to assist his ambitions.