Will Leclerc’s win be a turning point in F1 title race?

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SPIELBERG, Austria — Even when things are going well for Charles Leclerc, there always seems to be a negative waiting just around the corner.

Ferrari had the pace to secure a one-two victory in Austria that had the potential to slash at least 10 points from Max Verstappen’s championship lead over Leclerc. It was all going so well for 57 of the 71 laps, only for Carlos Sainz to suffer a complete engine failure as he started to line up Verstappen’s Red Bull for an overtake.

Then, in order to safely clear the charred remains of Sainz’s Ferrari, a Virtual Safety Car was called that eliminated Leclerc’s hard-earned tyre advantage over Verstappen as they both pitted for fresh tyres.

It wasn’t cause for immediate panic, but then, as Leclerc looked to ease out his lead over the Red Bull again, the throttle on his car started sticking open on the entry to corners.

“It was not only a little bit stressful, it was very stressful!” Leclerc said after the race. “The throttle was really inconsistent and in the middle of the corner it would get stuck to whatever percentage, so in Turn 3 it was very, very tricky because that’s where you don’t want any more speed in mid-corner.”

Leclerc managed to hold on for victory, but in the last phase of the race, Verstappen took the point for fastest lap, meaning the seven-point advantage Leclerc hoped to gain over his title rival was reduced to six. Add Saturday’s sprint race result into the mix and on a weekend when Leclerc had the measure of Verstappen over a grand prix distance, he took only five points out of the reigning champion’s already considerable lead.

At the halfway stage of the season, it’s enough to make you think this might not be Leclerc’s year regardless of how well he drives. Go back through his 2022 record to date and it is littered with cruel luck and missed opportunities — the sort that is not only devastating in terms of points lost but also mentally draining for a driver.

Since the Australian Grand Prix in April, at which Leclerc looked peerless and took his second win in three races, the Ferrari driver has seen a 43-point lead over Verstappen turn into a 38-point deficit (peaking at a 44-point deficit after Saturday’s sprint race).

A large proportion of that swing in Verstappen’s favour has been out of Leclerc’s control, and although Sunday’s victory could mark a turn in the tide, the Ferrari driver’s record at the five rounds prior to Austria could still ultimately cost him the championship.

Spanish Grand Prix

Leclerc missed out on a near-certain victory to a turbo and MGU-H failure on a weekend when Verstappen looked flustered, spun into the gravel but still won the race thanks to his teammate Sergio Perez moving over for him.

Point loss estimate: 26

Monaco Grand Prix

One week after the disappointment of Spain, Leclerc missed out another shot at what should have been a straight victory – this time on his home turf. Leclerc had done everything right around the streets of Monte Carlo to secure pole position and lead away from the start, but Ferrari mismanaged the transition from wet track to dry and a botched strategy dropped Leclerc down to fourth place at the finish.

Point loss estimate: 13

Azerbaijan Grand Prix

Leclerc retired from the lead in Azerbaijan after an engine failure midway through the race. Although he was leading, Verstappen had the upper hand in terms of strategy and Leclerc would have probably finished behind both Red Bulls in third.

Point loss estimate: 15

Canadian Grand Prix

The power unit problems at previous rounds pushed Leclerc over his engine quota after just eight rounds and resulted in a back-of-the-grid starting position at Round 9 in Montreal. He finished fifth at the flag, but considering Sainz battled for victory in the other Ferrari, a top-three result should have been pretty much guaranteed.

Point loss estimate: At least 5

British Grand Prix

Leclerc looked locked on for victory in Silverstone until a late safety car period saw Ferrari leave him out on track on old tyres rather than pitting for fresh ones. The decision saw him drop to fourth place at the restart on a weekend when Verstappen lost performance midrace due to debris becoming lodged under his car.

Point loss estimate: 13

Even by that relatively conservative estimate, Leclerc has lost 72 points to reliability issues and poor strategy calls this year. Combined with the extra points Verstappen scored in Spain and Monaco as a result of Leclerc’s misfortune in front of him, the swing in points in the standings would be even greater.

Of course, a similar list could be drawn up for Verstappen, including two retirements at the start of the year from near-certain second place finishes and the floor damage in Silverstone, which robbed him of a likely victory. Working to another rough estimate, those three incidents would have cost him 55 points, which is significant but still not a match for Leclerc’s tale of woe.

However, the purpose of that list is not so much about posing a what-if scenario, but instead highlighting how close the top two teams have been in terms of performance and how close the championship could still be if the relative luck of Verstappen and Leclerc turns. It’s also a reminder that titles are not won on car performance alone, but a mix of performance, reliability and strategy execution at races — the latter two being clear weak points for Ferrari this year.

How did Ferrari turn the tables on Red Bull in Austria?

Regardless of Leclerc’s misfortune, Verstappen and Red Bull were looking increasingly strong prior to Sunday’s Austrian Grand Prix. On pure race performance, the Red Bull looked like the faster car in Great Britain, Canada and Azerbaijan, and after Verstappen won Saturday’s sprint race in Austria, it looked like the same might be true at the Red Bull Ring.

But over the course of a full race distance, Verstappen struggled with a loss of rear tyre performance — known as degradation in F1 — while Ferrari managed their tyres to perfection.

“I think in terms of pure speed the performance of the two cars is very similar and the qualifying result is proving that,” Ferrari team principal Mattia Binotto said on Sunday evening. “I don’t think there is much of a difference between the cars, and if anything it was higher degradation on the Red Bull that won the race for Charles.

“We could see in the sprint race that we had a bit more of an advantage in terms of tyre degradation. We saw that even more in the grand prix because we started putting pressure on Max from the very start and pushing him to have more pace and degrade the tyres.

“What we saw yesterday in the sprint was more obvious today because we put more pressure on him.”

The analysis from the Red Bull camp was similar, although team principal Christian Horner couldn’t put his finger on exactly why the tyre degradation had been so bad in Austria when it had previously been a strength of the Red Bull over the Ferrari at earlier rounds.

“Our degradation, when you look at the sprint race, we pushed a bit harder at the beginning and paid a little bit at the end, but over the whole stint, on our analysis, it was identical to Ferrari,” Horner said. “So the only thing that’s changed overnight is the rain [on race day morning], the temperature slightly and of course the fuel load, so we just need to understand why in that first stint our deg was significantly worse than Charles and Carlos.

“It was strange today. Just one week ago in Silverstone we looked pretty good on degradation as well. I think the problem is that these tyres are quite sensitive and if you are not in the right [setup] window with them you can pay a penalty with degradation and that’s what we did today.”

In Friday qualifying in Austria, Verstappen and Leclerc were split by just 0.029s on a track that, on paper, should have played to the Red Bull’s straight-line speed advantage. Along with the tyre advantage held on Sunday, Ferrari’s single lap performance at the Red Bull Ring is another positive for Leclerc’s championship chances.

“We still have a disadvantage compared to the Red Bull in straight-line speed no doubt, especially with DRS open, so their DRS is more powerful compared to ours,” Binotto explained. “We worked a lot on it with a new rear wing that we introduced at first on Charles’ car in Canada and then both cars in the U.K.

“And with that new rear wing I think we have simply reduced the gap we had in terms of speed. I think they have a slight advantage, but it’s very small, and I think in terms of power advantage we are very close and then it is only about the grip limited in the corners where we can make the difference.

“Today we have not only been fast because of the car, but also the drivers. They have had a fantastic weekend in terms of car balance, managing the tyres and driving on track. Overall both of them are doing very well and driving very fast.”

The performance step in Austria was encouraging for Ferrari, but it came against a backdrop of yet another power unit failure. Sainz’s retirement on lap 57 was Ferrari’s most dramatic to date in 2022, with two explosions visible underneath the engine cover before the rear of the car caught on fire.

Fortunately, Sainz was able to jump clear of the burning car just in time, but reliability is clearly an issue for Ferrari this year and one that needs to be addressed.

“I think we have only got two engine failures so far, the others were more power unit than internal combustion engine,” Binotto said when asked about the team’s engine issues this year. “Obviously, we need to look at what happened today and whether it was the same as what happened with Charles in Baku, certainly it is very likely.

“It is certainly a concern but the people back at Maranello are working very hard on trying to fix that and what happened to Carlos has not been solved yet. We have new elements and I know how good they are, and I can count on the problems being addressed as soon as possible.”

For Leclerc it will be crucial to secure two more good results at the next two races ahead of F1’s summer break. Getting the gap down to 25 points — the same as a race win — would seem like a manageable target heading into the final nine races, but to do so he and his team will have to be at the very top of their game.

“I definitely needed that one,” Leclerc said of his victory in Austria. “I mean, the last five races have been incredibly difficult for myself, but also for the team, obviously.

“And to finally show that we’ve got the pace in the car and that we can do it is incredible. So yeah, we need to push until the end.”

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