Monday, August 8, 2022

Charles Leclerc has to cut a slice from Max Verstappen

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Remember April, three races into the 2022 season, and Max Verstappen’s desperation at the opening of his world championship defense was writ large. However, after retirements in Bahrain and Australia, the solution was refreshingly crystal clear.

“I don’t even want to think about the championship fight at the moment,” said the Belgian-Dutchman after his failure in Melbourne. “It’s more important to just finish races.”

Verstappen has doubled that philosophy and has since finished every Grand Prix and won six of the nine 25-point first-place cash-ins on offer. He has only been off the podium once and with a 108-point swing, Charles Leclerc’s lead has fallen from 46 points to 62 points after the Ferrari driver retired for the third time this season in France on Sunday.

Experience fighting for a world championship is clearly a crucial factor in any F1 title race. Rewind 12 months to Silverstone when Verstappen crashed on lap one in his first serious title challenge, returning momentum to Lewis Hamilton when in reality any sort of podium points would have sufficed in the larger scheme of a 21-race calendar.

Verstappen’s renewed focus on racking up points race after race underscores his growing maturity with that first World Championship under his belt. At the start of Sunday’s race at Paul Ricard – likely the last French GP for some time as the event’s contract expires this year and no renewal is likely – the Red Bull driver was hot on his heels with Leclerc’s speedy Ferrari.

But although Verstappen consistently stayed in the DRS zone, he played it safe and decided against an all-out attack. The race – and the season for that matter – is a long game and memorable lunges for the lead pose a far greater risk than simply keeping the car on the tarmac. The Red Bull driver was duly rewarded.

Much like Verstappen in 2021, Leclerc is currently going through a similar learning curve. After Australia, when he was pushing too hard at Imola to catch Sergio Perez in second place, Leclerc’s F1-75 spun off the track and while he was recovering to finish sixth that should have served as a stark warning.

Instead, a combination of mechanical errors and wrong strategy calls has since led to Leclerc playing the role of chaser. Austria clinched a much-needed win two weeks ago, but France were the perfect chance to keep that momentum going. Instead, what could have been a 31-point Verstappen lead is now doubled with a boom and bust on Round 18.

Ahead of Hungary this week – a must for Ferrari as Mercedes are now chasing them in the Constructors Championship too – Leclerc will need to take a leaf out of Verstappen’s book as the summer break approaches. Second place and 18 points are not a disaster; a DNF and zero points is a great deal.

“It’s my fault and if I make mistakes like that, I deserve not to win the championship,” Leclerc admitted on Sunday. “I’m losing too many points.” However, the question for Leclerc now is: will a change in mindset come too late to make up for a seismic deficit?

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