At the Brazilian Grand Prix, Ferrari driver Charles Leclerc had a huge moment on the formation lap when his car’s hydraulics failed, and he crashed, which meant he could not start the race. Immediately after that, the 26-year-old groaned on the team radio, saying, “Why am I so unlucky?”. He could not have summed up his and Ferrari’s situation any better.
The Monegasque is arguably one of the fastest drivers in Formula One, and there is a case to be made that he might even be a fraction quicker than Max Verstappen over one lap in Qualifying, as evidenced by his 23 pole positions. However, with just five wins in as many years, it’s clear that he hasn’t yet had a consistently strong car on Sundays, when it really counts.
While the world’s eyes are on Verstappen after three consecutive world titles, Leclerc is every bit the generational talent the Dutchman is; he is even a few weeks younger than his rival.
When Verstappen burst onto the scene at 17, people were in awe of his sheer speed, his spectacular car-handing and, most of all, his precocity. But it also meant that he had to learn things the hard way, smoothing the rough edges in the full glare of the limelight.
Leclerc, on the other hand, had a more traditional route into F1, winning the GP3 and F2 titles before making his debut in 2018 with the Sauber team, where he excelled, thus earning a promotion to Ferrari in 2019.
In his first season at a big team, Leclerc beat Sebastian Vettel and handed his illustrious teammate a shellacking the following year (2020) when the car was even slower, conjuring up performances that the four-time champion couldn’t get close to. So it was unsurprising that Ferrari let go of Vettel, having seen enough evidence that it had a strong driver in Leclerc to lead the team forward. In 2021, he extended his contract until the end of 2024.
However, the last three years of the deal have been one of disappointment tinged with misfortune and some driver errors — a partnership that promised much has yielded very little.
If 2021 was Ferrari’s year of recovery after a miserable 2020, 2022 was a season of missed opportunities. It started well, with a competitive car capable of fighting for wins. But its development could not match Red Bull’s. To make things worse, the team’s reliability woes and strategic blunders cost Leclerc a handful of wins — something no team looking to sustain a title challenge can afford, and the fight with Verstappen fizzled out from the mid-season point.
This year, the graph, which had been trending upward since 2020, hit a ceiling and, worryingly, started trending downward. Especially at the start of the year, the car was not just slow but also unpredictable in a way that even someone of Leclerc’s calibre could not drive around. In some races, the lap times fluctuated wildly between stints. The Ferrari was not kind to its tyres either, suffering from high degradation. Despite this, Leclerc managed five pole positions but could not convert them to victory, illustrating the team’s race-day weakness.
The five-time Grand Prix winner also had some mediocre races this year, making uncharacteristic mistakes. At times, teammate Carlos Sainz looked the faster of the two, not something Leclerc is accustomed to. And on the one weekend when Red Bull dropped the ball in Singapore, it was Sainz who was there to pick up the pieces. Leclerc was forced to play rear-gunner to the Spaniard, who took the only non-Red Bull win of the season.
A part of the reason for Leclerc’s struggles was that the SF-23 did not suit his driving style. He is the kind of driver who can live with a bit of rear instability in his car and use his natural talent to overcome it. Some of the most gifted drivers prefer this oversteer balance, where the car has a sharp front-end and gives the driver immediate feel when turning the steering in the entry to a corner. The flip side of an unstable rear-end is that it can suck the confidence of drivers and even hurt the tyres, but the likes of Verstappen and Leclerc aren’t worried about it.
This year’s Ferrari tended to have a lot of understeer, which played to Sainz’s strength. “We have had two parts of the season: pre-Japan and post-Japan, at least on my side,” Leclerc said in Abu Dhabi. “I feel much more at ease since Japan. We worked on the consistency of the car in different conditions, which helped a lot with my driving style. I like quite a lot to have an oversteer-y car and a strong front, which in the first part of the season I couldn’t quite do.”
The Italian team got an upgraded floor at Suzuka, which, while not adding a lot of performance, helped shift the balance to Leclerc’s liking. And he duly delivered, finishing the season strongly with three podiums in the last four races. But despite the late surge, 2023 will go down as another missed opportunity for driver and team.
Now, after five years at Maranello, Leclerc is at a crossroads. He finds himself in a situation Fernando Alonso and Sebastian Vettel faced after a similar amount of time in Ferrari. Both the aforementioned drivers had years when the team either failed to give them a competitive car or was not sharp enough with race operations when they had a car to fight for the title.
But unlike the two, Leclerc is yet to win a world title and has much more at stake in hitching his bandwagon to the Scuderia, which hasn’t won a championship since 2008. Granted, he has a more natural bond with the team that has nurtured him from a young age. But how long before his patience wears thin?
Last year, the team’s strategic blunders and reliability issues forced him into a mistake in Paul Ricard while leading the race. The uncharacteristic driver errors this year were consequences of a desperate driver trying to push beyond the car’s limits to find lap time.
Although the rumours have suggested that Leclerc is close to signing a long-term extension at Ferrari, Alonso and Vettel’s career trajectory in the scarlet overalls serves as a cautionary tale. In that context, 2024 could be a pivotal year for the future of the Leclerc-Ferrari combination and its hopes of stopping the Verstappen-Red Bull juggernaut.