In winning last week’s Belgian Grand Prix, Charles Leclerc raised notice to Ferrari teammate Sebastian Vettel that change was coming.
By repeating that success at Monza seven days later, the Monegasque became the Scuderia’s new leader in Ferrari’s heartland.
“There are no words to describe the emotions I felt during the race, after the race, or on the podium. It felt ten times stronger than anything I have ever experienced in my whole career. It was very special.”
Raw nerve and steel. If any four words could best describe the last ten days of Charles Leclerc’s life and career, those four would be quite apt.
From taking pole at Spa-Francorchamps, to the tragic death of friend and Formula 2 racer Anthoine Hubert, to victory under pressure from Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton, Charles Leclerc succeeded.
But to then take yet another pole – albeit amidst chaotic circumstances – this time at Monza, to securing victory in front of the Tifosi, this time being chased by both Mercedes’ in turn, Leclerc has come out on top of it all.
Before we get too far ahead of ourselves, these two races were Grand Prix that even pre-season looked like they might favour Ferrari. However, pre-season was six months ago already and prior to arriving in Belgium, the Italian team looked well beaten.
In the end, Ferrari made the most of the straight-line advantage, but it certainly didn’t produce the utterly dominant pace that was expected during testing in February and March. They certainly were not quick enough to escape the Mercedes’ but given the season the German marquee have had thus far, that will doubtful surprise.
That the anticipated “third team” – Red Bull – had claimed two victories before Leclerc achieved success is indicative of just how off the mark pre-season predications have been.
What was originally thought to be a fight between Mercedes and Ferrari for top honours week-in/week-out has, for the most part, been a bit of a Hamilton benefit, with the other Mercedes of Valtteri Bottas playing occasional guest star alongside the two Ferrari’s and Max Verstappen.
Were it not for Pierre Gasly’s poor form in the first half of the season, this might have turned into a tense fight for 2nd in the Constructor’s Championship, but alas that has not been the case and Ferrari now face an easy run to the runners-up spot, as the Formula One circus departs Europe for events abroad.
Leclerc’s run since Canada – Hockenheim error aside – has been very impressive and – as noted last week – his mistakes of before are becoming less common, whereas Vettel’s continued dip… continues.
Let’s be clear on this though, Leclerc has learned. He took some hard lessons from Austria when Verstappen mashed him to one side in order to take a late win and the Monegasque was not prepared to let that happen again.
At certain times during the race, Leclerc displayed a certain toughness in his defence against the Mercedes and it something that Hamilton and co will certainly be far more aware of now.
Those who saw the race will instantly think of the 24th lap, when Hamilton on medium Pirelli tyres – having stopped at the end of lap 19 – closed right up on Leclerc, who had changed to hard tyres a lap later.
Such was the chase, at nearly at the halfway point in the race, Hamilton was just four-tenths shy of Leclerc, having shadowed him closely in the initial portion of the race. Emerging from the Parabolica corner at the end of the previous lap, Leclerc lost some pace getting by Renault’s Nico Hülkenberg, while Hamilton slipped by with the aid of DRS on the start/finish straight moments later.
Showing his nose on the approach to the Retifilo chicane, Hamilton also showed his intention and with the slipstream working in his favour, the Briton closed in around the long lingering Curva Grande and was on the outside of Leclerc on the approach into the Roggia chicane – not alongside, but certainly three-quarters of the way there.
As Hamilton edged into view, the Ferrari pulled to the right slightly, removing the gap from Hamilton and forcing the Mercedes wide on to the run-off area. There are two ways to view this of course – one: Leclerc moved across and denied Hamilton racing room; or two: Hamilton as the attacking driver has the capability to brake as well as accelerate. “Since Austria it’s clear that we can go a bit further in the way that we defend and overtake and yeah, just the aggressivity of us drivers,” commented Leclerc.
It is debateable as to whether Hamilton could have made the move stick or if he would simply have run out of road, but either way, the message was clear: you shall not pass. That toughness that Leclerc learned about in Austria had now become part of his own armoury, with the Ferrari man adding, “I believe that Austria helped me to change this approach and today it’s also thanks to this that I’ve managed to win. It was obviously very on-the-limit but… yeah, I’m happy to race like this.”
Hamilton, while initially furious over the radio, seemed somewhat sanguine following the race. “Yeah, it’s just racing, I guess. I had to avoid colliding with him a couple of times, but I guess that’s how the racing is today. You just move forwards…”
With both Hamilton and Leclerc locked in battle, and rarely more than a second apart, strategy played a part, with Hamilton’s gamble for an earlier stop failing to overhaul the Ferrari.
Although the Mercedes racer had the better initial pace – a result of medium vs hard tyres – Hamilton’s inability to get by Leclerc would eventually bring Bottas into play. As the leading pair played out their fight and with no one challenging from behind, Bottas stayed on what would be considered to be the optimum strategy.
Inevitably Hamilton’s earlier stop would potentially see his pace fall away in the later laps – it did – while Ferrari’s move to the slower hard tyres left Leclerc under threat from the rear, but with the possibility to run a solid pace to the end (also true).
Bottas, meanwhile, stopped for new mediums on lap 27, allowing a free and easy run to the flag. Having fallen some five seconds behind the Leclerc/Hamilton squabble, Bottas settled into a pace in the early-1’23s, matching the front runners. That gap would inevitably shrink as Bottas’ pace held and – in particular – Hamilton faded. Leclerc lost pace too, but not by so much that he would be overhauled.
The change came on lap 42 when a mistake by Hamilton – overshooting the Retifilo chicane – saw him take to the escape road, allowing Bottas to move in 2nd place and challenge the leader.
This was not Bottas’ first attempt to take Hamilton. From the start, both Mercedes’ challenged the polesitting Leclerc into the first corner, with Hamilton on the inside and Bottas on the outside and the Ferrari-man firmly in the middle. “I was giving everything I could for the win,” Bottas said.
As the first crucial metres unfolded, Hamilton began to run out of room on the inside, as Leclerc took the racing line, causing the five-time World Champion to check up slightly, giving Bottas a run to take 2nd on the exit. Yet as the chicane unravelled, the boot was switched to the other foot – now as the outside of the corner became the inside of the corner, Bottas too had to lift-off slight, allowing Hamilton to accelerate earlier and reclaim 2nd spot.
Thereafter the Finn sat in wait, but when 2nd position did eventually come back to him, Bottas hit the same brick wall that Hamilton had for so many laps before him. “The tricky bit was that they were so quick on the straights. It required us to be so close in the corners that it was not really possible to follow, leading the straight, and also getting issues with brakes locking up once getting so close to the car ahead.”
Bottas had one significant opportunity in the final six miles. With just two laps left on the books, Leclerc made a slight mistake exiting the Roggia chicane, gifting Bottas a chance to close on to the tail of the Ferrari.
Staying close, Bottas used both the slipstream and the DRS to bolt himself on to the rear of Leclerc… only to run too deep in the Retifilo chicane on lap 51. “I was pushing hard, so what can I say? Just not quite enough.” Such was the time loss in that one mistake, it all but confirmed Leclerc’s and Ferrari’s victory. “It felt amazing. I have never had a podium with… I’ve never been on a podium with so many people underneath it,” claimed a jubilant Leclerc. “To see that the whole straight was full of people – mostly red – 99 per cent red – was great to see. Yeah, as I said earlier, hearing them cheering, singing was just… a lot of emotions.”
This new aggressive Leclerc is also one that will endear him to the Tifosi – a fandom that still sing the praises of Gilles Villeneuve, Nigel Mansell, Jean Alesi, Gerhard Berger, Fernando Alonso and, of course, Michael Schumacher.
One never quite gets the feeling that the Tifosi feel the same about Vettel, particularly now that his stock is dropping. Although a race winner in red, there has seemingly been a marked distance between the four-time World Champion and the Scuderia’s fanbase, and the distance is now growing.
Never moreso than on Sunday. Having played 2nd fiddle to Leclerc at Spa-Francorchamps last week, Vettel seemed somewhat distant in the early laps at Monza. While the gulf in time was not hugely significant, there did not really seem to be a time when from 4th Vettel would challenge the leading pair.
His spin, unaided, through the second part of the Ascari chicane on lap six was clumsy; however, his attempts to re-join the track as traffic approached must be marked as one of the most astonishingly stupid recoveries performed at a Grand Prix track in a long time.
On one hand, it is not unreasonable to note that Vettel was somewhat unsighted to his left-hand side due to the high cockpit sides and safety structures, yet his re-joining of the circuit blind, during which he narrowed the width of the road to a few metres, before hitting the rear of Lance Stroll was both astonishing and amateurish.
That Stroll did the same thing moments later – sending Gasly flying off the road – despite having complained of Vettel’s action, was quite typically Stroll.
Having damaged his front wing in the incident, Vettel took to the pits at the end of the sixth tour and ran toward the second half of the field for the duration and was eventually lapped by the leaders on the 33rd lap. In the end, Vettel came home a distant 13th place…
As Leclerc and Bottas made their final bids for glory, Hamilton pitted again, this time for used soft tyres. With no challenger from behind, the time loss was insignificant, and it allowed for the Briton to have a final dash for fastest lap, which he duly took – one more point for the driver who is still the odds-on favourite for the title.
It is unlikely that it mattered. All eyes were on the red car out front. A 2nd victory for Leclerc in Ferrari colours and he did it at the most important venue of all. “The first stint was quite controlled,” said Leclerc after the race. “The second stint was a bit less strong on my side, because I had to focus on the car behind me a lot as the gap was closing. It was very difficult, and I had a lot of pressure on me.
“Finally going on the line, I let go all my emotions through the radio. I don’t think you can understand anything that I have said on the radio, but it felt absolutely amazing, and the podium also. It’s going beyond all the dreams I’ve had since I was a child. To see so many people cheering for one team, singing all together, it’s amazing.”
The 21-year-old has placed himself as both the figurative and literal team leader at Ferrari, with this result propelling Leclerc ahead of Vettel in the championship standings. On his current form, it does not seem likely that will change any time soon.