With the 2023 Formula 1 season coming to an end and the Drivers’ and Constructors’ Championships wrapped up, there’s an opportunity to take stock of some of the stories that have fallen away from the mainstream. The air surrounding Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc has turned sour over the last 18 months. Going toe to toe with Max Verstappen for wins at the start of the 2022 season seems a lifetime away from being 7th in the WDC at the time of writing. Leclerc’s recent radio outburst (see the title) after crashing out of the Brazil Grand Prix during the formation lap tells us everything we need to know about where he feels the blame lies; it’s a result of pure bad luck. Universal forces are conspiring to prevent any chance he has of winning a race.
How do we identify exactly what plagues Charles Leclerc?Embed from Getty Images
This theory is worth examining. Generally, people believe that Charles Leclerc has the talent to be a world champion, but for one reason or another, it hasn’t come together yet. To determine what’s really holding him back, we need to look at the times he’s been in the best possible position to win, and still not managed to convert. Thankfully, Leclerc has an 11-long streak of securing pole position in qualification, and then failing to convert that to a win on Sunday.
Let’s break down, pole by pole, exactly what happened to put Leclerc on a pole loss streak stretching from the 2022 Miami Grand Prix to the 2023 Mexico Grand Prix and assign some blame for each one to really figure out who, or what, is at the root of Leclerc’s struggles.
Miami Grand Prix (8 May 2022)Embed from Getty Images
Leclerc’s tepid run began at the inaugural Miami Grand Prix (not to be confused with the 1926 Grand Prix of Miami). He held on to P1 until Lap 9 when Verstappen moved into DRS range on the main straight and executed a textbook overtake. Leclerc then saw Verstappen blow the lead out to 2.5 seconds thanks to a Lap 13 lockup and, despite a late safety car, couldn’t close the gap. He came home P2, 3.7 seconds behind Verstappen.
It’s important to note here that at this point in 2022, Leclerc was leading the WDC by 19 points. Downturns start quickly and they can really run on.
Spanish Grand Prix (22 May 2022)Embed from Getty Images
Spain 2022 was a hot affair, boasting track temperatures around 49oC. Leclerc matched the heat of the track with some fiery racing of his own, maintaining the lead with a decent start and, aided by Verstappen’s Lap 9 spin-out, went further to lead P2 by 16 seconds on Lap 16 and an even greater 27 seconds by Lap 22. So substantial was his lead that he opted to pit and still came out 5 seconds ahead of P2. Looking absolutely imperious, only some catastrophic misfortune could end his run here. And that it did. On Lap 27 Leclerc’s Ferrari began dramatically slowing and the pit crew began swarming in the garage, ready to retire the car.
From a 27-second lead on Lap 22 to retirement on Lap 27, the DNF in Spain also meant that Verstappen could come home first and wrestle the lead in the WDC off of Leclerc. A lead he wouldn’t give up for the rest of the year.
Monaco Grand Prix (29 May 2022)Embed from Getty Images
Leclerc’s home race! Monaco every year brings the potential of a unique accolade for Leclerc should he win; becoming the first Monegasque to win in Monaco. Sitting up top on Sunday would have filled him with some hope as well, given Monaco’s recent reputation as a course very unfriendly to overtaking. A cool head and sensible strategy should have been enough to see him come home in first, and by Lap 10 with a 4.5-second lead, it was looking good. As the rain over Monaco cleared, the Ferrari pit wall called both drivers in for a double stack, but a late change of heart was communicated too late to Leclerc who was already driving down the pit entry when told to stay out. Sat behind Sainz at the Ferrari garage, Leclerc saw his pole position diminished to fourth thanks further to a slow stop and poor out lap.
Finishing his home race in P4, he was now 9 points behind Verstappen in the WDC, and I won’t mention this again because he obviously didn’t win it.
Azerbaijan Grand Prix (12 June 2022)
Azerbaijan, ‘The Land of Fire’, lived up to its name with track temperatures nearing 50 oC. Leclerc was joined on the front row by Perez who snatched P1 from him early on, cutting down the inside and forcing Leclerc to lock up into the first left-hander. By Lap 5, the Red Bull’s superior pace was showing and Perez had pulled over 2 seconds ahead of Leclerc, and Verstappen was bearing down behind him. On Lap 18, leader Verstappen opted to pit and emerged 13.5 seconds back from Leclerc in first. Leclerc had managed to grasp back his pole position and sat on a healthy lead. Then, on Lap 20, smoke started to pour from the car as a second engine failure in three races caused another DNF for Leclerc sitting in P1.
French Grand Prix (24 July 2022)Embed from Getty Images
Some time without a pole then passed for Leclerc, 6 weeks go by and any hope of challenging for the WDC with them. However, sitting on pole in France would have had Leclerc feeling hopeful; the last three editions of this race had been won from pole. A strong start at lights out would have compounded that hope, as would have managed to keep Verstappen at bay despite his consistent presence in DRS range. More strong driving saw Verstappen fall out of Leclerc’s DRS range, and all was looking well until Lap 18, when Leclerc entered Turn 11, the rear of his car snapped out and he went spinning into the barriers. Race over.
Verdict: Driver error
Italian Grand Prix (11 September 2022)
Generally speaking, a driver for Ferrari will have 2-3 home races every year; one for wherever they’re born, and two in Italy where the impassioned Tifosi can really make themselves known. Seeing a red car on pole for either of these races generates a lot of excitement, and that excitement would have been even further warranted when Leclerc got out to a 2-second lead by Lap 5. A DNF for Sebastian Vettel forced a virtual safety car and Leclerc opted to pit for medium tyres, emerging third on the grid. He clearly felt a familiar foreboding sense come over the team as he implored his team to ensure that his engine didn’t fail him, all while moving into first on Lap 26 thanks to a Verstappen pit stop.Embed from Getty Images
Verstappen made up the time on Leclerc and overtook him, with the distance put into the Ferrari’s medium tyres beginning to tell on his race pace. He would pit again on Lap 34 for soft tyres and emerged 20 seconds behind Verstappen. Despite the new tyres he could not make up the time and the win looked to be getting away from him.
A late twist in the form of a Lap 47 safety car closed the gap and prompted the top four to pit for softs again in anticipation of a two-lap shootout. However, this wouldn’t come to be, as the cars only lined up behind the safety car on Lap 51 of 53. The race ended under caution, much to Leclerc’s chagrin. Regardless, Leclerc never really looked like matching Verstappen, who marched on to his first-ever Italian Grand Prix win.
Singapore Grand Prix (2 October 2022)
Leclerc’s final pole of the 2022 season was not a particularly long-lasting one, losing the lead to Perez who jumped him at Turn 1 just after the lights went out. He stayed close to Perez throughout the opening laps, and a Lap 10 safety car closed the gap briefly. Perez, however, maintained a 2-second lead from the restart and never really looked back. A painful 5.3-second pitstop for Leclerc and a slow out lap put the dampeners on any hope of challenging for a win and he eventually fell well out of DRS range to come home 2.5 seconds behind Perez.
Azerbaijan Grand Prix (30 April 2023)
Leclerc’s first pole of 2023 started a lot more constructively than his last of 2022. He managed to maintain the lead from the start with a smooth getaway, all the while Verstappen was stalking behind. The lead didn’t last long however, with Verstappen biding his time until Lap 4, opening the DRS and breezing past on the main straight. One lap later, Perez would execute an almost identical manoeuvre; the Ferrari was at the mercy of the far superior Red Bull.
Verstappen fell to third after pitting during the yellow flags that preceded a safety car, but overtaking Leclerc for second would be nothing more than a formality once the race got going again. Leclerc finished third on the day with a result that flattered considering he came home 21 seconds behind leader Perez.
Belgian Grand Prix (30 July 2023)Embed from Getty Images
If poles were converted simply by keeping the lead-on lights out, Leclerc would be two for two in 2023. Unfortunately for him, there’s a whole race to do after that. In Belgium, he managed to keep Perez behind briefly but quickly lost the lead when Perez swept past him on the Kemmel Straight. Eight laps later, on the same straight, Verstappen would tuck into Leclerc’s slipstream and take him outside Les Combes to establish a Red Bull one-two.
Another 2023 pole position, another chasm between Ferrari and the Red Bulls, Leclerc coming in 32 seconds behind Verstappen to take third.
United States Grand Prix (22 October 2023)Embed from Getty Images
There’s an air of inevitability around Leclerc’s 2023 poles. It’s tough to feel optimistic about them as and when they do come about because you just know there are cars with much greater race pace lurking in his mirrors. At lights out in Austin, Leclerc would surely have felt some relief that the car to snatch his pole position from the start at least wasn’t a Red Bull. Norris’ McLaren swept past him immediately and blew the lead out to 2 seconds by the end of Lap 2. After staying out too long on his first set of tyres, he was easy pickings for Perez, losing out further to another Red Bull.
His rough race continued to worsen as the team sent down orders to let the fresher-tyred Sainz through to battle Perez. After losing out additional places and coming home in sixth, Leclerc called down the line to enforce his desire for a post-race debrief on the strategy decisions he felt cost him at least a shot at the podium.
None of that would matter in the end though. A routine inspection of his car after the race revealed an illegal floor, resulting in a disqualification.
Mexico Grand Prix (29 October 2023)
Another qualification session that would have both Leclerc and Ferrari feeling optimistic, managing a front-row lockout to see Verstappen relegated to P3 at the start of the race. That optimism would last all of 5 seconds. Verstappen got a much better start and overtook both Leclerc and Sainz on Turn 1 to take pole about as quickly as he possibly could have. Despite damage sustained during a collision with Perez on that same turn, Leclerc put in a quality drive, holding on to P2 until Lap 40, when Hamilton overtook him and never looked like giving the position up.
The VerdictEmbed from Getty Images
11 poles, and by my estimation, the failure to convert seven of them can be put down to Leclerc simply being outdriven by drivers in superior machinery. A streak of bad luck between Spain and Azerbaijan in 2022, bookended by driver error in France, would see any hope of competing for the WDC in that year slip away from him.
Whether it’s bad luck to be driving during a period of total dominance as we’re seeing with Red Bull and Verstappen is a matter of opinion. Many would say it’s part and parcel of competing in F1 in the first place. However, you can probably imagine that the only thing Leclerc hates seeing more than a Red Bull in front of him is a Red Bull getting larger and larger in his rear-view mirrors.