Max Verstappen on the back foot as Charles Leclerc shows championship caliber

Based on pure performance, there has been very little choice between Charles Leclerc and Max Verstappen this season. But based on championship points, the gap is already huge.

With three of this year’s 23 races completed, Leclerc has a 46-point lead over Verstappen – a bigger margin than either Verstappen or Lewis Hamilton had over each other at any time during last year’s championship battle. .

The reason for the discrepancy is clear. Two retirements from second place – the most recent of which came on lap 38 of Sunday’s Australian Grand Prix – mean Verstappen has sacrificed at least 36 points to Leclerc on reliability in just three races. Give him those, plus a point for fastest lap here or there, and the gap between the two would be in single digits.

Missed chances are not wasted on Verstappen or Red Bull.

“We’re already miles behind,” Verstappen said after retiring on Sunday. “I don’t even want to think about the championship fight right now, it’s more important to finish the races.

“Of course today was still a bad day in general. I didn’t really have the pace, I was just managing my tires to carry it through. It felt like an easy P2 anyway and I knew I wouldn’t. couldn’t fight Charles, so there was no point in trying to pressure him. We didn’t even finish the race so it’s quite frustrating and unacceptable.”

Red Bull team principal Christian Horner added: “It’s completely understandable, his frustration. It was a really, really disappointing result not to finish the race.”

“I mean, we don’t know what the problem is yet. I don’t think it’s really engine related. I think it could be a fuel problem, but we need to get the car back, we need to be able to look at what exactly happened.”

But Verstappen’s misfortune should not detract from the performance of Ferrari and Leclerc this year. Even before Verstappen’s retirement, Leclerc had the racing under control in a way he had never experienced in his previous three Formula 1 victories.

“It was the first race where we could control the gap a bit, and honestly what a car I had today,” he said after the race. “Of course I did a good job all weekend, but it was not possible without the car and this weekend, especially in race pace, we were extremely strong.

“The tires behaved well from the first to the last lap. We managed the tires extremely well. And I’m so happy.”

Of course, it’s still early in the season. A 46-point gap could be overturned in just two races if Leclerc fails to finish and Verstappen wins, but it’s more likely to take around 10 races, assuming Verstappen starts to consistently outrun Leclerc. Given that there are 20 races left, this may not be as big of a disaster as it first appears, but it’s clear that Red Bull needs to address its reliability issues immediately – hence Verstappen’s comments.

For Leclerc, however, a championship lead of this size is virgin territory. In fact, he has never led an F1 championship before this season and very rarely had such a competitive car at his disposal. But years of championship titles in the junior series before F1 mean he is not entirely out of his depth and has already adapted his approach to the championship campaign.

“I’ve been in this situation before in the junior categories, but to be in this situation in Formula 1 means a lot, and especially after the last few years, and especially with a team like Ferrari,” Leclerc said on Sunday. “So it’s amazing.

“The mindset is a bit different compared to the last two years because now I know that below me I have a winning car and I don’t really need to overdo it. or to do something extremely special and spectacular to get one or two places, because I know it’s in the car and I just have to do the work, so the mindset is a little different this year.

“And then to follow Red Bull in terms of development is going to be difficult, but yes it’s the same team that made this car, who will be working on the development of this year’s car, so I’m confident. there’s no reason for us to be on the back because we did a great job, all the guys from Maranello [Ferrari’s HQ] have done a great job building this car for this year.”

Key to the championship will be the relative development rates of Red Bull, Ferrari and Mercedes. It’s clear that Ferrari already has a more developed car than its rivals and, significantly at this early stage of the year, a better understanding of how to maximize its potential. This is perhaps no surprise given the time and resources Ferrari have been able to devote to the development of this year’s car over the past two years as Red Bull and Mercedes battle for the championships.

On the other hand, there may still be more fruit at hand for Red Bull and Mercedes. Obviously, Red Bull’s short-term focus must be its reliability issues, but that won’t stop the riders and engineers from developing their setup instructions.

Both Verstappen and teammate Sergio Perez struggled with the balance of the car in Australia, and in qualifying Verstappen lost pole position to Leclerc thanks to missing time to the Ferrari in the chicane at low speed at the end of the lap. The delicate balance of the car also seemed to have an impact on tire performance, as Red Bull ripped the surface of their front left tires while Ferrari managed to avoid a similar problem with Leclerc.

But while Red Bull still clearly understands its car from a performance and reliability perspective, Horner is confident that his team will start to gain ground on Ferrari very soon.

“Obviously they started this project a lot earlier than us, so to some extent we’re catching up,” he said. “But the fact that we are catching up to our second fastest position is encouraging and we are starting to understand some of the issues we have.

“I’d rather fix a fast car and then try to make a slow reliable one. So, you know, we have to get through this. We can’t accept DNFs, but we have to understand what the problem is and we have to remediate.”

Mercedes gets results but performance still lacking

Just as Verstappen’s championship position isn’t an accurate reflection of his performance this year, neither are Mercedes and George Russell’s championship positions. According to the standings, Russell is Leclerc’s closest competitor this year, 34 points behind, and Mercedes are the second-best team, 10 points ahead of third-placed Red Bull.

But Russell would be the first to admit he doesn’t have the second-best car this year, and Leclerc is highly unlikely to see him as his main contender for the title. On Saturday night, Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff put his team’s championship chances at 20% – which may even be a little optimistic.

Nevertheless, Mercedes did well to limit the damage to their championship challenge in the opening rounds of the season. Aside from Hamilton’s horror run in Saudi Arabia, the team have maxed their points with the package they have. The big question is whether this package will improve in future races and whether Mercedes’ own development will simply be overridden by Red Bull and Ferrari’s developments.

On average, Mercedes have been 0.85 seconds from pole position in the first three rounds of the season and the gap to pole in percentage has slowly increased with each round. Mercedes says the performance it saw on the track was around a second behind what it expected from its factory simulations, so theoretically if it fixes its issues it could instantly become a favorite .

However, it’s clear the issues are more complex than simply solving the car’s much-publicized bouncing experiences at the end of the straights and the team’s engineers are battling the fires on multiple fronts with no quick fix in sight.

“Is the rebound healing going to miraculously unlock a second in the car? No, of course not,” Wolff said. “But there are a lot of other small improvements we can make on weight and other things we can optimize and we just need to cut the small gains while understanding the car.

“I’m optimistic that we’ll get there eventually, whether it’s two races or five, we just have to stay humble.”

Hamilton, who is fifth in the standings, three points ahead of Verstappen but 43 behind Leclerc, is not ready to give up just yet.

“I prefer to stay optimistic,” he said after finishing fourth on Sunday. “There are 20 races left. If you think realistically about how our sport is developing, the top teams often develop at a similar pace. Will that be the case with this new car? Who knows.

“But I really, really hope we can fight. With every improvement we make, they [Ferrari] and Red Bull will probably do the same sort of thing, so it won’t be easy. And yes, the gap is quite big at the moment but there is still a long way to go.”