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Charles’ Championship back on track

Charles’ Championship back on track

FORMULA ONE: After three months of pummelling by Red Bull Racing, Ferrari has finally managed to strike back in the fight for the championship, though victory for Charles Leclerc at last Sunday’s (July 10) Austrian Grand Prix was bittersweet.

By Michael Lamonato

Friday 15 July 2022, 01:15PM

A thumbs up from Charles Leclerc after victory in last Sunday’s (July 10) Austrian Grand Prix. Photo: AFP

A thumbs up from Charles Leclerc after victory in last Sunday’s (July 10) Austrian Grand Prix. Photo: AFP

It was three months to the day since Charles Leclerc had last won a race, and at the Spielberg arena he finally took the chequered flag again to land a blow on Max Verstappen’s championship lead.

The points damage was marginal. Between the distant memory of his previous victory in Australia and Sunday morning in Austria the Monegasque had shipped a staggering 90 points to Verstappen to languish 44 points adrift. He shrank that by only six come Sunday night. His 38-point deficit is still comfortably more than a clear race win.

But the morale-boosting qualities of his drought-breaking triumph cannot be underestimated. After months of strategic howlers and unreliability, the season’s most realistic title challenger to the reigning champion was on the top step again.

“I definitely needed that one,” he agreed. “I mean, the last races have been incredibly difficult for myself but also for the team.

“To finally show that we’ve got the pace in the car and that we can do it is incredible. We need to push until the end.”

And this victory was decisive despite the 1.5-second margin at the flag. Despite Verstappen taking pole and skating to a comfortable win in the sprint, Ferrari easily had Red Bull Racing’s measure in grand prix conditions.

The Red Bull Ring is a traction circuit, and powering out of the corners has been one of the Scuderia’s key strengths all season. Combined with a skinnier rear wing to neutralise RBR’s top-speed advantage, the SF-75 was the track’s undisputed master on Sunday.

It was so much the case that Ferrari felt free to change strategies on the fly, switching from a one-stop to a two-stop race late in the afternoon just to guarantee Verstappen, who was forced to stop twice with high tyre wear, couldn’t come back late in the race.

It meant Leclerc had to pass the Dutchman on track three times, but he made it look easy on each occasion, his victory never really in doubt virtually from lights out.

But for all Ferrari’s Bull-beating speed, unreliability continues to hang over its race result and championship ambitious like a pall of dirty black engine smoke.

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That smoke was emanating from the back of Carlos Sainz’s burnt-out car.

In the dying stages of the race, just as he was sizing up Verstappen for an overtake to form a dominant Ferrari one-two, Sainz’s power unit spectacularly exploded into smoke and flames that eventually consumed the back of his car.

It briefly caused a virtual safety car that enabled Verstappen to close onto the back of Leclerc and turn an easy win into a fraught one

It’s Sainz’s second power unit failure of the season and almost certainly guarantees him two rounds of grid penalties before the end of the year.

The stoppage came only three races after Leclerc suffered a similar failure at the Azerbaijan Grand Prix.

Ferrari has been upfront about the fact it hasn’t nailed the origin of its reliability problem, and its strategy to hand Leclerc two new engines and associated penalties in Canada was an act of buying time by expanding his parts pool.

The engine that failed in Sainz’s car is the same specification Leclerc is reliant upon.

“I have to admit I was very nervous,” Ferrari team principal Mattia Binotto said afterwards. “I was so nervous that I stopped watching the race in the last three laps.”

While Ferrari and Leclerc managed to make up modest ground on the points table, there’ll be many more nervous races for Binotto this season until the team can figure out why its engines keep blowing themselves up.

Until then any championship hopes best be kept on ice.

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