“I don’t really find the right words to describe it. Obviously it’s very, very disappointing,” commented the dejected driver after last Sunday’s Azerbaijan Grand Prix.
The anguish on Leclerc’s face as he faced the media, with the sound of the race still going on without him in the background, expressed far more than his words could anyway.
Leclerc had retired for the second time in three grands prix, dealing a body blow to his title ambitions this season. On both occasions reigning champion Max Verstappen romped to victory.
Just five races ago, after a dominant victory in Melbourne, Leclerc held a commanding 46-point lead over Verstappen. Today that’s been almost completely reversed; he’s now a distant 34 points behind, having lost an average of 16 points per race to the Dutchman.
“It hurts,” he said. “I don’t know what’s going on,” said a bemused Leclerc.
The problem is that neither does Ferrari.
The team has suffered a spate of engine problems since introducing a new power unit specification at the start of May. The upgrade focused on the complex energy recovery system, to which the team has made great leaps since last season, but ever since then both its factory cars and those powered by customer motors have developed a propensity for failing.
Alarmingly, no two of the failures appear to be alike. In Baku ;ec;erc’s teammate Carlos Sainz suffered a hydraulics problem while Leclerc’s issue seemed like a catastrophic combustion problem. Kevin Magnussen’s Ferrari-powered Haas also suffered a power unit shut-off for reasons so far unknown.
Earlier in the weekend Mick Schumacher’s Ferrari motor suffered a massive water leak. In Monaco both Haas drivers suffered MGU-K failures, as did Valtteri Bottas’s Alfa.
In Spain Charles Leclerc retired from the lead of the race with a problematic turbocharger, though there’s suspicion this had more to do with improper assembly rather than a technical failure given Ferrari’s unwillingness to state the cause.
There have been off-track problems too, notably Ferrari’s impressive mishandling of strategy in Monaco to throw away a front-row lockout. In sum, despite Leclerc storming to pole at all four races since receiving the new engine, he’s failed to convert any of them to victory.
It’s no wonder he looks and sounds so defeated.
Ferrari team boss Mattia Binotto had been open in admitting the team has a reliability problem even before the Baku horror show, but he admitted that a permanent fix is still some way down the line.
“I know our team is pretty strong in trying to ensure the reliability for the next few races, to cope with it, trying to make sure at least in terms of usage we’re protected, and for the medium to long term trying to address it,” said Binotto.
Clearly the attempts to protect the power units in Baku weren’t enough.
Leclerc has lost his title lead, Carlos Sainz has dropped to 67 points adrift and the team itself has moved to 80 points down on Red Bull Racing.
Ferrari faces a series of urgent problems with 14 rounds remaining.
The first is obviously to discover why its power unit is so prone to breaking and come up with a fix. But power unit development is time consuming and costly, and that’s not likely to come for some months. It will also come at the cost of the team’s general performance development.
Then Ferrari needs to understand whether the fixes are on the combustion side or the electrical side. Electrical development is still open until September, but combustion development is banned until 2026 except where a team can prove to the FIA a change is strictly for reliability reasons.
Finally, Ferrari needs to decide when it will bring a new engine to the track. If both Ferrari drivers will need new engines this weekend in Canada, their next fresh power units will incur heavy grid penalties for being over their season-long allocation. Picking a track that facilitates overtaking will be critical.
It’s too early to say the wheels have come off Ferrari’s campaign, and we’ve just seen proof of how quickly title fortunes can turn. But the Scuderia can’t afford another failure, if not for the points loss, then for the inevitable grid penalties that will compound bad results.
For the sake of the championship fight, Ferrari needs a quick fix.