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Out for the count: why Leclerc’s first-lap crash was so costly

Out for the count: why Leclerc’s first-lap crash was so costly

FORMULA ONE: The story of Ferrari’s season to date has been one of chaotic strategy calls and unreliable engines, but Charles Leclerc can now apportion to himself part of the blame for his fading title hopes.

By Michael Lamonato

Thursday 28 July 2022, 09:45AM

Leclerc’s Ferrari is lifted from the track at the French Grand Prix on Sunday (July 24). Photo: AFP

Leclerc’s Ferrari is lifted from the track at the French Grand Prix on Sunday (July 24). Photo: AFP

For 17 of 53 laps of the French Grand Prix on Sunday (July 24), Charles Leclerc looked on track for an unlikely victory.

The polesitter had fended off Max Verstappen at the start and put up a sturdy defence of position despite lacking the straight-line speed of his rival at a circuit that rewards engine power in overtaking.

Verstappen had been forced to pull the pit-stop trigger early to find an alternative way past. Leclerc just had to extend his first stint so he could end the race with fresher rubber. The outcome was uncertain, and he’d have to overtake for the lead, but he was sure he had the superior strategy.

Unfortunately the result of the tactical battle between the two cars playing to different strengths will remain unknown forever.

On lap 18 of 53 Leclerc spun off the track and into the wall. Unable to engage reverse, he was out of the grand prix, and Verstappen’s way was clear to cruise to an easy victory and grow his championship lead to an ominous 63 points.

Given Ferrari’s shocking run of unreliability this season, the early assumption was that the car must have let Leclerc down again, but the Monegasque dispelled those rumours immediately upon returning to the paddock.

“[It was] a mistake,” he lamented to British TV, before flying into a spectacular bout of self-castigation.

“I think I’m performing at my highest level in my career, but if I keep doing those mistakes, then it’s pointless to perform at a very high level.”

“I’m losing too many points - seven I think in Imola, 25 here,” he said, referring to his spin at the Emilia-Romagna Grand Prix that dropped him from third to sixth. “Honestly, we were probably the strongest car on track today.

“If we lose the championship by 32 points at the end of the season, I will know where they are coming from, and it’s unacceptable. I need to get on top of those things.”

It’s somewhat magnanimous of Leclerc to say he alone will cost himself the title when so many more points have been lost to his campaign for reasons entirely beyond his control.

A rough calculation suggests he’s lost in the vicinity of 26 points to strategy mistakes - victories in Monaco and Britain were turned into fourth places by the pit wall - which means he at worst is around an equal partner with the team in terms of scores lost through human error.

But his personal tally is dwarfed by the massive total obliterated by his unreliable car. A whopping 58 points have disappeared in puffs of engine smoke through unreliability, including his retirements from the lead in Spain and Azerbaijan and his subsequent engine penalty in Canada.

He’s guaranteed to need at least one new power unit this season, meaning more damage is still to come.

But Leclerc’s self-flagellation isn’t all just immediate post-crash guilt.

Ferrari’s strategy for this season was to aggressively develop as much power as possible into the engine regardless of the possible knock-on problems before the development freeze kicked in and locked the design. Crucially, however, the rules allow for changes to cure unreliability.

To secure a competitive future through to the new engine era starting 2026, the team was prepared to potentially sacrifice its 2022 campaign.

What that meant was that the human beings operating and managing the delicate car had to be flawless, and that’s unquestionably not been the case. Combined, Leclerc and the pit wall have cost his campaign 58 points, the same number lost through unreliability.

That is, even with two catastrophic power unit failures, he’d be only five points behind Verstappen for the lead of the championship.

Ironically it’s an enormous vindication of the high-risk development strategy that, even with so many car failures, Leclerc would still be comfortably in contention.

There are still 10 races to go to the end of the season, and Verstappen’s almost flawless run of results is unlikely to last. But it’ll take more than just luck for Ferrari and Leclerc to close the championship deficit from here.

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