Is a greater threat to Verstappen’s title hopes than Leclerc starting to appear?

2022 F1 season

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Three races into the season, Ferrari supporters had good reason to believe Charles Leclerc would deliver the first championship for one of their drivers in 15 years.

He’d opened his account with two wins and a second place, the latter a narrow defeat to Max Verstappen in Saudi Arabia. Red Bull suffered reliability problems in the other races which kept the champion from scoring.

At this early stage in proceedings, Leclerc was already 34 point clear of his closest rival, and Verstappen lagged 46 off the lead. But since then the situation has dramatically reversed.

Red Bull are undefeated in six straight races and Verstappen has built up an imposing lead. Meanwhile Leclerc has fallen to third in the standings, and may no longer be the driver Verstappen has to worry about the most.

Is Leclerc still the driver most capable of beating Verstappen to the championship, or is another rival emerging which represents a greater threat?

Sergio Perez

Sergio Perez, Red Bull, Monaco, 2022
Perez took a fine win at wet Monaco
Going into the first season under F1’s drastically overhauled regulations, Perez hoped the complete reset in Red Bull’s design would help him find greater confidence at the wheel of their car. That has proved to be the case.

He’s narrowed the gap to Verstappen in qualifying and even took the first pole position of his career in Saudi Arabia, where his hopes of victory were dashed by the Safety Car. Another potential win passed him by in Spain, where Red Bull were quick to instruct him to let his team mate past after Verstappen spun, only for Perez to then lose time behind the team’s other car as it was plagued by a DRS fault.

So it’s fair to say Perez could be a little closer to his team mate with better luck. He and Verstappen have also had the same number of race-ending technical failures so far. But Perez’s hopes of catching and passing his team mate rest on being able to decisively out-race him each weekend in the same equipment. As Verstappen already leads him by six wins to one, that seems unlikely.

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Charles Leclerc

Charles Leclerc, Ferrari, Albert Park, 2022
Leclerc’s early-season promise faded quickly
Over the past six races Leclerc has lost a whopping 95 points to Verstappen. How has that happened, and do the reasons offer any realistic hope of a turnaround?

Undoubtedly the greatest cause of Leclerc’s grief has been Ferrari’s unreliability. Not only have power unit failures cost him a nailed-on win in Spain and a likely one in Azerbaijan, but the consequent penalties compromised his race in Canada, where Ferrari were quick enough to win. He has lost more to unreliability than Verstappen, who also retired from two races, albeit while running second in both, and has not yet had any power unit penalties.

Ferrari compounded their car problems with poor strategy in Monaco (amplified by misfortune with traffic). Leclerc has also suffered by his own hand, however, spinning precious points away in Imola.

The strong card he can rely on is his dependably excellent one-lap pace which has made him a victory threat week-in, week-out. But he must start capitalising on it or his championship will soon be a lost cause.

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George Russell

George Russell, Mercedes, Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya, 2022
W13’s shortcoming’s haven’t kept Russell out of top five
Fourth place in the championship, just 15 points off Leclerc, is far higher than Russell should be. This impressive feat has come about for three reasons.

Russell has shown characteristic maturity in his first opportunity at a top team, particularly given the difficulties Mercedes face with their W13, and never failed to finish outside the top five. That is also credit to Mercedes’ reliability: Each of the drivers ahead of him in the points has had two retirements.

Clearly Russell has also benefited from Mercedes’ approach to solving the problems it has with the W13, and team mate Lewis Hamilton shouldering more of the burden of running experimental, sometimes quite radical set-up options.

But for Russell to be a championship contender, nothing less than an immediate and major breakthrough is required of Mercedes. As the series shifts away from the predominantly temporary circuits of recent races to the more traditional permanent venues coming up, they may find more tracks at which they can control their car’s ride better and improve their performance. Still, the leap they need to make is huge, and it will be a shock if they pull it off.

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Carlos Sainz Jnr

After a shaky start, Sainz’s confidence is growing
In contrast to Perez, Sainz found his form quickly at his new team last year, but made a shaky start to his second season as a Ferrari driver. However there are encouraging signs he’s put that behind him.

Sainz couldn’t measure up to Leclerc’s pace in the opening races, spun out early in Melbourne and succumbed to first-lap contact in Imola. That plus Ferrari unreliability in Azerbaijan badly dented his points-scoring.

He’s made patient progress in the meantime, gaining a feel for the F1-75’s lively rear end which his team mate clicked with so readily. He has been quick enough to win on occasions, such as in Monaco where he was egregiously impeded by a backmarker, and last weekend where he compromised his starting position with an error on his final qualifying lap.

Sainz’s Saturday form looks like the last detail he needs to fix to become a regular contender for wins. But a 73-point deficit to Verstappen puts him a long way out of contention, even with up to 372 points still available.

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Lewis Hamilton

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes, Circuit Gilles Villeneuve, 2022
There’s little chance of Hamilton getting his eighth title this year
If Russell’s championship chances rest on the slim hope Mercedes are going to suddenly make a miracle breakthrough, the same goes for Hamilton only even more so. The driver who came within one controversial lap of securing a record-breaking eighth world championship last year is almost 100 points off the lead just nine races into 2022.

There’s no doubt we haven’t seen the best from Hamilton yet this year, his potential masked by a poor car and the aggressive development push to put it right. But even if it all comes good quickly a title push is surely too much to hope for. The best potential outcome for Hamilton this year may be that manages to avoid recording his first ever win-less season.

Is Verstappen’s biggest threat a driver?

The huge rises in costs all teams are facing this year has put several of them at risk of failing to meet the budget cap. Verstappen’s Red Bull team principal Christian Horner has been by far the most vocal on this subject, repeatedly urging the FIA to take action.

He has even raised the possibility it could have an impact on the championship. “None of us want to end up at the end of the season all rushing to courts of appeal in Paris saying ‘he spent a million dollars more than we did’ and so on,” Horner warned at the Monaco Grand Prix.

But while some teams have strongly opposed any moves to relax the cap, there have been signs in recent races that an arrangement will be made to account for the rising inflation which has increased many teams’ costs. Hopefully that will reduce the risk of an even more acrimonious end to the season than the last one.

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Over to you

Is Leclerc still Verstappen’s most significant opponent in the championship fight? Does he have one at all? Have your say in the comments.

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Author information

Keith Collantine
Lifelong motor sport fan Keith set up RaceFans in 2005 - when it was originally called F1 Fanatic. Having previously worked as a motoring...

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39 comments on “Is a greater threat to Verstappen’s title hopes than Leclerc starting to appear?”

  1. One thing to factor in that Verstappen, with his six wins so far, can only have one race winning competitor to be taken off of his throne, unless he’s somehow hit with a long bout of technical failures (like, more than 4 or 5 no-scores in the remainder of the season). If his competition trade wins amongst each other, none of them can rival Verstappen, who will no doubt win more races of his own.

    Perez can be discounted as a serious threat. He’s not beating Max consistently, he’s won one race and it was one where overtaking was literally impossible or he would have not won, he’s just not a threat to Max in the team. But he can be a threat to Ferrari in some of the races, and maybe steal a few wins from them.

    Leclerc is a legitimate threat, probably the only threat, with his excellent qualifying results placing him ahead of Max on track for a lot of races, he cannot be discounted. That said, as long as Max can finish 2nd or -at worst- 3rd in races that Leclerc wins, Charles has no chance of beating him over the remainder of the season.

    Sainz is too far behind and not quicker than Charles, he can’t be a threat simply because it’s guaranteed he won’t get the results needed.

    The Mercedes pair need some kind of miracle to save them from their underperforming car, but let’s say that happens and they can fight for race wins alongside Ferrari and Red bull, then you still have the problem of having two drivers that get in each other’s way. Russell is performing very well and if the team lets him, he can finish ahead of Hamilton on merit. Hamilton of course is Hamilton, he will be good for race wins if the material lets him either way. This means that they either impose team orders from now onwards to favour one driver over another, or they let them fight and one or the other will come ahead at different races, taking valuable points from one another to pose a WDC challenge. Mercedes needs a clear number one (and said miracle recovery in their car design) to be a threat to Max.

    All that said, there’s always the chance that Max gets a string of bad luck and the cards change, but if he does not and the team and he himself stay in the form they have, they’ve got both championships in the bag.

    1. petebaldwin (@)
      24th June 2022, 14:10

      The last sentence is the key bit. Max has an engine issue which puts him out of the race and requires a change meaning he has to start from the back of the grid for the next race (as we saw with Leclerc). Suddenly, the situation changes dramatically.

      He’s in a great place at the moment in the standings but the Red Bull is far from bullet-proof. Obviously, the Ferrari is even further from bullet-proof so it’s likely they’ll have more issues this year as well…

  2. No.

    In order to challenge Max to the championship, the prerequisites for a contender are to have:
    – a fast enough car
    – a reliable enough car
    – the talent and confidence needed for maximum pace
    – a realistically bridgeable gap in points

    Leclerc in my view is the only one to have all 4 of these, the other contenders all lack one or more.

    1. Whether or not the Ferrari is fast enough is debatable. Over one lap it is, but even when Leclerc has taken pole, Verstappen has on multiple occasions had little issue flying past the low top speed Ferrari. Leclerc has also been somewhat complacent in defending those positions, perhaps accepting that Red Bull was faster on the day and expecting that Ferrari would win plenty of other races. Problem is; they haven’t.

      Verstappen’s lead in the championship is actually extremely impressive considering the huge advantage Leclerc had over him after Australia; it even prompted Verstappen to dismiss talk of a championship. After a good first few races, Ferrari’s title challenge has collapsed almost beyond fixing through driving errors, tactical mistakes, lack of reliability, a lackluster second driver, and no fix in sight to their #1 issue when it comes to actual races: low top speed. It means they get stuck in traffic more so than Red Bull, can’t meaningfully oppose a DRS-assisted challenge, and even when they have the DRS-assistance they can’t overtake the Red Bulls.

      That said, it’s absolutely true that everyone except Leclerc is not a serious contender. Pérez and Sainz aren’t quick enough, and Mercedes can beat Alpine and collect points when Red Bull and Ferrari DNF, but their car is simply too slow.

      As an aside, I’m not sure I understand the graph. Are the bars supposed to stack? It seems to want to show the percentage of points a driver has scored out of all available points, but then why not just show a percentage?

      1. Leclerc has also been somewhat complacent in defending those positions

        Don’t know what’s that supposed to mean! Jeddah I think it’s proof enough LEC tried everything to the point of getting at least a warning if not even a penalty because he simply did not want to lose his position. Ferrari is simply no match to RBR on the long straights when the car behind is RBR and has DRS. So, as we’ve seen from him in 2018 and 2019 especially, I think LEC is doing really a hard and fair fight for position, I’m a fan but don’t think I’d like to see him become WDC by sending VER into the barriers…. Silverstone or not.

      2. Those bars stack, yes. It shows points gained and potential points still to be gained. The full bar shows the maximum amount of point a driver can end on this season, given they would win every race, fastest lap, etc. So in theory, all those on there can still win it.

    2. I would regard George as the biggest challenger, as soon as Mercedes gets their desired rule change. His consistency is stellar and their reliability easily better than both Ferrari and RedBull.

  3. There are several drivers capable of taking the fight to Verstappen, it comes down to who has the better overall car at the moment. just like Mercedes had the best overall driver/car combination that won 7 titles. It looks like the Verstappen/Redbull combo is looking good at the moment.

  4. Practical answer : Verstappen

    Fairy tale answer : Leclerc

    Magical no team order in Redbull answer : Perez

    1. While it’s true Pérez is quite obviously not supposed to take points from Verstappen as far as Red Bull is concerned, he also hasn’t shown any reason to think he could challenge Verstappen over a season if Red Bull let him. It’s like Bottas and Hamilton in that sense; Bottas could outpace Hamilton two or three times a year, but there was never any serious sign that he could keep that up throughout the season.

      1. Fully agree with that. One Monaco doesnt suddenly throw you in the competition.

      2. Exactly and the same for schumacher and barrichello\irvine\massa, number 1 and 2 contracts are redundant when the number 1 is significantly faster, and when the number 2 is actually competitive, you see that they give troubles to the number 1, ricciardo 2014, leclerc 2019, russell 2022.

    2. José Lopes da Silva
      26th June 2022, 9:49

      While it’s true Barrichello is quite obviously not supposed to take points from M. Schumacher as far as Ferrari is concerned, he also hasn’t shown any reason to think he could challenge M. Schumacher over a season if Ferrari let him. It’s like Berger and Senna in that sense; Berger could outpace Senna two or three times a year, but there was never any serious sign that he could keep that up throughout the season.

  5. The answer is clearly no (and the article contributes little to debate this), hence I don’t quite understand the point of asking the question in the first place ! :)

    1. I think the title of this article is worded like this due to the increasing riks that it’s not a car but the budget cap being the biggest threat to Verstappen.

      1. Or an in season rule change again to level the field… happened last year with the tyres, I foresee it happening again with the suspension set up. This will immediately throw George and Lewis in the mix.

  6. Any rational F1 fan knows that only Leclerc can challenge Verstappen.

    Perez wasn’t, isn’t, and will never be a threat for the Dutchman. First and foremost because he is never been consistently quicker than Max. Second, because he is clearly Red Bull’s number 2 driver.

    Sainz has never won a race and never outqualified Leclerc this year. He is Ferrari’s 2nd driver.

    Mercedes drivers. Is it really worth talking about them? Mercedes has been 0.5 off RB/Ferrari’s pace at best this year. Reliability is the only reason why they are not 150 points behind Verstappen.


    1. albo94 Hard to argue that. I was going to say whatever ‘force’ might challenge Max it has to be a single force. If it is a mix of forces they’ll be splitting points while Max grabs lion’s shares. Has to be Leclerc as Max’s most potent threat.

    2. petebaldwin (@)
      24th June 2022, 14:13

      I think it’s a bit unknown with Mercedes at the moment. They looked rapid in Spain but that’s been forgotten about because we then went to 3 street circuits that caused them major issues.

      It could play into Max’s hands though if the Mercedes is back in the fight as that’ll mean 4 drivers fighting for wins which makes it even harder to catch up.

      1. Well, if three consecutive tracks “don’t suit the car”, I think that’s too much of a trend to be considered an anomaly. I’d rather say there may be tracks that suit their car better, but on average most tracks don’t because they show the car’s true potential (which is 3rd best car).

      2. @petebaldwin True but I really don’t think Mercedes are back in the fight.

  7. The only dirver that could face a real threat to Max is Charles, however the reliability issues that the Ferrari have did not helped him, since Max, Perez, Charles and Carlos, all can win races (Well Carlos has the pace to it at least), mixtured with 2 or 3 surprises like Hungary last year, Max already has a hand on the title, sadly i think, but it is what it is. F1 is a no error sport and Max and RBR were who failed less for know.

    1. Ferrari engine reliability is the obvious key here. It’s not possible that since the first failure (and before) Ferrari hasn’t been burning the midnight oil not only solving the issue, but capitalizing on the opportunity to also increase output. Being quicker in the corners but slower in the straights than the Japanese powered Red Bulls AND the French Alpines is simply unacceptable to the Italians. Can’t you just hear the anguished howls and the gnashing of teeth outside the engine design rooms at the factory?! Being this close after this long, whatever it takes, Ferrari is not going to let this win get away. I believe we can expect a big change soon. Certainly Red Bull must.

  8. Sainz is not up to the job, so even if Ferrari get their act together, it’s unlikely they’ll score enough one-twos to take enough points from Max. If in a few weeks time Merc get things right, perhaps a combination of the Mercedes drivers and Charles could take enough points from Max to at least make it interesting.

  9. Clearly Russell has also benefited from Mercedes’ approach to solving the problems it has with the W13, and team mate Lewis Hamilton shouldering more of the burden of running experimental, sometimes quite radical set-up options.

    We all know this is a bit of a blown-up narrative.
    Firstly, it’s normal to run development parts first on one car before potentially rolling it out.
    Also, it would be extremely embarrassing for Mercedes if most development parts did not work and made the car run slower.
    Does this then mean that when Russel lost against Hamilton that it wasn’t necessarily driver performance but could rather be an experimental part that did work?

  10. Holdingmybreathforgoodnews
    24th June 2022, 16:35

    There is no threat, this is going to be one of the easiest won WDC on record.

  11. Mmmm… I’m sensing that the press already knows that Max will let all of us without big dramas to read this year. The only stories to write about is: when will Max clinch the title or how perfect he has been this season.

  12. Nuckley Brake
    24th June 2022, 17:25

    It’s not too late yet for Merc & George Russell

  13. The only reason to say, maybe, is if ferrari can consistently lock out the front row on Saturdays and make verstappen have to scrap a little on opening laps and perhaps lose time behind a Mercedes’ or Gasly. That’s when you can lose a wing, get a flat, crash. It also puts strategic pressure on RBR. In this way they could claw back points over time. Ferrari has Saturday pace.

    As for Mercedes everyone thinks this car would dominate if they just solved their differential equations for the porpoising so they could soften up the car a bit to avoid the bouncing and let them take curbs. But I think this is another mp19—an amazing breakthrough design in the wind tunnel but a mess on the track.

  14. In normal and fair sport, Perez would be #1 clear threat.

    But as it seems we have team orders, interesting strategy choices, etc.

    It is very clear who Redstappen Bull is picking for the winner.

    Perez needs to prove himself to be a Rosberg, not Bottas next to a dominant driver.

    Right now Perez had more of bad luck, so he is down on points, but maybe over a course of 5 seasons with a dominant car Perez might snatch a WDC somewhere.

    But right now Red Bull seem to favour Max a bit to much. Rosberg was mostly equal, Mercedes did not throw him under the bus on strategy.. But Also Rosberg was able to qualify better than Hamilton often, had a series of those 9 wins in a row.

    It takes an incredible streak of good luck and awesome performance to rattle a top driver.

    So far he is more of a rear gunner, the first of the loosers so to say. But Verstappen has show minimum weakness this year, maybe that is enough?

  15. I can’t see red bull really letting perez challenge Max, but moreso I can’t really see perez sustaining a championship challenge against Max. I’d be pleasantly surprised if he did though. I think Leclerc is still the most likely challenger but that will largely depend on Ferrari’s reliability. On the current trajectory it won’t be long before Max can be content with 2nd places and still cruise to the championship. Ferrari really needs to get on top of things. The other factor is if Mercedes truly find consistent pace they’ll start stealing points which were Ferrari’s for the taking in the early season. I just hope we see some genuine challenge and not a repeat of 2013…

  16. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that his biggest threat is his dad…
    Don’t know how or when (maybe in some other year), but I get the feeling he’s going to interfere at some point and it will end in tears for both.

  17. The biggest threat to Verstappen right now is reliability. That’s the one area where Russell has an actual advantage.

    Max is almost certain to require a 4th power unit this season, and possibly a 5th.

    Will Hamilton support Russell? Hard to say– He’s said it before, but it would definitely place him in unfamiliar territory.

  18. @jureo Yeah that’s a fair assessment imho. Checo has the car and the opportunity, but he has to do what NR and VB needed to do (read: all drivers) which is come out swinging from race ones of seasons. You take wins, you shut out all comers from heading you in points, and you become the teams’ go to guy throughout and in the end.

    1. Meant to attach to your comment.

  19. Last year here was talk of how using ‘additional’ power unit components impacted on the WDC.

    While the FIA have a convoluted place penalty system it doesn’t stop a team theoretically using afresh power unit each weekend.

    A simple fix is available. Perhaps the same could be done with the budget, the problem being that the accounts aren’t submitted until some time later than the end of year gala.

  20. Like some others, I see Leclerc as the only one who could still realistically beat him to this season’s championship on merit, but their points gap should start getting smaller for a change.

  21. Unscientifc graph as it does not account for the chain of events nor the future.
    Russell and merc are going to be Max’s biggest title threats as predicted in pre season, ferrari’s early pace ran on further than I had anticipated still the team has made sure not to capitalize on it, again, as expected. Rueda and sainz jr are 2 elements that prove Binotto either had no power or jo foresight.

  22. I’ve been a long time reader (and few times commenter) of F1 Fanatics. I find increasingly difficult to cope with the Hamiltonitis, and now Russellitis, Keith suffers from.

    If this were to be journalism, proper journalism, this will limit itself to telling us the facts without interpretation (meaning taking sides, not when the subject actually needs interpretation —rules, strategy), but this is a sports site where objectivity is all but unexpected. Thus, we have to suffer almost reading Russell is a superhero, Mercedes would be pre-Olympian gods if they pull it off, and Lewis “formerly known as the driver who came within one controversial lap of securing a record-breaking eighth world championship last year” Hamilton is carrying an atlantean weight.

    Again, one doesn’t expect journalism from a sports site, but a tad less favoritism would be nice.

    (Shout for all F1NGers, if any!)

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