In motorsport, the old cliché that ‘second place is the first loser’ has become a lazy means of dismissing what an achievement a second place finish can be – especially in the unequal world of Formula 1.Charles Leclerc travelled to Bologna to collect his second place trophy at the FIA Gala – a token of his highest ever finish in the series – his downbeat demeanour betrayed just how badly Leclerc and his Ferrari team were beaten by Max Verstappen and Red Bull in 2022.
It started so promisingly. Ferrari arrived in Bahrain in with a genuine chance of fighting for the win and Leclerc promptly made the most of it, pipping Verstappen to the first pole position of the season. In the race, he faced down the new world champion fearlessly, fighting side-by-side with the Red Bull in a battle that was as hard as it was fair. Before Verstappen’s retirement in the closing laps, Leclerc had more than earned the first victory of the season, and ended Ferrari’s win drought and establish them as the early title favourites.
Another intense duel with Verstappen followed a week later in Jeddah, where Leclerc ultimately had to settle for second. But in Melbourne, he dominated. He stormed to pole by almost three tenths of a second and controlled the entire race, leading every lap to secure his second win in three races. Suddenly, Leclerc sat atop the drivers’ championship with almost double the points haul of any other driver and almost two full race wins’ worth over Verstappen.
But despite such a commanding early position, Leclerc proved he was not infallible the next round in Imola. After making Verstappen work hard to win in the sprint race, he dropped two places at the start of the grand prix, running behind Sergio Perez in third. Then, while trying to chase down the second Red Bull, he lost control at the Variante Alta and skidded into the barriers. Fortunately, he could continue, but his front wing was in need of repair. He eventually recovered to sixth, dropping a decent amount of points to Verstappen, who leapt up into second place in the championship.
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Pole in Miami was the perfect way for Leclerc to regain confidence. But in the race Verstappen was simply too strong to resist and he and Ferrari had to settle for second. In Spain, Leclerc looked unstoppable. He was fastest in every session and stormed to his fourth pole in six rounds – despite a spin on his first attempt in Q3. After beating Verstappen to the run to turn one, Leclerc could not have looked more comfortable out front. Then, without warning, his turbo suddenly exploded on lap 27. Race over. Zero points.
Heading to his home grand prix in Monaco, Leclerc was now behind Verstappen in the championship for the first time. Yet again he took pole, and even managed to start there, unlike last year. But while his car had let him down in Barcelona, Ferrari’s pit wall were the ones to ruin his race in Monte Carlo. A mix-up during a switch to slick tyres left him down in fourth and entirely unable to do anything to improve his position around the cramped street circuit.
Then in Baku, Leclerc’s suffered yet another setback. His fourth consecutive pole further demonstrated his raw speed – especially compared with his team mate Carlos Sainz Jnr – but a second power unit failure while leading in three races only dialled up the frustration to greater heights. As a result, he took a back-of-the-grid power unit penalty in Montreal, though he managed to recover to fifth place by the finish.
At Silverstone, another chance of a win disappeared completely when he was left out on old, hard tyres when the Safety Car was deployed late in the race. Leclerc was powerless to stop Sainz passing him and fell to fourth at the finish, despite putting up a strong fight against Sergio Perez and Lewis Hamilton. Leaving Britain, Leclerc’s deficit to Verstappen was now 45 points – a remarkable turnaround compared to how strong his position looked after the first three races. But that reversal had largely been in spite of Leclerc’s efforts, not because of it.
By strange coincidence, Leclerc’s luck would change at the circuit named for his rivals. Leclerc missed out on pole to Verstappen and had to hold off Sainz in the sprint race, but on Sunday, he was unstoppable. He overtook Verstappen for the lead of the race three separate times, then overcame a partially sticking throttle over the final laps to take his third victory of the season and throw himself right back into contention for the championship title.
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Following that up in France would be crucial to help Leclerc regain much-needed momentum heading into the summer break. He appeared to be on his way when he comprehensively took pole at Paul Ricard, with a little help from his team mate. For the first time since the early races, Leclerc fought head-to-head against Verstappen once more and managed to fend off his attacks through the early laps.
But after Verstappen pitted and Leclerc had to push, he threw away his entire weekend by losing control of his car at Beausset and spinning into the barriers – his third retirement from the lead of a race in the season and the first for which he was entirely to blame.
After another head-scratching strategy decision by Ferrari at the Hungaroring left him in sixth place and 80 points behind Verstappen, any realistic hopes of Leclerc clawing himself back into contention were almost dead. He caught more bad luck in Spa when he collected a tear-off in his brake duct early in the race which forced Ferrari to pit him early, then an attempt at the fastest lap point backfired comically when he broke the pit lane speed limit, costing him a position for zero gain.
By now, Verstappen and Red Bull were untouchable. As Verstappen continued to march towards the championship, Leclerc at least had the continued measure of team mate Sainz. Back-to-back poles at Ferrari’s home race at Monza and then Singapore helped pad his stats, but Ferrari had used up their development budget by this stage and began to be caught by Mercedes. Leclerc continued to fight hard on race days, however, even pushing the envelope too far in the case of the final lap at Suzuka, where he was demoted to third behind Perez after missing the final chicane. That decided the title in Verstappen’s favour with four races.
As Ferrari struggled to keep up with the Red Bulls near the end of the season, Sainz began to beat his team mate to the chequered flag for the first time during the year. But Leclerc was again getting no favours from his team, who decided to send him out on a still-dry Interlagos on intermediate tyres in Q3, then call him into change back to slicks too late.
But in Abu Dhabi, with nothing to race for other than the ‘honour’ of being the first driver to lost to Verstappen, Leclerc put in his best drive over the second half of the season. He pushed himself and his tyres to the limit to make a one-stop strategy work and keep just out of reach of a pursuing Perez to hold onto second place at the finish. As typical of Leclerc’s season, he had toiled hard, but was ultimately rewarded with very little.
Leclerc’s most successful season with Ferrari had also been his most frustrating, where his early dreams of fighting for the world title for the first time in his career vanished into air like smoke from the rear of his car. But at least for the first part of the season, Leclerc demonstrated he has the steely nerve required to fight against a world champion like Verstappen on an equal footing. And with his former Sauber team principal Frederic Vasseur guiding him next season, Leclerc knows he can head into 2023 more confident of his own brilliant abilities than ever before.
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