RACING

OPINION: Tease F1 title race

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Let’s be honest: 2022 didn’t have the fireworks of 2021, despite the many similarities between the two seasons.

Last year it felt like Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton had to go head-to-head at some point in most races, and that led to a few flashpoints and some robust moves that eventually spilled over into the collisions at Silverstone and Monza. So, at this point in the season, the touch paper had really been lit and the fire was not going to go out.

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Fast forward 12 months and we’ve seen Verstappen and Charles Leclerc rolling steadily too, with battles in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Imola and Miami setting the tone.

Still, that spark is somewhat lacking at the moment, although Verstappen and Leclerc have had plenty of tough fights in the past. These two know each other very well and have a history, but one advantage is missing.

Part of that is surely down to Verstappen’s experience. Despite all the confidence he has in his own abilities and the belief that he did nothing wrong when he collided with Hamilton at Silverstone last year, he is very aware that the points he missed by not conceding the corner almost cost him the championship.

Incidents like the Baku puncture were out of his hands, but those like Silverstone were in them and he could have entered that final race with a much easier task of trying to secure the title.

So when he and Leclerc were vying for the lead in Austria, there was a maturity for Verstappen that showed. He wasn’t going to make a bad day for Red Bull worse by being too aggressive and potentially opening the door for another 25-point swing, as happened last year. He had already learned how painful it could be this season with reliability issues in Bahrain and Australia where Leclerc won.

After the latter of those two failures, it looked like Verstappen would have a long, hard road to a title fight, as Leclerc had picked up two wins and a second place finish and Ferrari looked both consistent and quick. But that quickly reversed, with the two retirements as he led from pole position in Spain and Azerbaijan as part of a five-race podium-less streak.

That race ended in Austria, and it had to, just to create some doubt in Red Bull’s mind.

Either Leclerc led comfortably or Verstappen, but even at the crossover point the momentum was clearly with the Red Bull driver. Now Leclerc must start to regain that momentum, and Ferrari appears to have done its part with car upgrades that have closed the gap to Red Bull and given the Monegasque the machines to deliver with, as long as he holds his own. .

Leclerc turned the tide in Austria, but the next two races will be key to rekindling his title hopes. Images by Mark Sutton/motorsport

It really does feel like Leclerc needs to beat Verstappen in these next two races – no matter how that sounds – to put on any real pressure. At 38 points, Verstappen’s lead is still comfortable. He could finish second to Leclerc and see the Ferrari driver set the fastest lap until the end of the European season at Monza before relinquishing the championship lead. (Spin this lap and imagine Leclerc winning all the races but Verstappen is second with the fastest lap, and that would be Japan before the lead changed hands).

You don’t need me to tell you where the problem lies with these scenarios. And it’s not necessarily in Red Bull’s pace, but in Ferrari’s continued ability to stumble over itself. Even in Austria – where credit must go to Ferrari for the way it executed on Sunday putting pressure on Verstappen early on and forcing the leader into a sub-optimal strategy – there was what I started calling it the “Ferrari moment”. where something major goes wrong. On this occasion, it was the retirement of Carlos Sainz.

Leclerc has already been the victim of far too many Ferrari moments this season, with DNFs in Barcelona and Baku being complemented by strategic errors at Monaco and Silverstone. Execute those two runs correctly and Leclerc has 26 more points to his name, and the gap to Verstappen would be 12 at worst.

If I continue to expand the realms of the hypothetical, then if not for the magnitude of the failures that twice knocked him out of his mind, Leclerc wouldn’t have needed to start from behind in Canada either, where Ferrari had the car to beat Verstappen, too.

The reason I’m allowing the ifs and buts and maybes to come into play is because it shows how strong Ferrari has been this year, and how lucky it has blown in terms of the battle for the championship.

But it also gives that small hope that there could still be another epic season on our hands.

Ferrari doesn’t need to win every race to fight back, because with 11 races to go there is still plenty of time to chip away at Verstappen’s current advantage. But it could send a statement to Red Bull with a pair of strong results in France and Hungary, because on the balance of performance Christian Horner has to fear one thing more than anything else from Ferrari and that’s consistency.

Paul Ricard was a nightmare for Ferrari a year ago as Sainz and Leclerc qualified fifth and seventh respectively, but quickly slipped out of the points with excessive tire wear and the current championship contender was passed on the way an embarrassing 16th place.

It’s a very different landscape this time around, but there will still be lessons to be learned, just as there have been in several races so far this season. Should Ferrari back them up soon, the promise of a close battle for the title could start to come true again.

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