RACING

Why Leclerc could become an all-time great F1 qualifier

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Charles Leclerc’s first disappointment after taking pole position in the Monaco Grand Prix is ​​telling.

By the time the red flags came out, Leclerc was at Tabac and on what could have been one of Monaco’s great Formula 1 pole laps.

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Instead, Leclerc had to fall back on his first time – a lap he described as simply “good”.

That says a lot about Leclerc’s relentless pursuit of perfect laps – a characteristic that means he could be on a trajectory that will make him one of F1’s greatest qualifiers of all time.

This is not a prediction, as extrapolating any driver’s future achievements in F1 based on their current situation is fraught with pitfalls given the myriad of factors that can influence their career. But it is rather an opportunity to reflect on the qualities that make Leclerc such a formidable qualifier.

To make the stats disappear, this Monegasque pole position was his 14th in F1, meaning he is still behind 21 drivers who have racked up more.

As for the benchmark stat, Lewis Hamilton’s astonishing 103 pole position run, at his current strike rate, Leclerc would need to take part in another 557 race weekends to achieve it.

But it’s not about the stats, just the fact that he could, under the right circumstances, rack up some terrific numbers.

Leclerc has taken four out of seven pole positions in 2022. Obviously, that partly depends on how strong the Ferrari is on a particular lap. But what matters is how Leclerc went about it.

Monaco is just one example of his virtuosity. In Spain he spun on his first lap in Q3, but he was willing and able to put it all on the line in his second race and claim pole position.

Think back to Singapore 2019 qualifying, where he produced a live masterpiece where he backed himself up to piece together the moments – of which there were several – when lesser drivers might have found themselves in the wall.

Another less advertised example is Interlagos in 2018 where, in the rain, he put the Sauber in the top 10 on slicks when others had given up hope of improvement.

It was just one of countless brilliant qualifying performances in cars unable to claim pole position, including during the most difficult periods of his Ferrari career.

This example from Interlagos illustrates one of Leclerc’s great skills. He has phenomenal sensitivity and feel for the grip available, which is especially vital when it comes to the conditions he faced at Interlagos.

Jenson Button, one of F1’s best drivers in mixed wet/dry conditions, summed up the value of that quality perfectly 10 years ago.

“It’s because I feel more through my body than through my eyes to get the feel of the car on the track,” Button said.

“When people see it’s raining, they immediately worry that there won’t be any grip.

“It’s about feeling it through the car rather than just looking at the rain and seeing it’s wet and thinking you have to brake early and be stable in the corners.”

But such sensitivity isn’t just useful in slippery conditions. Time and again we’ve seen Leclerc excel late in the qualifying laps when the rear tires overheat and you don’t know what grip there is.

Formula 1 World Motor Racing Championship Miami Grand Prix Qualifying Day Miami, USA

In Miami this year, it was the difference between him and Carlos Sainz in Q3 as they were neck and neck until turn 17, effectively the last corner, where Leclerc used all available traction but no more as Sainz spun. the backs and cost himself pretty close to his entire 0.190 deficit to Leclerc.

It’s this combination of feel and the ability and confidence to correct the times the car gets out of shape – as he has had to do on occasions when the rear of the Ferrari has misbehaved this year – that makes Leclerc so effective in qualifying. This allows him to consistently produce what Sainz called “crazy” speed.

The fascinating question is whether Leclerc will stay that way throughout his F1 career, which could easily last another 10-15 years. It’s less about whether it slows down or loses its edge and more about whether the expanded toolbox that comes with the experience means it’s less reliant on it.

After all, there are downsides to this approach. If you flirt so regularly with the edge on the base that you can pull it off the edge, sometimes you fall off the top of the wire. We saw it with Leclerc in Monaco last year when he crashed in the second half of Piscine.

Motor racing Formula One World Championship Monaco Grand Prix Saturday Monte Carlo, Monaco

Also, Spain’s example this year would have been very different if, say, an incident had interrupted their last race. Then, the absence of a banker’s trick would have cost him dearly. And who knows, if Monaco’s tour this year had continued, maybe Leclerc would have grabbed the wall? Probably not, but his style can lend itself to the occasional error.

Leclerc attributed some past mistakes to overtaking in less competitive cars, but like many drivers he is probably finding the perfect risk/reward balance – something Max Verstappen had to go through several years ago, and that Lewis Hamilton experienced earlier in his career.

There is also its technical evolution. As we saw at times last year, Sainz’s disciplined approach allowed him periods when he had the advantage in qualifying – beating Leclerc four out of six times in the final races. Leclerc, by his own admission, is less likely to detect certain limitations given his excellence in dealing with problems. But it’s something he’s gotten better at.

A valid point of comparison could be Hamilton, whose blistering speed made his F1 debut and is the foundation of his skill set, but was augmented by technical ability and a more all-around approach in the second half of his career.

But whatever happens, for now we are lucky to see a driver who is absolutely in the highest category in qualifying and who consistently puts in outstanding performances on Saturday. To be so strong against a proven great like Hamilton, an up-and-coming great like Verstappen and a host of up-and-coming talent shows just how brilliant Leclerc is on a lap.

It’s impossible to know if this will make him one of F1’s great qualifiers – or even the greatest – in the final calculation. But that certainly makes him a privilege to watch.

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