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Charles Leclerc was happy to be back on the top step of the podium, but admits to having concerns about reliability following his team-mate Carlos Sainz’s engine problems.
The tension was palpable in the closing laps, and the relief was obvious after Charles Leclerc crossed the line on Sunday. “I definitely needed that,” said the Monegasque, having expertly overtaken Max Verstappen for the lead not once, not twice, but three times.
“Finally, we had a breakthrough good race.”
He may still be 38 points behind his main rival in the championship, but if Leclerc is going to celebrate that first Formula 1 world title come November, the Austrian GP may be the turning point we – and he – may remember, with Spielberg marking a return to prominence and an end to a woeful run of bad luck that followed a storming start to the season.
Leclerc looked set to increase what was already 19-point title advantage as he comfortably led the Spanish GP – 2022’s fifth race – coming up to the halfway stage before an engine failure. He would then face engine penalties in Canada, while odd Ferrari strategy decisions cost a leading Leclerc chances in Monaco, Baku and at Silverstone.
Seven rounds and three months after last getting on the top step at the Australian GP, Leclerc was undeterred by losing out to Verstappen in the Sprint – his decree that “we will get them tomorrow” after that mini race was a sign of his confidence – and was a driver possessed come lights out.
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Leclerc, so often the prey this season with Red Bull’s straight-line speed advantage, was the hunter. He surprised Verstappen up the inside of Turn 4 on Lap 12, before making the most of his tyre advantage into Turn 3 on Lap 33 and, decisively, out of that corner with 13 laps remaining.
Quicker than his team-mate throughout the weekend and displaying the excellent racing skills he has shown since breaking into F1 in 2018, Leclerc also needed his typical calm, composed style to handle the throttle issues that plagued his end to the race, with his pedal having stuck down in certain corners to cost him speed.
He eventually won by a couple of seconds and his title bid is well and truly back on track.
“I definitely needed it,” he said afterwards. “I mean, of course whenever I get to a new race since five races I have a smile on my face and I kept being optimistic, but obviously hard race after hard race, it just felt like everything was against me.
“So, finally we had a breakthrough good race today and it really feels good to have a win again.”
What happened to Red Bull? Are Ferrari faster?
The pattern of F1 2022 had been that Ferrari have speed on a Saturday and Red Bull have the advantage on a Sunday. Indeed, before Spielberg, Ferrari had seven poles and three wins, and Red Bull three poles and seven wins.
One of the Austrian GP’s big surprises therefore was that Verstappen did not, and seemingly could not, put up more of a fight.
The main issue for the Dutchman was tyre degradation. While Sunday was initially predicted to be a one-stop race, Verstappen was wearing his rubber much quicker than the Ferraris behind and was not able to keep Leclerc at bay before his first stop just after the first overtake.
Even though Verstappen was then fast on new tyres, Leclerc made light work of a six-second deficit out of the pits and an overtaking pattern, irreversible for Verstappen and Red Bull, was set up for the race.
“I expected it to be tough today, but I didn’t expect it to be like this,” said Verstappen, who was also complaining of traction out of the corners in the closing stages. “It’s just something we need to analyse and understand.”
His solace is that he only lost five points to Leclerc over the weekend, while his previous closest rival, team-mate Sergio Perez, had a point-less Sunday.
Of course, Ferrari’s pace must also not be glossed over.
Running a lower downforce rear wing than earlier in the season, Ferrari were just as quick as the previously dominant Red Bull on the straights and also, evidently, just as kind on their tyres as they were before.
That was a potent combination, one that changed the Red Bull vs Ferrari dynamic in Austria, and could very possibly change it going forward.
As much as this was a statement win for Leclerc, it was a statement win for Ferrari.
Ferrari’s achilles heel gives out again
The worry for Leclerc and Ferrari is that their big 2022 weakness was evident again on Sunday.
With better pace than Verstappen from both cars, it looked set to be a first one-two since April for the Scuderia as Carlos Sainz got into DRS range of the Red Bull. Cue engine smoke, then engine fire, and another DNF.
Make that four mechanical failures for Ferrari already this season.
Leclerc’s win coupled with Perez’s retirement means Ferrari did make up ground on Red Bull in the constructors’ championship, but people could validly argue that the Scuderia have had the fastest car in 2022. A 56-point deficit in the standings, therefore, is simply not good enough.
Team boss Mattia Binotto, who admitted he couldn’t even watch the last three laps due to his fear that Leclerc may suffer the same fate as Sainz, said the engine failure was “very likely” the same as Leclerc’s in Baku, adding: “It is certainly a concern. But the people back in Maranello are working very hard trying to fix them.”
“We need to get on top of this as quickly as possible,” stated Leclerc.
There could also be repercussions going forward. Just as Leclerc served an engine penalty in Canada, one is surely now looming for Sainz, while the Spaniard’s title bid – just a week after he appeared to kick-start it with a British GP win – could well be all over after falling 75 points behind Verstappen.
So Ferrari are fast, but fragile – and that could have a big say on this fascinating title race, too.
The intrigue continues with a double header before the summer break, starting with the French GP on July 22-24. Watch all the action live on Sky Sports F1.