🇪🇸 2022 Spanish Grand Prix
🇮🇩 2022 Monaco Grand Prix
🇦🇿 2022 Azerbaijan Grand Prix
Charles Leclerc should have won in both Spain and Monaco, but his Ferrari mechanicals let him down at Barcelona and Ferrari operations in Monaco. The beneficiary of the Scuderia’s defects both times was, inevitably, Red Bull, in Spain with Max Verstappen, in Monaco with Sergio Pérez. Baku offered the possibility at least of redemption for Leclerc, especially after yet another scintillating pole lap, his sixth in eight races. It ended in a smoky retirement from the lead and a feeling of dejection he couldn’t adequately express in words but which he didn’t need to as the eyes and body language said it all. Verstappen duly led a Red Bull 1-2, his Jim Clark/Niki Lauda-equalling 25th grand prix victory giving him a commanding lead in the world championship.
“Leclerc’s eyes and body language said it all after Baku”
Leclerc spun his first Q3 lap away and dramatically secured pole with his final one. His response to pressure is always to attack and it’s a thrilling trait when expressed in a very fast Ferrari. Title rival Verstappen was with him on the front row, courtesy of his first Q3 run, his second stymied by a DRS problem. That would come back to trouble the Red Bull on race day too, but only after he’d taken a trip through the Turn 4 gravel trap when on the tail of the race-leading Leclerc.
It lost him places to George Russell’s Mercedes as well as team-mate Pérez, who complied with a team request to ease Verstappen’s passage so he could attack the Mercedes. It was then that the DRS problem returned and it frustrated his efforts at passing the very defensive Russell in a much-improved Mercedes (see F1 Tech). Unable to get past on-track, Red Bull switched him from the intended standard Barcelona two-stop to a threestop strategy. That gave him enough clear air to express the Red Bull’s greater speed to get him past. Pérez had passed the Mercedes on track, with the help of DRS. Getting Verstappen past Pérez again required Pérez’s co-operation again. He called it “very unfair” while accepting it.
Verstappen’s incident had released Leclerc on his way to an apparently easy victory. But the Ferrari suffered a catastrophic turbo and MGU-H failure, and so the way was paved for a Red Bull 1-2. Russell’s Mercedes was third ahead of Carlos Sainz’s Ferrari, which had taken a trip through the same gravel trap as Verstappen and damaged its diffuser. Sainz only passed Lewis Hamilton’s recovering Mercedes near the end as the Merc’s engine was virtually out of coolant for the last couple of laps.
Hamilton was recovering from a first-lap hit with Kevin Magnussen, subsequent puncture and long drive to the pits which lost him 45sec. His pace though was impressive and suggested that without the delay he could have been fighting Pérez for second.
Ferrari locked-out the Monaco front row and ran a comfortable 1-2 in the race’s early stages at this track where overtaking is so close to impossible. Yet the cars finished only second and fourth…
It was a strategic disaster for the team and Red Bull pounced upon it errors to give Pérez his first victory of the season.
It all began going wrong for the Scuderia when a rainstorm crept over the mountain that towers over the principality and delayed the start. The worst of it had passed by the time the delayed race got underway behind the safety car and actually the track was easily ready for intermediate tyres when they did get going – but no-one could start with them, as the regulations demand full wets in any safety car start.
The full-wet design of Pirelli is often a problematical tyre – as Sebastian Vettel pointed out in very strong terms post-race – but with everyone on it and the field so tightly packed as the safety car came in, no-one other than a few gamblers at the back could afford to pit for the intermediate.
To do so would have lost far too many positions to those staying out. So everyone effectively locked everyone else into staying on the much slower tyre – at least until the field had spread enough that to stop wouldn’t lose you too many places.
This meant that the undercut, when it came, was going to be extremely powerful.
So long as you came out into clear space, you were going to be whole seconds faster on your intermediate-shod out-lap than your rival’s wet-shod in-lap. This would make it potentially tricky for Ferrari.
It became a classic theory contest where the correct strategy would be determined by what your rival did, but you had no way of knowing what that would be, as you were leading the race. The rival – in this case Red Bull – with nothing to lose, could always take the initiative (see F1 Strategy). Pérez undercut his way past Leclerc then overcut his way by Sainz, helped by Ferrari’s decisions and a couple of Ferrari delays behind backmarkers. Sainz took a rueful runner-up slot. Leclerc, the likely runaway winner had the race been dry, was even undercut out of third – by Verstappen – as he was delayed behind Sainz in the pits.
Pérez, fresh from his Monaco victory, is very much at home in a Red Bull more benign in its handling traits than last year’s car, which only Verstappen could properly exploit. Combine that with Pérez’s affinity with the Baku street circuit and he out-qualified Verstappen for the second time in as many races to put himself on the front row – albeit still over 0.3sec adrift of the flying Leclerc.
Ferrari introduced its new low-downforce rear wing here, reducing its disadvantage on the straights to the Red Bull, which carried an even skinnier wing. The Ferrari’s advantage was coming in the tight twists of the ‘old town’ middle sector. In Leclerc’s hands its more responsive neutral balance made it a sharper tool through the streets than the more inert Red Bull.
It looked set to be a tight contest between the two teams which, as usual, filled the first two rows, Verstappen ahead of Sainz on row two, with Russell’s severely bouncing Mercedes best of the rest. Pérez won the start and put impressive distance on Leclerc in the first two laps, the latter with his hands full fending off Verstappen. Ferrari’s troubles began on lap nine as Sainz pulled off with a sudden hydraulic failure.
A virtual safety car was applied, giving the opportunity of time-cheap pitstops, albeit earlier in the race than ideal. Pérez was called in, but after he’d already passed the pit entry lane. Leclerc, a couple of seconds behind, made it in and had a set of hard tyres fitted. Verstappen was instructed to do the opposite of Leclerc and so stayed out. This released him from behind the Ferrari and upon the resumption of racing allowed him to quickly close down Pérez, whose early hot pace on a heavy fuel tank seemed to have hurt his tyres, once they were allowed to cool during the VSC. He had no answer to the charging Verstappen who out-braked him for the lead on the 11th lap.
But Leclerc was only a few seconds behind them – and they still had to stop which, with the pack at full racing speed, lost them around 10sec more to that pack than Leclerc’s stop had cost him. As the Red Bulls pitted, Leclerc assumed the lead for the first time. It was set to be an intriguing fight – the Red Bulls coming back at the Ferrari on newer rubber but from quite a long way back. The outcome couldn’t be called at this early stage, especially as Verstappen had already shown in the first stint that the Red Bull’s straight-line speed advantage wasn’t necessarily enough to get it past, even if it could get close.
That battle didn’t get to play out as Leclerc’s car expired in a cloud of smoke. So a straightforward Red Bull 1-2 was put into place. Verstappen had over 40sec on Russell’s third-place Mercedes at the end. He in turn had around 20sec over team-mate Hamilton, who had been delayed in the first stint behind Pierre Gasly’s AlphaTauri, which took fifth ahead of Sebastian Vettel’s improving Aston Martin, then Fernando Alonso’s Alpine and the McLarens of Daniel Ricciardo and Lando Norris, the former making something of a mini-breakthrough in what’s been a desperately difficult season to date.
Ferrari’s boss Mattia Binotto was doing his best in trying to pull the team back together after yet another gut-punch. “We are focused just on ourselves,” he said, “focused trying to get the most out of our race weekends, trying always to improve ourselves. We know that to get to the top there’s still a gap. We are simply focusing on trying to improve ourselves race by race. I think it’s only at the end of the season that we do the sum and see where we are. So my only concern today is what are we lacking to do it all right. We had today reliability issues, the start of Charles was not perfect, we had an issue in the pitstop. There is still much to progress but we are not looking at the others, just focusing on ourselves.
“I cannot blame the team because I know how much work they have been putting in to address the performance deficit from the past. I know it’s a long journey. We didn’t get enthusiastic at the start of the season and we will not be devastated today.
“It’s a journey we are on, and there is still a massive step which is required. We will stay united and work hard. The job is not finished, but we will do it. “I prefer for us to have a car with good performance and try to fix the reliability than have a car that is already reliable but slow.”