'Ferrari can still win the F1 title — if Leclerc steps up': Johnny Herbert

Despite giving a haul of points to Red Bull, there are enough races left for Ferrari to regain its lead in the F1 championship

Johnny Herbert at the 2012 European Grand Prix in Valencia. Photo: Grand Prix Photo

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These are worrying times for Ferrari. Go back to winter testing and the team looked bulletproof. There were two early wins for Charles Leclerc in Bahrain and Australia, a 34-point lead after Albert Park – before it slowly started to go Pete Tong… the engine failure while leading in Barcelona began the rot, then came the strategy error that lost Leclerc the victory in Monaco.

And in Baku, Carlos Sainz had a hydraulic failure and when Charles’s engine blew it sounded from the onboard like it ate itself from the inside out! Awful.

The engine problem is potentially a massive issue. First they have to find the problem, then they have to sort it out. And it’s not like these failures are happening at the end of races either. The one in Baku was 20 laps into the race and it appeared to be a fundamental deep engine failure. Writing before the race in Montréal, that’s a concern for the championship too because Ferrari has given away so many points to Red Bull.

But it’s not over yet. There are still plenty of races left, and while the team must clearly respond this is also the time for Leclerc to step up as a leader. In Baku, I gave the example of Damon Hill in 1994, when he stepped up at Williams in the wake of Ayrton Senna’s death. He dug deep and worked very hard to help steer the team. That’s what Michael Schumacher used to do, what Mika Häkkinen did at McLaren and what Max Verstappen has done at Red Bull. All the greats influence what happens within a team.

“Ferrari must allow Binotto, with his experience, to sort it out”

Had the engine lasted, would Leclerc have been able to hold off Verstappen after his early stop for hard Pirellis? Before he stopped there was already radio talk that he was overheating the rear tyres, so they might have been struggling in the later stages. But look at Fernando Alonso: he also changed early and came on the radio to say, “This is risky, I’m going to run 0.3sec slower,” and that’s what he did. Then he came back on and said, ‘This seems better now.” He felt what was going on, backed off and then stepped it up without anyone telling him. The best are able to understand how to manage such a situation. So Charles might have been able to do something similar to make it work for him.

Instead, the dynamic in the team has changed and you could see that on their concerned faces. Mattia Binotto is a very calm character and hopefully that will help. Should we doubt his future at the team? Last year there was talk of pressure. In the past there was always a Ferrari blame culture, a tendency towards finger pointing at whose fault it was. I hope we don’t get that now because it could destroy Ferrari’s challenge.

I don’t think it will happen this time because of Binotto. The answer isn’t changing the man at the top. I like him and the calmness he brings. It would be totally wrong and devastating to get rid of him because it would destroy the morale of the team – and remember, all is not lost. They mustn’t go into panic stations but rather allow Binotto, with his experience, to sort it out. The problem is the races come thick and fast. There’s never enough time in F1. There are question marks over how Ferrari will respond and losing two engines will hurt Leclerc later in the season, even if the team does manage to get it together.

But for now, it’s up to Ferrari to prove it can turn things around, as Mercedes and Red Bull have in recent years.

Leclerc is certainly resilient enough to deal with this situation. He’s very calm too – he has the desire and the raw natural ability. He also feels wanted within the team and there will be a desire within Ferrari to pay him back and give him what he needs. Yes, he’s young but this current generation that includes Max and George Russell have all proven how mentally tough they are. Don’t forget how Charles broke Sebastian Vettel in his own team when they were first together at Ferrari. That shows he has the strength.

One thing that could be an advantage to him is internal pressure on Max. I’ve heard there’s been a change in him because of the threat Sergio Pérez has now become. He’s had to deal with Leclerc, but now he has a challenge within Red Bull too. That disrupts the harmony in the team, which Red Bull might have to control. It’s down to Sergio, who didn’t have a great race in Baku at a track that usually suits him. But he is an important key to this championship, if he does make it more difficult for his team-mate – and he could make it tricky for Charles as well. There’s plenty to keep this championship very interesting.

Johnny Herbert was a Formula 1 driver from 1989-2000 and a Le Mans winner in 1991. He is a regular contributor to Sky Sports F1
Follow Johnny on Twitter @johnnyherbertf1