Red Bull drivers now beginning to cross swords – as Leclerc watches title slip away


The new generation of F1 cars has made fight between all four Red Bull drivers fascinating – as Leclerc finds himself at the mercy of Ferrari's reliability woes


Perez is now a genuine factor in the battle at the front

Red Bull

The harsh reality that Ferrari has to face is that after the Australian Grand Prix, round three, Charles Leclerc had a 46-point lead over Max Verstappen in the world championship. Commentators were already banging on about nobody losing a bigger championship advantage than that since Fernando Alonso in 2012 – also at Ferrari, incidentally. But now, Verstappen has a 34-point advantage over Leclerc – an 80-point swing in just five races!

It’s an extraordinary turnaround. Equivalent, if you like, to Verstappen standing on the smallest step of the podium with fastest lap in five successive races and Leclerc not finishing in the top 10 once.

The reason it’s a bit of a shocker is that we had become accustomed to almost metronomic reliability despite the technical complexity of F1’s hybrid power unit era, beginning in 2014, and its associated energy recovery systems.

The only bright spot on the Ferrari horizon is that its car has pace. Poor Leclerc would have won the last three grands prix without his reliability issues in Spain and Azerbaijan and some cack-handed Ferrari strategy in Monaco, although Baku would have been mighty interesting with the need for a 42-lap stint on the hard tyre and, unusually, no safety car intervention.

LECLERC Charles (mco), Scuderia Ferrari F1-75, portrait during the Formula 1 Azerbaijan Grand Prix 2022, 8th round of the 2022 FIA Formula One World Championship, on the Baku City Circuit, from June 10 to 12, 2022 in Baku, Azerbaijan - Photo Florent Gooden / DPPI

Leclerc is seeing the championship slip through his fingers

Florent Gooden / DPPI

Already though, you have the feeling that Red Bull, after claiming five races on the bounce and getting firmly on top of its own reliability issues that saw Verstappen retire twice in the first three races, will be too strong. Max barely makes an error and the team is operationally superb.

Ferrari team principal Mattia Binotto, recently told the Italian media that Ferrari’s aim for 2022 is not necessarily to win the championships but to compete for them. As fundamentally an engine man, it made you wonder what he already knew that he isn’t saying…

Leclerc, meanwhile, is driving superbly but, with reliability issues and no other team in the same performance stratosphere as Red Bull / Ferrari, any issue is hugely costly, perfectly illustrated by that huge swing.

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“It’s a concern,” Binotto admitted last weekend. “We said before Baku that reliability is key. We pushed a lot to improve the car over the winter. We need to understand because the issues are not the same. I don’t have the answers yet.”

Until he does, it’s impossible to say whether there can be a rapid improvement in Ferrari’s race fortunes. Carlos Sainz was out after just nine laps in Azerbaijan and of the six Ferrari power units in the race, four failed to see the chequered flag.

“Carlos’s hydraulics issue can be a quick fix but with the other problems we need to keep patience and analyse,” Binotto said. “The same with the supplier engines. The problem for Zhou is maybe not related but we at least we get feedback from the others. The advantages of supplying is not financial, it’s more technical.”

Not so sure that Guenther Steiner or Freddy Vasseur would see it quite like that, but there you go.

Another interesting thing from the first third of the season has been the effect that the regulations seem to have had on driving styles. The heavier 2022 cars and a bit more inherent understeer seem to have impacted those drivers whose pace advantage was derived from an ability to cope with an especially ‘pointy’ car with a very strong front end.

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Perez has found the new generation of cars much more to his liking – and has drawn closer to Verstappen accordingly

Red Bull

The most graphic change has been how much closer Sergio Perez has been to Verstappen’s pace. Previously, anyone save a 2016/17 Daniel Ricciardo was struggling to qualify very much better than half a second shy of Max. Over the entire ’21 season, Verstappen’s average qualifying margin over Perez was 0.44sec. Going to Baku, that margin for ’22 had shrunk to just 0.07sec, with Sergio reducing it still further when he outqualified Max by 0.06sec in Azerbaijan.

Perez has always been very good around Monaco and exceptional around Baku – probably better than anyone over a single lap except for Leclerc. He even qualified a Force India on the front row there in 2016 before getting a bit too greedy in T15, crashing, needing a fresh gearbox and taking a five-place hit. But there was also that outstanding pole position lap in Jeddah earlier this year.

In the race this time though, he suffered more rear tyre degradation than Verstappen and having to give best to Max was a genuine pace issue rather than a team instruction despite the “no fighting” edict from the pit wall.

Christian Horner though, offered some valid insight when he said, “Sergio was magic in qualifying but maybe we prioritised qualifying a bit more on his side of the garage. He got into some rear tyre graining a bit more quickly than Max did in the race. All we asked of them was to give each other room, and they did that. It was a very mature drive by Max and redemption for last year.” The last thing they wanted was a repeat of Verstappen / Ricciardo in 2018…

In a similar way that Perez has been much closer to Verstappen, so has Yuki Tsunoda to Pierre Gasly over at Red Bull’s junior team, AlphaTauri.

Last season, there was an average gap of 0.6sec between the Japanese rookie and the stand-out Frenchman over the season. Okay, you had to cut Yuki some slack in a rookie F1 season, but it did start to prompt questions as to whether he was in the right place.

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Tsunoda has been much more of a match for Gasly in 2022


This time though, Gasly has struggled to access the same sort of single lap speed that saw him qualify in the top six 15 times last year. He had not managed it once prior to his excellent performance in Baku last weekend, when he lined up just over a tenth shy of George Russell’s fifth-placed Mercedes. But there, just two slots behind him, making Q3 for the second time this year, was Tsunoda. The average qualifying gap between the pair this year has been just 0.08sec. In boxing, they say, styles make fights, whereas in F1, it seems, understeer fights make – or hinder – styles.

You really do hope that Ferrari can get quickly on top of its issues and give us the kind of down-to-the wire drama we witnessed last year between Red Bull / Mercedes and Verstappen / Hamilton. Leclerc has the class, no question, but is Ferrari up to it?