Where did Charles Leclerc's stunning Silverstone speed come from?

F1

70 years after Ferrari's famous first victory, Charles Leclerc nearly took the Scuderia back to the top step – he explained how the race showed the team's recent progress

NORTHAMPTON, ENGLAND - JULY 18: Charles Leclerc of Monaco driving the (16) Scuderia Ferrari SF21 during the F1 Grand Prix of Great Britain at Silverstone on July 18, 2021 in Northampton, England. (Photo by Joe Portlock - Formula 1/Formula 1 via Getty Images)

Although the ultimate pace might not yet be there, Silverstone evidenced more progress for Leclerc and the Scuderia

Joe Portlock - Formula 1/Formula 1 via Getty Images

At Silverstone last weekend Scuderia Ferrari celebrated the 70th anniversary of its first ever Grand Prix victory, achieved by José Froilán González at the 1951 British GP.

To mark the occasion Bernie Ecclestone loaned his magnificent 375, straight from a major restoration in Maranello. Charles Leclerc, carrying a special helmet design to mark the occasion, gave the car a brief run.

How appropriate therefore would it have been had Leclerc been able to hang on in front over those last couple of laps on Sunday afternoon and log the most unlikely of victories.

It didn’t happen, thanks to a dose of Lewis Hamilton magic. However Leclerc earned a superb second place, a result that reminded us of what a great talent he is – and what he might be able to achieve if Ferrari can create a genuinely front-running contender in 2022 and beyond. So where did this amazing performance come from?

This year a resurgent Ferrari has been battling with McLaren for the honour of being third best team. Leclerc showed his speed when he logged two superb poles on the street tracks in Monaco and Azerbaijan. However recent weeks have not been great for the Italian team as it fought tyre issues. Leclerc was a frustrated 16th at Paul Ricard, and finished seventh and eighth in the two Austrian races.

The team came to the British GP hoping that tyre homework had paid off, and that its 2020 form – Leclerc earned a third and fourth at two Silverstone races – was a good indicator.

Leclerc 375

Last weekend, Leclerc drove a 375 similar to the one that González won Ferrari’s first ever F1 race 70 years ago

Grand Prix Photo

“I hope we can be as competitive as last year,” he said on Thursday. “Because last year was a bit of a standout if you look at our average performance of the year, even though it was not a great performance.

“I don’t know how it will be this year, but we’ve been preparing this weekend very, very well. One of our strengths normally is to arrive and be straight away with the right set-up with our car, and hopefully with such a short weekend, we can take advantage of that and have a have a good weekend.

“I think to be good in high-speed is very important here, because there are quite a bit of very difficult high speed [corners] where you can gain a lot, which is normally not the case in normal high speed corners. It’s a very technical track, FP1 will be very important to take the rhythm obviously, having limited mileage.”

Leclerc’s point about preparation was important, because all drivers and teams had only FP1 before parc fermé rules clicked in.

The signs were good in that first session when he was fourth fastest out of the box, and when it mattered in the Friday evening qualifying he repeated that result. Crucially he felt at his best in Q3, edging out the Red Bull of Sergio Perez to slot in behind Hamilton, Max Verstappen and Valtteri Bottas. It was a very encouraging performance.

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“A tricky qualifying,” he said. “I mean, obviously, with so little preparation going into quali, it makes things a little bit trickier. But I think we did a good job, we maximised the potential of the car.

“I was quite confident, especially in Q1 and Q2, I wasn’t at the level I wanted to be. And then in Q3, I regained the confidence and the pace a little bit in the car. I’m happy with how it went.” Like everyone else he didn’t know what to expect from the Saturday sprint: “We are all going into an unknown. We’ve got FP2 to try and prepare the sprint race as well as we can, and then let’s see what we can do.”

There was obviously a good chance that Perez would get ahead, and the McLarens of Lando Norris and Daniel Ricciardo were also a threat. In the event Fernando Alonso got in front of all of them and gave Leclerc a buffer. He ended the sprint still in fourth, claiming that starting spot for Sunday’s Grand Prix. It wasn’t the most eventful afternoon, but he had no complaints.

“Honestly I loved it, I really like this format for now because in some races for sure there won’t be much action in the sprint qualifying but at least it makes it exciting for every day.

“Honestly I loved it – normally I’m so bored in the car on the Friday!” Charles Leclerc

“Normally I’m so bored in the car on the Friday! Yesterday felt a bit more exciting and there was a bit more to gain to push straight out of the box in FP1 to be ready for qualifying.”

As he’d suggested the team arrived with an ideal set-up: “Actually yesterday from free practice to qualifying I didn’t even change the car, the car felt good. And that’s why I was saying, ‘I hope we will take advantage of that,’ and I think we did this weekend.”

NORTHAMPTON, ENGLAND - JULY 18: Charles Leclerc of Monaco driving the (16) Scuderia Ferrari SF21 leads Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain driving the (44) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes W12 at the restart during the F1 Grand Prix of Great Britain at Silverstone on July 18, 2021 in Northampton, England. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

Leclerc had the lead after the Hamilton/Verstappen crash – and kept it upon the restart

Mark Thompson/Getty Images

He also enjoyed racing off the grid with a much lower fuel load, and thus a nimbler car.

“Yeah it is a big, big difference, it’s very nice. I prefer to drive in those conditions, it makes me think about refuelling a little bit because it feels very good and I think for racing also for those tyres they are in a much better window and it makes us push a lot more.

“Seventeen laps pushing flat out is normally not something we are used to unfortunately, so it feels good to be pushing for 17 laps!”

“I was really on it every lap” Charles Leclerc

With an eager Norris right behind him on the grid for Sunday’s Grand Prix it looked like Leclerc would have his work cut out hanging onto his fourth place. In fact he beat Bottas off the line to claim third, and spent the first part of the opening lap watching Verstappen and Hamilton going at it. Indeed when the Mercedes driver went a little wide out of Luffield, Leclerc could have stuck his nose down the inside, but he left Hamilton the space to cut back across.

A few seconds later heading into Copse he had a perfect view as the two title protagonists collided, and Verstappen speared into the tyre wall. As Hamilton lost momentum Leclerc jinked right to claim the lead. Then came a safety car, followed soon after by the red flag.

After the break Leclerc took the restart from pole, and crucially he managed to stay ahead of Hamilton. As the first few laps after the resumption played out, it became clear that the World Champion wasn’t going to breeze by, as he couldn’t get close enough without damaging his tyres.

And then came the news from race control that Hamilton would get a 10-second penalty, to be served at his pit stop. Suddenly it became apparent that Leclerc could actually win this thing…

That thought was soon tempered by some frantic radio messages from Leclerc as he dealt with an engine cut-out problem – the last thing he needed was a list of adjustments to make. But he coped well, and lost little time.

“I was really on it every lap,” he explained. “So I don’t think there is one lap where I did a big mistake – and especially in the first stint with problems we had with the engine, I thought my race was over.

“I had quite a lot of things to do on the steering wheel, but I think we managed the situation very, very well and we managed to diminish these engine cuts for the rest of the race.”

pit stop 16 LECLERC Charles (mco), Scuderia Ferrari SF21, action during the Formula 1 Pirelli British Grand Prix 2021, 10th round of the 2021 FIA Formula One World Championship from July 16 to 18, 2021 on the Silverstone Circuit, in Silverstone, United Kingdom - Photo Antonin Vincent / DPPI

Leclerc believes the Ferrari team are working better than ever, shown by them almost winning and overcoming an engine gremlin

Antonin Vincent / DPPI

The Hamilton penalty gave him some breathing space, but in the second half of the race Leclerc was less happy on the hard tyre than he had been on the medium that he’d started with. Meanwhile the gap to his pursuer inexorably came down.

“On the medium we were surprisingly good. The car felt incredible there and we were very very quick. Then on the hard, it felt quite good, but whenever I started to hit the traffic, I could feel we were on a bit more fragile tyre, and we seemed to suffer a bit more.

“Behind those guys, even though it was so quite far, I could feel the rear of the car was not as stable as I wanted it to be, and this made us lose a little bit the pace that we had before. But overall, even when everything felt good, Lewis was just much quicker than us on those hard tyres.”

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Finally with three laps to go Hamilton was right on his tail. Ironically the passing move was made at Copse, where the Verstappen clash had happened a little earlier.

“I knew Lewis was in the inside,” said Leclerc. “I left a space and unfortunately I think I had stayed in front but in the very end of the corner I got a snap and lost a little bit of time and then Lewis got in front of me.

“Until then I still believed I could win this race, and it’s the way it should be. If I was thinking of being second before that, I think it will have gone even worse. I believed in it until the very last moment.

“Obviously I had my engineer telling me Lewis’s pace on the hard tyres, and I was like ‘that’s quick’. I was pushing 200%, but obviously it wasn’t good enough to keep that first position in the last laps.”

Leclerc was left to settle for second place, still comfortably ahead Bottas in third, and well clear of the McLarens.

On the slowing down lap he let forth a series of expletives on the radio, making clear how disappointed he was. His boss Mattia Binotto came on and told him not to worry, and that it had been a great race.

And indeed it had been, and it showed that Ferrari is making steps.

Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) and Charles Leclerc (Ferrari) after the 2021 British Grand Prix at Silverstone. Photo: Grand Prix Photo

Hamilton credits Leclerc after his valiant effort

Grand Prix Photo

“Obviously going into this weekend there was absolutely no hope of fighting for a win here in Silverstone,” said Leclerc. “So this shows how great a job we are doing as a team. It’s not an easy situation but we’re working extremely well as a team and we have shown that today with this second place.

“Now we need to keep on working because that’s what we want to do consistently: fight for the win. So it’s great to be fighting today with Lewis but we shouldn’t expect to be in that position for the rest of the year – and for that we need to keep working.” The key is getting the car to perform on the tyres at every type of venue. At Silverstone, where Pirelli’s three hardest compounds were in play, the team got it right – now it has to continue that form elsewhere.

“There’s been a big investigation after France to try to understand exactly why we were struggling that much with those front tyres,” said Leclerc. “I don’t think we get that answer yet. So yes, we are much better here but I don’t think it is because we found the complete answer of what happened in France.

“The investigation is still going on and we are still working hard on it. And even though we’ve had a good day today we don’t forget about the bad day in France. And once we understand the full extent of why we were slow in France, then I’m pretty sure we will do a big step as a team, and it will help us to reproduce this type of performance as we did today.”