It's bizarre to think that after April's Australian Grand Prix, questions were being asked of whether Red Bull would even be able to keep up with Ferrari in the F1 title battle. Charles Leclerc's win in Melbourne put him 34 points ahead of nearest challenger George Russell, with the unfortunate Max Verstappen outside the top five after two retirements in three races.
How things have changed. Fast forward almost four months, and 2021 champion Verstappen is now 63 points ahead of second-placed Charles Leclerc in the world championship standings.
The fall from grace for Ferrari has been monumental but, at the centre of it all, Leclerc has been largely reliable to deliver big results whenever he has been given the opportunity.
Sunday's French Grand Prix saw a change in form from the Monégasque driver. Leading the race, with the potential to take back-to-back wins and cut another chunk from Verstappen's lead in the championship, Leclerc would spectacularly spin and crash out of the race, leaving his hopes of a maiden title in tatters.
The result from Paul Ricard - which saw Verstappen win and extend his lead by a further 25 points - leaves question marks surrounding Leclerc's mentality in the title battle. Long term, however, it could be a positive learning experience for the 24-year-old.
French F1 GP: Charles Leclerc sees title hopes spin off into Paul Ricard barriers
Charles Leclerc was in control of the French Grand Prix on Sunday when a spin at the long turn 12 left him in the tyre barriers and out of the race.
Leclerc crashes into the barriers!!! He is OUT 😲 pic.twitter.com/kZUr4IZgQQ
— Sky Sports F1 (@SkySportsF1) July 24, 2022
The scream of anguish from Leclerc on the team radio was a striking moment, and encapsulated just how disastrous the crash is for his title hopes.
The scream of anguish from Leclerc! 😩🔊 pic.twitter.com/8ma0P1QdBU
— Sky Sports F1 (@SkySportsF1) July 24, 2022
It seems harsh to say, but any hope of the 2022 title is now surely gone for the Monaco native. It would take a miracle unlike any we have seen in F1 history - Leclerc would, in effect, have to win nearly every race between now and the end of the season, presuming Verstappen keeps up his ludicrous consistency of finishing in the top two of races.
After the race, Leclerc was despondent, and admitted that he was solely to blame for the mistake - dispelling any suspicion that the Ferrari had failed mid corner.
— Formula 1 (@F1) July 24, 2022
Speaking to Formula 1, Leclerc said:
I lost the rear, that's it.
Technically, we need to check - I don't think there is [an issue], I think it's just a mistake. Tried to take too much around the outside...it's my fault.
If I keep doing mistakes like this then I deserve to not win the championship. The level is very high this year, I'm performing at a high level, but if I keep doing these mistakes then it's pointless to be at a high level.
The crash for Leclerc could become a true Sliding Doors moment in his young career. For those who aren't familiar with the 1998 film, it follows two alternate timelines in which a woman does and doesn't catch her train home from work, and the different directions her life would have taken in each scenario.
You probably weren't expecting a reference to a Gwyneth Paltrow rom-com in an F1 deep dive, but this author believes the comparison to be apt. Leclerc can spend the rest of the season despondent due to the result from Paul Ricard, or he can use this a motivational tool to finish the season strongly and build for next year.
The incident drew strong comparisons with Sebastian Vettel's crash (also in a Ferrari) at the 2018 German Grand Prix which was the crucial turning point in that year's F1 championship.
— Formula 1 (@F1) July 22, 2018
Vettel's crash similarly came with him in the lead of the race, under minimal pressure from cars behind, and was solely down to driver error.
The career of four-time world champion Vettel has taken a steep downturn since that 2018 crash and it is only in recent months with his new team at Aston Martin that he has begun to look like the Sebastian of old.
Of course, the crash for Leclerc happened at an entirely different stage of his career to Vettel's. He is chasing his first world championship, whereas Vettel was chasing his fifth.
The despondent form of Charles Leclerc in the press pen after the French Grand Prix suggests that he is (understandably) weathered by the mistake which has effectively ruled him out of championship contention for 2022.
These kinds of mistakes came to Leclerc much more often earlier in his career, with errors and a tendency to fumble arguably costing him race wins and podiums on multiple occasions in his first two years at Ferrari - Baku 2019 and Turkey 2020 standing out as prime examples.
For the most part this year, he has been flawless. Save France and Imola, he has made next-to-no mistakes, and would have been much closer to Verstappen in the championship were it not for the unreliability of his Ferrari car.
In that regard, it feels harsh to lambast a driver who has largely been excellent all season
But, on a day when the car was there to take a comfortable race win, and really put the fire back in the title battle, we were shown a glimpse of the old Leclerc. This was a race he desperately needed to win, especially after such a strong drive last time out in Austria.
Max Verstappen simply does not make mistakes like this anymore. Lewis Hamilton did not make mistakes like this throughout his run of titles with Mercedes. Nico Rosberg beat Hamilton to the 2016 championship, mainly because he was flawless in races where his rivals stumbled.
Leclerc will undoubtedly be a world champion in the future - but that will not come until he can cut out the errors in his racing. It is a similar reckoning that Max Verstappen had to face in the aftermath of his zenith in 2018, and one that all young drivers eventually must.
Charles Leclerc should be a great of F1 for years to come - but he may come to be defined by his reaction to a crushing mistake at Paul Ricard.
Wrapping up from the French Grand Prix
|1st||Max Verstappen||Red Bull Racing-RBPT||233||7 (+2 sprint wins)|
|2nd||Charles Leclerc||Scuderia Ferrari||170||3|
|3rd||Sergio Perez||Red Bull Racing-RBPT||163||1|
|4th||Carlos Sainz Jr||Scuderia Ferrari||144||1|
|5th||George Russell||Mercedes AMG F1||143||0|
- Driver of the Day: On a day of doom and gloom for Ferrari, Carlos Sainz didn't put a foot wrong. After a stellar qualifying which saw him help Leclerc to pole position, he was forced to start from the back of the grid due to changing engine components. Despite misfortune with strategy, and a penalty that was not his fault, he still managed to come home in P5. A mighty drive.
- Day to forget: We've already detailed above why, but it may well be that this race becomes the race Charles Leclerc's 2022 season is remembered for - even if he would rather forget it in a hurry.
- The big question ahead of round #13: Can Ferrari enter the summer break on a desperately needed high?