What history tells us about Leclerc’s early F1 championship lead

Formula 1’s return to Imola this weekend comes at a perfect time for Ferrari’s loyal Tifosi, who will be riding high from Charles Leclerc’s impressive start to the season.

What history tells us about Leclerc’s early F1 championship lead

This year’s Emilia Romagna Grand Prix will be the first F1 event at Imola since 2006 which is open to spectators after COVID-19 restrictions prevented fans from attending in either of the past two years.

It should make for an electric atmosphere as Ferrari looks to build on its early success this year, spearheaded by Leclerc’s two wins and one second-place finish in the opening three races. Max Verstappen’s late retirement in Australia means Leclerc’s championship lead stands at 34 points after just three races, with George Russell sitting a surprising second for Mercedes.

Leclerc’s start to the season is statistically one of the strongest in F1 history. He’s dropped a total of just seven available points - all lost in Saudi Arabia when he finished second to Verstappen - as he has also taken the fastest lap bonus in all three races. His total of 71 points after three races is second only to Nico Rosberg’s perfect haul of 75 from 2016 in terms of points scored, although adjustments do need to be accounted for under previous systems.

But what can history tell us about Leclerc’s early championship lead of 34 points? With 20 races still to run this year, it is obviously too early to give any thought to the title race being settled - but come the end of the season, how decisive will Leclerc’s near-perfect start be?

Here’s a look back at what history can tell us from previous strong starts in F1.

Nico Rosberg - 2016

Podium: race winner Nico Rosberg, Mercedes AMG F1, second place Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes AMG F1

Podium: race winner Nico Rosberg, Mercedes AMG F1, second place Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes AMG F1

Photo by: Sutton Images

Lead after three races: 36 points
Finished season: Champion

Rosberg’s dominant start to the 2016 season made him one of just five drivers to have won all of the opening three races, and would lay the foundations for his sole F1 title win.

Rosberg ended the 2015 campaign well, taking three wins to close out the season after his defeat to Mercedes team-mate Lewis Hamilton was confirmed. The German driver carried the momentum through to the early part of 2016, winning in Australia ahead of Hamilton after running him wide at the start. He then capitalised on Hamilton’s clash with future team-mate Valtteri Bottas in Bahrain to win there, before completing a hat-trick with victory in China as Hamilton could only recover to seventh after starting last due to a power unit issue.

It meant Rosberg’s lead after three rounds stood at 36 points, which would grow to 43 points after a seventh consecutive win in Russia. The streak would end in Spain when the Mercedes cars crashed on the opening lap, igniting the growing tensions within the team.

Rosberg won the title by just three points, yet he had hardly been clinging on throughout the season. By race seven Canada, Hamilton had already reduced the margin to just nine points, and he had moved into the lead by Hungary. But Rosberg’s consistent end to the year and Hamilton’s devastating retirement in Malaysia meant the tables ultimately turned Rosberg’s way.

Fernando Alonso - 2006

Fernando Alonso, Renault R26 claims victory ahead of Michael Schumacher, Ferrari 248 F1

Fernando Alonso, Renault R26 claims victory ahead of Michael Schumacher, Ferrari 248 F1

Photo by: Rainer W. Schlegelmilch / Motorsport Images

Lead after three races: 14 points (33 points under post-2009 system)
Finished season: Champion

Fernando Alonso made one of the most convincing starts to a maiden title defence in F1 history when he kicked off the 2006 season in style. Curiously, just like Leclerc this year, he won the opener in Bahrain, finished second in round two (in Malaysia) and then won the third race of the year in Australia.

Alonso managed to see off the renewed threat from Ferrari in the opening round, defeating Michael Schumacher by just 1.2 seconds, before following home Renault team-mate Giancarlo Fisichella for a 1-2 in Malaysia. The win in Australia put Alonso 14 points clear of Fisichella after Schumacher retired in Australia, which would convert to 33 points under the current system.

Alonso’s supremacy would run through the first half of the season, dropping just six points from the first available 90. Yet Schumacher clawed it back through the second half - aided by Alonso’s DNFs in Hungary and Italy - to draw level with two races remaining, only for his Suzuka engine failure to effectively end all hopes of an eighth world title.

Michael Schumacher - 2000

Race winner Michael Schumacher, Ferrari F1 2000

Race winner Michael Schumacher, Ferrari F1 2000

Photo by: Motorsport Images

Lead after three races: 21 points (47 points under post-2009 system)
Finished season: Champion

Although Schumacher managed to win all three races at the start of the 2004 season, his lead only stood at nine points (22.5 present day) over Rubens Barrichello - which is blown out of the water by the stats from 2000.

Despite seeing reigning champion Mika Hakkinen take pole for each of the first three races, Schumacher was able to take a hat-trick to kick off the year due to the fragility of the McLaren. Hakkinen retired in both Australia and Brazil while leading, and narrowly lost out to Schumacher at Imola, giving him just six points from a possible 30 to start the year.

Bar Schumacher, few had fared much better. Hakkinen’s team-mate, David Coulthard, retired in Australian and was disqualified in Brazil, while Rubens Barrichello - Schumacher’s closest rival on nine points - retired from his home race and only took fourth at Imola, worth just three points under the pre-2003 system.

Adjusting the results to the current points system, Schumacher’s lead would stand at 47 points, more than the current gap between Leclerc and Verstappen.

And yet the tables soon turned. By Hungary, he was behind Hakkinen in the championship, and under the current system, the title would have gone to the final race in Malaysia, but Schumacher still would have won the championship. Back in the days of more fragile reliability, where scores were often 10 for victory or zero, bigger swings were perhaps more likely.

Damon Hill - 1996

Podium: Second place Jacques Villeneuve,  Williams, Race winner Damon Hill,  Williams, third plac Eddie Irvine,  Ferrari

Podium: Second place Jacques Villeneuve, Williams, Race winner Damon Hill, Williams, third plac Eddie Irvine, Ferrari

Photo by: Sutton Images

Lead after three races: 18 points (39 points under post-2009 system)
Finished season: Champion

With two-time champion and chief rival Michael Schumacher now at Ferrari, Damon Hill entered the 1996 season looking to finally capture an elusive world title - but had new Williams team-mate Jacques Villeneuve to contend with.

Despite losing out on pole to Villeneuve on the Canadian’s F1 debut, Hill won a close battle in Australia before dominating in wet conditions at Interlagos, capitalising on Villeneuve spinning out to stretch out his lead. Hill then saw off pressure from Schumacher in Argentina before the Ferrari driver retired due to a rear wing failure, promoting Villeneuve into second place.

It meant Hill left South America on 30 points, 18 clear of Villeneuve in second place. The gap between the pair never narrowed hugely, still sitting at 21 points after Hill’s win at Hockenheim. Although Villeneuve took it to the final race at Suzuka, the nine-point deficit would always be hard to overturn, with his poor start and later retirement settling matters. Hill scored an eighth win of the season to end the year 19 points to the good at the top of the standings.

Michael Schumacher - 1994

Michael Schumacher,  Benetton B194 and Ayrton Senna, 
 Williams FW16

Michael Schumacher, Benetton B194 and Ayrton Senna, Williams FW16

Photo by: Sutton Images

Lead after three races: 23 points (50 points under post-2009 system)
Finished season: Champion

Schumacher and Hill’s first major tussle for the title would come in 1994, albeit after a scintillating start to the year by the German driver who had a perfect score of 30 in the opening three rounds.

Ayrton Senna had started each of the first three races from pole, only to retire at both Interlagos and Aida before the accident at Imola that claimed his life. Schumacher picked up victory on all three occasions, leaving Hill second in the standings, 23 points behind and now tasked with leading Williams through the rest of an overshadowed season.

Six wins in the first seven races put Schumacher 37 points clear of Hill nearing the halfway point of the season, only for his disqualifications at Silverstone and Spa, and the two-race ban resulting from his black flag antics at Silverstone, to bring Hill back into contention. Just one point separated them going to Adelaide, where their controversial clash meant Schumacher won the title. Under the current points system, he would have in fact lost the championship to Hill by 14 points.

Ayrton Senna - 1991

Ayrton Senna, McLaren

Ayrton Senna, McLaren

Photo by: Motorsport Images

Lead after three races: 20 points (41 points under post-2009 system)
Finished season: Champion

Ayrton Senna stood as the first driver to win the opening three races of the F1 world championship season (given Alberto Ascari missed the 1953 Indianapolis 500), setting himself up for his third and final title win.

Senna converted pole at Phoenix, Interlagos and Imola all into race wins, opening up a 20-point lead over McLaren team-mate Gerhard Berger. A trio of DNFs for Nigel Mansell meant that although he would close up on Senna at points over the remainder of the year - as little as eight after Hockenheim - he could never overhaul the Brazilian, eventually finishing 24 points adrift.

Race winner Charles Leclerc, Ferrari

Race winner Charles Leclerc, Ferrari

Photo by: Ferrari

What does this mean for Leclerc?

The odds would already appear to be on Leclerc’s side, looking at the drivers who have previously opened up huge leads at the start of the season. Yet with the exception of Rosberg and Alonso, they all came in eras where reliability meant there would be bigger swings in the points - and both Rosberg and Alonso still only won it at the final round.

But so long as Ferrari can maintain its current level of performance relative to Red Bull and Mercedes, Leclerc’s early lead will be a huge benefit. The fight between Verstappen and Hamilton last year proved that swings of seven points at a time can make it hard to make any huge gains in one fell swoop, barring some surprises on-track or shock incidents.

With so far to go this year, though, it’s unlikely Leclerc or Ferrari will be giving much thought to the history on their side as they look to write their own in 2022.

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