Top 50 Drivers of 2022
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Top 50 Drivers of 2022

Autosport 2022 Top 50: #2 Charles Leclerc

2nd in Formula 1 World Championship

Autosport 2022 Top 50: #2 Charles Leclerc

Prior to the Formula 1 summer break, it was tough to choose between opponents Charles Leclerc and Max Verstappen as the standout. The Ferrari driver shone bright aboard the first grand prix car that had the potential to take him to a title.

He opened the campaign in Bahrain by deliberately letting his rival overtake, only to regain DRS to surge past on the next straight. Prior to Verstappen breaking down, Leclerc was already poised to triumph after outwitting his opponent. Leclerc ran away to a dominant victory at the Australian GP, and he was simply staggering in Austria also. He had the pace to pass Verstappen three times before nursing a sticking throttle to chalk what would unbelievably be his last win of 2022. The drought from then on reflected how badly Ferrari let the nine-time polesitter down.

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Already, there were the notable British and Hungarian strategy shockers that dashed hopes of Sunday success. The ruinous unreliability that cost potential victories in Spain and Azerbaijan further contributed to his title challenge crumbling. And in response to the fragility, Ferrari wound down the engines for the rest of the year to prevent the qualifying king from properly fighting for a fourth win.

After the summer, Verstappen delivered top-drawer displays weekend after weekend while Leclerc was too humdrum in Japan. There, he aborted the chicane to cop a 5s penalty that finally decided the crown in the Dutchman’s favour. He also fell short of his best in Mexico and Brazil, independent of the latest pitwall and performance missteps.

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While Verstappen did make mistakes, such as his off in Spain and spin in Hungary, the cost was minimised as he recovered to win both. The price Leclerc paid was much higher. His grassy excursion to fall from third to sixth at Imola while pursuing Sergio Perez was needless, and the shunt while leading at Paul Ricard calamitous. That smash was when Verstappen and everybody else knew that the crown was effectively decided. It is noted that Leclerc felt the need to push the limits to make amends for his team dropping the ball so spectacularly.

Leclerc was a cut above the rest in Melbourne, even before Verstappen's retirement, but Ferrari never enjoyed the same clear edge again

Leclerc was a cut above the rest in Melbourne, even before Verstappen's retirement, but Ferrari never enjoyed the same clear edge again

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

Why there was no coming back from Paul Ricard

Charles Leclerc doesn’t hide entirely behind Ferrari’s strategic, reliability and latter-half performance shortfalls when assessing why his first shot at the Formula 1 world title fell spectacularly apart. Ultimately, he barely scraped over the line as the runner-up.

When asked to isolate and review his own work in 2022, the Monegasque admits he overdid it once or twice. Particularly when trying to defend against Max Verstappen’s undercut to cement first place in the French Grand Prix. In deference to that now infamous shunt into the wall of the sweeping Beausset right-hander, Leclerc says: “Well, if anything, I could have pushed less on some occasions, like in France. I think in the first few years, this was always an area in particular where I was focusing on because I knew it was a weak point.”

For this, see Leclerc also missing out on a likely pole when he binned it in Baku qualifying in 2019 or losing the rear at Monza in 2020. Then securing pole on his home turf in Monaco the year after, before promptly finding the wall.

The howler at Paul Ricard helped propel Verstappen into a 63-point lead. The margin was so considerable that even the Red Bull pilot, who seldom acknowledged his championship chances in public, then knew he was on course for a successful title defence.

Speaking shortly after his second coronation in Japan, Verstappen said: “There were a few moments where I thought, ‘You know, we have a good chance of winning it’. But the moment where I thought, ‘Now we are going to win it’ was after Paul Ricard. The lead increased by quite a bit. We had a competitive car. I knew it was going to be quite close in the coming races. But I was like, this is a gap which we cannot give away anymore.”

Verstappen took – and would maintain – first place in the points in the Spanish GP, when Leclerc retired from a 13-second lead with a power unit failure. But five rounds later in Austria, the Ferrari’s pace advantage over the RB18 gave a small glimmer that the fight might still be on. Just a fortnight after that, though, the Paul Ricard clanger put paid to whatever hope remained.

Paul Ricard spin was horribly costly for Leclerc and Ferrari's title prospects

Paul Ricard spin was horribly costly for Leclerc and Ferrari's title prospects

Photo by: Carl Bingham / Motorsport Images

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