Charles Leclerc had the race in the bag during the early stages of the French Grand Prix. The Ferrari driver did everything required and more over the course of the weekend to fight back against the advances made by his only rival, Max Verstappen. Leclerc secured pole position to underscore Ferrari’s championship momentum and the during Sunday’s race he held his nerve and lead against the early pressure called Max Verstappen. But it all went wrong on lap 18 in the run-up to the first round of pitstops.
Verstappen had already made his first pitstop, switching from mediums to hard. In preparation for his pitstop, Leclerc pushed hard on his final lap before making his way to the pitlane. The Ferrari driver never made it back, crashing out of the race on lap 18.
At first, it seemed like a car error, the Ferrari snapped into oversteer midway round the circuit and spun into the tyre barrier head-on. The Ferrari’s engine management software kicked in and shut down the engine. Leclerc could not get any drive to reverse and that was it, he was out of the race.
It wasn’t a massive crash by modern F1 standards but it will have massive implications for the 2022 drivers championship. Leclerc had the race under control and victory was a foregone conclusion. Leclerc pushed too hard on worn tyres in an effort to avoid a Red Bull and Verstappen undercut.
The Medium set of tyres has a maximum duration rate of around 8 laps before they slowly lose performance. Driving within the limits can extend the life of the tyres to around 12 laps, after this point the tyres will start to cause sliding and understeer.
The only way to counter the tyre degradation is to drive within the limits, ease off the throttle, take the corner entry at a revised rate of speed. In other words the speed of the car is governed by the rate of tyre wear, i.e. you will have to slow down.
The trick is knowing how to push hard on worn tyres, how much risk do you take? How much more speed can you extract from the car? how close to the limit do you go? Leclerc is experienced enough and more than skilled to make these seat of the pants decision, he is one of the best drivers on the grid.
But it seems the pressure coming from Red Bull may have forced Leclerc to push the Ferrari too hard on a, by now, worn set of medium tyres. And that is all it takes, one moment, one small error can lead to large consequences for the championship.
Verstappen cruised to victory at the French Grand Prix, a win made all the easier by Leclerc’s unforced error. At a post-crash interview, Leclerc took full responsibility for the unforced error that now lands him with a 63-point deficit to championship leader Max Verstappen.
Leclerc now has a mountain to climb if he is going to get back on terms with Verstappen and fight for the championship. Red Bull would have to suffer from calamitous reliability issues to let Ferrari back in the game. It is possible but highly unlikely. The 2022 drivers championship may have been decided at the French Grand Prix.