Charles Leclerc needs to be smart as well as fast if he wants to be F1 world champion

Ferrari driver needs to take responsibility for his own decisions if he is to halt Verstappen's charge

Ferrari's Charles Leclerc has seen his early season lead wiped out by the resurgence of Max Verstappen and Red Bull. Getty Images
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These are chastening times for Charles Leclerc.

After his runaway start to the season, Ferrari’s poster boy is learning that outrageous speed and phenomenal car control are not enough to make you Formula One world champion.

The 24-year-old has suffered a massive 55-point swing since the heady days of his early season domination.

So Maranello and its lead driver arrive in Azerbaijan looking to halt Red Bull’s four-win charge at one of the most unpredictable races of the year.

After two victories in the opening three rounds Leclerc was 46 points clear of his biggest rival, Max Verstappen.

In the four races since he has haemorrhaged points and now trails by nine.

He must gaze at the string of recent results and wonder how it can have gone so wrong, so quickly.

After his tortured scream at the strategy snafu in Monaco and his comments afterwards it would be easy to suppose the path to glory lies in Maranello getting their act together.

But Leclerc also needs to look at himself.

In changing conditions he waited on his team to make the strategy call while in the other Ferrari, long before it became an issue, Carlos Sainz told the team - not asked note, told - he would not be taking intermediate tyres but would go straight on to slicks.

It was a brave call, requiring a sense of where the track would be as well as where it was and the best point to make the tyre transition. Acting too early or too late could be disastrous, as Leclerc discovered.

So if Sainz could see the way forward why couldn’t Leclerc?

Indeed, but for some dithering backmarkers, Sainz would have been the hero of the hour. Instead it was Sergio Perez.

The Mexican, who won at Baku last year, has also shown he knows how to win on street tracks, if not how to party afterwards.

Of course Leclerc’s breakdown in Barcelona cannot be laid at his door but he has to (and has) taken responsibility for the previous disaster at Imola when Verstappen’s remarkable rise began.

The Monegasque tried to earn an extra point by gunning for fastest lap late in the race only to skid off at Variante Alta chicane and lose 17 instead.

Before that day Leclerc had led 143 of the 165 laps raced. Nearly nine out of every 10. Since, he has led just 51 of 240. That’s one in five.

Speed alone wins races but rarely championships. It requires brains, too.

Interestingly, in Italy’s Il Foglio newspaper, Ricciardo Ceccarelli, head of Formula Medicine, recalls dealing with kart-racing Leclerc at 13: “Charles couldn’t handle his anger. He worked a lot on that and I think you can see the result. The perfect driver, seemingly calm with a killer instinct.”

As Leclerc himself admitted of that period: “... at times I wasn't able to manage my competitive position, my determination, especially when some episode happened that made me angry.”

No-one is suggesting he is still that man. Since then he has honed his remarkable skills to develop into one of the sport’s elite. But at 24 there are, still, plenty of lessons to learn. They will come, of course, it’s the price he pays that is within his control. On Sunday, double champion Fernando Alonso becomes the sport’s longest serving racer, insisting he still has more to learn.

And so to Baku’s street track where the margins are wafer thin. Concrete walls and high tech crash barriers feet from the car for almost the entire length of the 6km circuit.

While the speed favours Ferrari’s superior power, the brake-wrecking stops and 90 degree bends will test their machineries' dubious pedigree.

Baku is a track that bites. No driver has won the race twice.

And Leclerc and Verstappen themselves, the two key title combatants, are yet to win there, although both have started from pole.

So Baku is a collision of opposites. A claustrophobic street track where 76 per cent is spent at full throttle.

The fastest part is the 2km flat out start/finish stretch where speeds top 320kph.

After four wins on the trot by Red Bull, Ferrari and Leclerc will be desperate to arrest the slump.

And they need to do it before champions Mercedes inevitably re-join the battle for victories, if not the championship.

Ferrari have proved they can be fastest. Becoming champions will depend on whether they can weather this storm and show they can be the smartest, too.

Updated: June 09, 2022, 6:01 AM