Charles Leclerc may have denied rumours of a straight swap with Mercedes, but doesn’t mean he’s not shopping around after a lacklustre Saudi Arabian Grand Prix left him 38 points off the pace in the title race.
But perhaps more importantly it was a race in which one radio message after another highlighted the Monégasque driver’s growing discontent.
It seems unimaginable to muse that after last year’s gains, Leclerc winning three races after two seasons without a single P1, the driver’s chances of fighting for this year’s World title could be over, and we’ve only had two races.
And it’s all come crashing down in a vicious combination of an unreliable car that is also “quite slow”.
Now you could argue that Red Bull’s phenomenal pace with their RB19 is making the Ferrari look slow, but it’s not just that as Aston Martin were ahead for the second race in a row, and on Sunday the SF-23, said to be a car that embraces straight-line speed, also lost out to Mercedes.
Leclerc’s frustrations with Ferrari grew with each passing lap.
Lining up on the grid down in 12th place as he already had his first engine penalties of the season, Leclerc needing to take a third Control Electronics after two failures in Bahrain, the driver started on the soft tyres. But looking around him and seeing a field of mediums, he questioned his race engineer Xavier Marcos Padros.
Leclerc: “So we are the only car on soft?”
Xavi: “Only Norris at the back, P19.”
One cannot blame him for asking what’s what given Ferrari’s numerous strategy blunders in 2022, blunders that often included putting him on the wrong compound, but in this case it turned out to be a good call with the driver up from 12th to ninth by the end of the opening lap.
But as his soft tyres faded Leclerc was forced to pit earlier than those around him with the likes of Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton then getting a fortuitous Safety Car when Lance Stroll retired two laps after Leclerc’s pit stop.
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Xavi: “The only car we will lose to is Max.”
But that was soon followed by…
Xavi: “Try to push from Safety Car line One for Lewis Hamilton, he just pitted.”
Leclerc: “Xavi, you need to tell me that before!”
Leclerc: “No, but come on!”
Leclerc lost positions to Verstappen and Hamilton. Falling to seventh and unable to even close the gap to his team-mate Carlos Sainz, Leclerc’s frustrations mounted.
Leclerc: “Being behind like this is really shit. I don’t know what to do.”
Leclerc: “I’m not going push anymore.”
It would seem after Sunday’s race perhaps the only thing the 25-year-old will be pushing for is as a swift an exit from Ferrari as he can secure with his dejection evident.
He not only didn’t have the pace to fight the Red Bulls for the race win, but again lost out to the Aston Martin of Fernando Alonso while both Mercedes drivers, despite that team cries of doom and gloom, were also ahead.
Asked what work Ferrari must do to get into the title fight, he replied: “A lot, really a lot. Straight lines they’re quicker, corner they are quicker, so we need everything.” He added: “Overall the pace is just not good enough. Honestly, there wasn’t much more in the car, that was the best we could do.”
Declaring there is “not a miracle solution” out there, Ferrari may yet have to keep one eye on Mercedes and their progress as that has to be Leclerc’s most likely next destination if and when he finally throws in the red towel.
Although Red Bull is the team to beat, it is also very much Verstappen’s team as Sergio Perez continues to find out, meaning Leclerc is unlikely to head that way given he wants a World title above all else. Because of that goal of a World title, the rest of the grid also isn’t in the mix.
Mercedes, and more to the point Hamilton’s seat, is where Leclerc will next want to sit, the door either opened by Hamilton retiring in frustration or by Hamilton winning his eighth and then retiring.
Either way no matter how many times Leclerc tells us “how much I want to win with Ferrari”, unless Ferrari find that miracle solution, the clock is counting down on his days in red.