If this Formula 1 season ends with a whimper rather than a bang, the French Grand Prix will surely mark the moment when its explosive potential runs out. As Circuit Paul Ricard sweltered in the scorching sun, the heat seemed to have descended on Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc – a moment of pause, a moment of weakness and his title hopes were in tatters. A moment expressed in a guttural, guttural cry of frustration.
The race was won by Max Verstappen for Red Bull, a driver who has had a few such moments this year, while Leclerc crashed out from a comfortable lead, securing Mercedes their best result of the season, with second and third for Lewis Hamilton and George. Russell.
For Leclerc, the mistake was as unusual as it was almost painful to watch. Crashes in F1 rarely last more than a few seconds, but seeing this made time seem to slow down.
Leading Verstappen by more than two seconds, the Monegasque driver held all the cards until he simply overcooked him in Turn 11 on lap 17. Leclerc lost the back of his Ferrari, and with a twitch and an unsightly pirouette, he went over the wall. The car was rammed deep into the barriers, the driver inconsolable as the sense of his mistake hit him and he screamed his rage into the ether and the now ringing ears of his team.
It was a great drama and a human emotion in the broad sense. Verstappen, meanwhile, continued to lap serenely; unfazed and serene but caring enough to ask if Leclerc had emerged unscathed.
With all of Ferrari’s woes this season, poor reliability and poor strategy calls, the Scuderia can ill afford driver error to add to what will have its fans seeing red and even casual sport watchers yearning for some consistency across the team, if only for a decent fight up front.
With the Ferrari very quick from the start, Leclerc had taken a 46-point lead over Verstappen on lap three in Australia. We were talking about how Verstappen could come back. Still, Ferrari found a way to ease it with poor failures and calls, so the Dutchman now enjoys a 63-point lead over Leclerc with 10 races remaining. Now the thinking turned to how quickly Verstappen could wrap this up. If Leclerc is undeterred at this point, he is indeed made of tough stuff. A trait that will probably serve him well this season at Ferrari.
He was both honest and absolutely damning in his assessment of what had happened. It was an acknowledgment of the extent of his mistake that he admitted to leaving his title ambitions in pieces. “I tried to take too much outside and probably put a wheel in a dirty place,” he said. “It’s my fault and if I keep making mistakes like that, I deserve not to win the championship.
“I said I think I’m performing at my highest level in my career, but if I keep making these mistakes, there’s no point in performing at a very high level. I’m losing too many points. It’s unacceptable , I just need to master these things.
His failure ensured Verstappen’s seventh victory this season was an easy ride. Still, the early stages had suggested just how close this fight could have been if Leclerc and Ferrari had stayed the course. Leclerc held on to the lead from pole but he and Verstappen were inseparable on the track, with Leclerc driving a strong defensive line to the Dutchman who had a slightly higher race pace.
A long battle only saw all the tension dissipate in a puff of gravel dust as Leclerc came off the track. Verstappen was untouchable from there to the flag and played down his points advantage.
Leclerc had made a minor mistake at Imola, a spin while pushing for second, which dropped him to sixth. It cost him seven points but he recognized the title had to be lost by those seven and the 25 he dropped here he can only point the finger at himself. He has a championship pedigree – that’s clear – but now, in his fifth season, he’s been in F1 long enough to know the vital role driver execution plays in making them titles.
Hamilton was extremely happy to return another competitive run. With better pace than he had in qualifying, he still couldn’t catch Verstappen but was a solid and deserved second. His team-mate Russell was also combative, taking advantage of a spirited battle with Red Bull’s Sergio Pérez, who finished fourth, before the British driver surged at Turn 14 after a late restart of the virtual safety car to take way. opportunist the last place on the podium.
Mercedes then stuck to their task but their championship is long gone and they know it. Leclerc can at least hold on to a little hope but that will be cold comfort for a driver who demands better of himself. Putting this particular and painful moment behind him will be essential if he wants to organize a comeback and restart this fight.
Carlos Sainz was fifth for Ferrari, Fernando Alonso and Esteban Ocon were sixth and eighth for Alpine, Lando Norris and Daniel Ricciardo seventh and ninth for McLaren with Lance Stroll in 10th for Aston Martin.
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