It’s difficult to believe that Charles Leclerc led the Drivers’ Championship by 46 points after the first three rounds of the season, and Max Verstappen wrapped up the 2022 title with four races to spare.
After what was looking set to be such a promising season for Leclerc and Ferrari, it’s safe to say that the season has become one giant missed opportunity for the Scuderia.
The Italians haven’t won the Drivers’ Championship since 2007 and the Constructors’ since 2008, with this year having been their closest yet to fighting for both.
In the end, reliability gremlins, strategic problems and driver errors have allowed Verstappen to win 12 times this season.
Leclerc was leading at both Barcelona and Azerbaijan when he suffered a power unit failure and was leading at Silverstone and Hungary when the team cost him the race through their own inept strategy.
Whilst a lot of blame can be put on the Italians, Leclerc does have to take some of the blame, following errors whilst leading at France and whilst in third at Emilia Romagna.
Instead of fighting Verstappen for the title, he’s in a tight fight with Sergio Pérez for second in the Drivers’ Championship.
Leclerc’s positive approach and attitude to never feeling beaten can be applauded; however, the Monegasque revealed the exact point where he knew the championship was over.
“After the Belgian Grand Prix I realised that I was not going to win the world championship,” said Leclerc to RacingNews365 ahead of the 2022 Japanese GP.
“We came back just after the summer break and then of course you think back to the first part of the year, but I still believed in the title!”
“Then we saw that gap in performance between us and Red Bull at Spa, a gap we had never seen in the first part of the year, so I knew it was going to be very difficult.”
Verstappen won at Spa despite having started P14, in what further cemented his imperious stature over the entire grid.
Errors do happen every year, with Verstappen having made several at last weekend’s Singapore Grand Prix alone; however, it’s down to the team to ensure that the driver can bounce back from their personal mistakes, not add to them.
This has been Ferrari’s problem in 2022, too many times have they cost Leclerc a huge haul of points, none bigger than at Hungary, where Leclerc was leading whilst Verstappen was fighting through the top 10.
“If I look back at Hungary, to be honest, our first impulse [on strategy] was okay,” Leclerc recalled.
“Then from that moment onwards, our race was much more difficult. But again, that’s part of the races that we need to learn from and get better in the future.”
Whilst Red Bull have had the edge on Sundays, Saturdays have very much been the Maranello-based team’s strength.
Leclerc has claimed nine poles this season but has only won three times, with the 24-year-old admitting that the car hasn’t been in the “sweet spot” at times, but they now know why.
He did point out, though, that Red Bull have simply made “bigger steps” across the season, which is why they boast an unprecedented lead in both championships.
“Now that we have had a few other races after the race in Spa, we understand a few things better,” added Leclerc.
“The car was not in the sweet spot there and we have now made some steps in that.
“We had a hard time with two things in Belgium. I don’t want to go into too much detail about that, but we probably didn’t handle those problems well at the time.
“However, Red Bull has taken bigger steps than us this year and that’s why they are stronger now, but the big difference in Belgium was mainly because we didn’t have the pace at all.
“I don’t think the difference in performance between Ferrari and Red Bull is very big. If you look at the season as a whole, we’ve been very competitive.”
There is no doubt that Ferrari have been weaker during races, but they’ve still been battling for podiums against Mercedes and Sergio Pérez.
The team’s mistakes, though, have simply cost too many points for Leclerc to battle Verstappen, with the Monegasque aware that the team must get “better”.
“The problem, however, is that we didn’t perform well every race weekend, so we lost a lot of points,” he said.
“Whatever the reason, it often didn’t fall our way on Sunday. We have to work on that as a team, to be better and get better results.
“We had already taken a [positive] step in Monza. The circuit was similar to Spa, but it went much better. That was good to see. We were still a bit slower than Red Bull on Sunday, but it certainly wasn’t as bad as in Spa the week before.”
Despite what has ended up being a season full of missed opportunities, there is no doubt that Ferrari are truly back as a frontrunning side, something they haven’t been for the last few seasons.
Leclerc highlights this fact as the “positive point” of 2022, with the number 16 aiming to “really fight” for the title next season.
“If I take a few steps back and look at the overall picture, I don’t think many people would have believed beforehand how good we would be this year,” continued the Ferrari driver.
“That’s really the positive point of this season.
“Everyone is used to it now, because we are almost at the end of the season. But if you look back at 2020 and 2021, those have been two years where we had a very difficult time in terms of performance. That said, we have to take an extra step to really fight for the world title.”