Charles Leclerc has long been touted as a Formula One world champion in the making and the Ferrari driver has emerged as the man to beat this season after a dominant victory in Melbourne.
The 24-year-old from Monaco blew away his rivals at Sunday’s Australian Grand Prix at a revamped Albert Park, starting from pole and taking the chequered flag by more than 20 seconds from Red Bull’s Sergio Perez.
The 2022 campaign is just three races old, but the pace and reliability of Leclerc’s Ferrari—coupled with Max Verstappen’s problems at Red Bull and Lewis Hamilton’s travails at Mercedes—have seen him emerge as early favourite to win a maiden drivers’ title.
Leclerc and Ferrari will have extra motivation, but also pressure, to ram home their advantage in the next race on April 24 because it takes place at Imola in front of their passionate home fans.
Leclerc sits 34 points clear in the standings after his runaway triumph, which came after victory in the season-opener at Bahrain and second place in Saudi Arabia, behind world champion Verstappen.
“Obviously we only had the third race so it’s difficult to think about the championship,” Leclerc stressed in the immediate aftermath of victory.
But he conceded: “To be honest, we’ve got a very strong car, a very reliable car too.
“I hope it continues like this and if it does, then we probably have chances for the championship, which obviously makes me smile after the last two years that have been difficult for the team and obviously for myself.
“It’s great to be back in this position.”
The level-headed Leclerc has for years been regarded as a potential F1 world champion.
Having won the GP3 and Formula 2 championships, he stepped up to F1 in 2018 and a year later won his first race for Ferrari.
Leclerc’s second victory came at the Italian Grand Prix in 2019, the team’s first victory on home soil since Fernando Alonso in 2010, prompting scenes of jubilation among the Ferrari faithful.
In 2020 and 2021 Ferrari failed to record a single victory on any track, but now seem capable of sustaining a serious title challenge for the first time in more than 15 years.
“The mindset is a bit different compared to the last two years because now I know that underneath me I’ve got a car that is capable of winning,” said Leclerc.
His weekend masterclass saw him qualify on pole, set the fastest lap and lead every lap of the race.
“I don’t really have to overdo things or to do something extremely special and spectacular to actually get one or two positions because I know that it’s in the car,” he said.
“I just have to do the job.”
Red Bull ‘so far behind’
Leclerc’s upbeat assessment was in stark contrast to his title rival and fellow 24-year-old, Verstappen.
The Dutchman and team-mate Perez were both forced to retire in Bahrain as the defence of Verstappen’s title got off to the worst possible start.
After victory in Jeddah, Verstappen’s car again broke down in Melbourne when he looked destined for second.
“We are so far behind (Ferrari). We need to finish races,” Verstappen fumed, calling it “unacceptable”.
Verstappen finds himself sixth in the drivers’ standings and already 46 points behind Leclerc.
The standings have an unfamiliar look with Mercedes’ George Russell in second and Carlos Sainz in the other Ferrari third.
Verstappen is at least in good company. Seven-time world champion Hamilton, the man he controversially beat to the world crown last season, is fifth and struggling in a Mercedes that has severe problems with bouncing at high speeds.
Worryingly for Verstappen and Red Bull, as well as reliability problems, they also cannot match Ferrari’s pace.
“We are in this as a team and we will bounce back,” said Red Bull team principal Christian Horner.
“It’s a long season ahead and we have the basis of a quick and competitive car, but we need to get on top of these issues quickly and we will keep pushing.”