Sun soaked. Batteries recharged. Mental reset complete. The summer break is over, but title rivals Max Verstappen and Charles Leclerc emerge having entered the period in very different moods.
Verstappen delivered one of his greatest ever comeback drives at the Hungarian Grand Prix to win from P10 on the grid – his fourth triumph in six races – while Leclerc suffered another strategy misjudgement that left him 80 points adrift in the championship fight.
They will renew their championship battle at next weekend’s Belgian Grand Prix knowing what is required respectively to get the job done. Verstappen is in the box seat to defend his maiden title – but Leclerc is still in the fight…
Why this is Verstappen’s to lose
This has been a near faultless campaign for Verstappen, who is an improved version of himself after delivering on lofty expectations and winning his first Formula 1 World Championship last year.
Verstappen’s raw talent and confident approach in wheel-to-wheel battling has been evident since the moment he first raced an F1 car for Toro Rosso back in 2015. But last year’s world title success has added another string to an already fearsome bow. He doesn’t need to prove himself anymore. He knows he can do it. His rivals know he can do it. And that has seen him race smarter and harness his incredible speed into an even more potent weapon.
The result has been a brilliant run of eight wins in 13 Grands Prix so far this year. It has echoes of Michael Schumacher’s dominant 2002 campaign, or Sebastian Vettel’s 2011 title-winning season.
Even on weekends when things haven’t gone his way, like in Monaco when he was oddly off the pace and couldn’t get the balance right or find confidence in the car, or in Hungary when he was forced to start P10 after an engine issue, he has rescued things on Sunday afternoon. In Monaco, it was P3. Hungary was P1.
That opening sequence of races, which saw him retire from two of the first three because of mechanical issues, seems like a long time ago.
Verstappen is doing everything right. He’s not making mistakes. When he does – like his spin in Hungary – he makes up for it. The reward is being in a position where he could miss the first three races after the summer break and still be leading the championship with six Grands Prix then to go. He’s in an incredible position.
Looking at the races to come, it’s hard to see anywhere where he and Red Bull – who are operating at a very high level, both in terms of development and strategy – won’t be strong. Mexico, maybe. And Brazil could be tough, too. But by then, the championship fight could well be over, in his favour.
Verstappen will know that a DNF here and there can change things – and so won’t be getting carried away. But judging on how the season has unfolded so far, this is undeniably his to lose now.
Why Leclerc isn’t out of it yet
Leclerc needed the summer break more than anyone, the Monegasque slapped with some sort of disappointment at nearly every race from Imola onwards. It’s a lot to take for a 24 year old experiencing a championship fight for the first time in his F1 career.
Leclerc knows he faces the steepest of hills to claw himself back into contention. An 80-point lead is daunting. And if results fall Verstappen’s way, the Red Bull driver could statistically win the championship in four races’ time in Singapore.
But Leclerc won’t be looking at it like that. His mental toughness is one of his greatest strengths – and his focus will simply be on winning the Belgian Grand Prix and then winning in the Netherlands and then winning in Italy, each time letting the points look after themselves. It’s the only way to do it.
He said in Hungary that if he wins every race and Verstappen finishes second, the title can be his. That might sound fanciful – but it’s not impossible. Sebastian Vettel won every race after the summer break in 2013. Leclerc has the car to do it.
The F1-75 is very fast, possibly the fastest on the grid. Leclerc and Ferrari made a breakthrough on Saturday evening in Austria in terms of how to get the 24 year old comfortable with the car. And while the results on paper don’t back that up, the reality does. Leclerc was leading in France when he made a mistake. In Hungary, he was leading before Ferrari put him on a strange hard tyre strategy. He has arguably been the strongest of all in the last three events. He just doesn’t have the points to show for it.
That fast car combined with Leclerc’s impressive form this year – he’s ranked second in our Power Rankings with a score of 8.3 out of 10 (Verstappen leads with 8.8) – will give Leclerc and Ferrari confidence it can still be done.
Leclerc also has a team mate in Carlos Sainz who is operating at a very high level, has shown he’s capable of winning Grands Prix, and is delivering a better string of results than Verstappen’s team mate Sergio Perez. Having him in the mix will be key.
Ferrari and Leclerc must just be better. Leclerc and Sainz have staunchly defended Ferrari’s strategy, but the reality is the pit wall has lost them a huge haul of points this year – and they need to sharpen their game, especially as their main rivals Red Bull have been aggressive and on point.
Ferrari also need to work on reliability. There have been too many power unit niggles this year that have not just afflicted them but also their customers. It means there will almost certainly be more penalties to come for both Leclerc and Sainz.
And Leclerc needs to pull back a smidgen from the absolute limit to cut out the mistakes. His spins in Imola and Paul Ricard were tiny errors with big consequences. If he can iron those out – and build some momentum – he’ll at the very least be in the fight.