“I am so stupid. I am so stupid.”

Charles Leclerc has taken this phrase as his go-to self-criticism in Formula 1, it seems.

The utterance that came just moments after he buried the front of his Ferrari SF90 car into the wall during qualifying in Baku on Saturday was identical to that heard in China two weeks ago, and even last year in Bahrain, when he spun out on Saturday for Sauber. 

Leclerc has always been his own harshest critic, but the stakes have become so much higher in 2019. No longer is a mistake the difference between a couple of points in the midfield fight as it was last year; now it can huge ramifications on his team’s entire race weekend.

That’s how it played out in Baku. Ferrari did have a shot at beating Mercedes, but it passed by when Leclerc crashed out of qualifying, scuppering the promise that had been shown through practice when the gap to the rest of the pack stood at over a second at one point.

Ferrari certainly didn’t make things easy for its drivers in Baku. The decision to try and get through Q2 on the Medium compound tyre was questionable, leaving Leclerc facing a losing battle on strategy despite his rapid pace in the opening stint. Vettel avoided a similar fate thanks to his own error at Turn 8 – a metre or two away from being just as costly as Leclerc’s – that meant he had to go for a Soft run anyway.

Vettel’s Soft compound struggles meant he could not challenge either Valtteri Bottas or Lewis Hamilton in the opening stint of the race, while it also left Ferrari wary of what an early stop for Leclerc would do.

The reality was that Ferrari’s hopes of victory in Baku ended the moment Leclerc crashed out in Q2. It was a small yet costly driver error – but an important one for Leclerc to have made sooner rather than later.

It’s only taken four races for Leclerc to learn just what impact a small hiccup can have on the team’s weekend. When you’re fighting a foe as precise as Mercedes, such errors need to be ironed out sooner rather than later.

And Leclerc, a young man who has impressed everybody with his maturity, was as reflective as ever in the wake of Sunday’s race where he had only mustered P5 for the third time in four races.

“I think in the car, there was definitely the potential to do pole position and I threw all our chances away by touching the wall yesterday,” Leclerc said.

“It is my mistake. I take the responsibility, and today basically it was the best we could do from there. It’s a bit disappointing.

“But on the other hand, I think there are some positives to take away from the weekend. I think qualy pace was definitely stronger than China and race pace was also very close to Mercedes.

“Now we look forward, and I’m pretty sure we will come back even stronger in Barcelona.”

Leclerc did his best not to dwell on the shunt heading into raceday: “I just forgot about it. Obviously it’s difficult, but I think any time there’s a new day it’s not good to focus on the negatives of the day before but more on the positive that you can have with a new opportunity on a new day, and that’s what I did.

“I tried to focus as much as possible on the race. I could not change yesterday unfortunately, but it’s just the way it is. I tried to focus on the race and do the best job possible.”

All of the great drivers have to go through setbacks such as these in their careers. Think Hamilton at the Nürburgring and China in 2007, or Vettel’s spate of incidents that led to a “crash-kid” label. Max Verstappen went through his period of hardship at the front-end of last year – and look how he has learned and grown from it.

It was necessary for Leclerc to have a weekend like this. The goal now will be not repeating it.

But again, we find ourselves asking where Vettel was in all of this.

Vettel was on the race-winning strategy, and even came in earlier to get the undercut on the Mercedes cars ahead. But his pace through the opening stint of the race was so poor that he never looked capable of fighting with Hamilton or Bottas.

“It was really difficult to get the tyres to work and we were not quick, and it was really inconsistent with mistakes, around here it was horrible because I had no feel for the car,” Vettel explained.

“We were too far away after the first stint. We lost too much, otherwise I think with a pit stop, we could have done something really nice, but it wasn’t there.”

Vettel said he still felt driving the SF90 car was “unnatural” – but this curiously was not a view shared by his younger teammate.

“No. At the moment, I’m not so unhappy with the car,” Leclerc said.

“I think we maybe need to work a little bit on our race. I think in qualy the car felt amazing. In the race a little bit more balance problems, but small issues.

“I’m pretty sure that if we work on it, we’ll get over it.”

Even with his mistake on Saturday, Leclerc emerged from the Baku weekend looking the more likely of the two Ferrari drivers to mount a challenge to Bottas and Hamilton in this year’s title race.



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