For luckless Charles Leclerc, a chastening home race ended yesterday in a premature retirement and a consoling embrace from Princess Charlene of Monaco.
It was hardly the ending that the young Monegasque, who was seeking to become the first native driver since Louis Chiron in 1950 to stand on the podium here, would have scripted. Then again, nothing for Ferrari quite goes to plan these days.
With only six grands prix of the season gone, Sebastian Vettel, once thought to be Lewis Hamilton’s closest rival this year, lies 55 points adrift, while Leclerc continues to be let down by a catalogue of Ferrari misjudgments.
The 21-year-old had shown promising pace here on a street circuit where he once caught the school bus, but found his chances sabotaged by Ferrari when it mattered most, as a strategic mistake in qualifying left him 16th on the grid. It was a handicap from which he never recovered, tangling with Renault’s Nico Hulkenberg and destoying his right-rear tyre. Gallingly, he was the only driver not to finish.
Leclerc tried to sound sanguine. “It was always going to be very difficult,” he said. “But our day will come.”
Increasingly, such optimism is open to question. Every couple of weeks, Ferrari make optimistic noises about turning a corner and closing the gap to Mercedes, but the evidence to support that verdict is scarce. In trying to eke out a result here, Leclerc had to resort to recklessness, looking to sweep past Hulkenberg at La Rascasse through a gap that never existed. “Being aggressive always carries a risk,” said team principal Mattia Binotto. “He pulled off some effective passing moves, but on his last one, maybe he tried just a bit too hard. But that’s the right attitude. He showed that he is not the sort ever to surrender.”
Hulkenberg viewed the incident rather differently, accusing Leclerc of playing fast and loose. “He came from quite far back,” the German said. “He spun, and he hit me. I didn’t hit the wall or anything, but he sliced my rear tyre open. I definitely think he was too ambitious in that moment.”
It fell to Vettel, who salvaged some respectability with a surprising second place behind Hamilton, to provide the team pep talk. Informed that it had been 14 races since his last win in Belgium last year, he replied: “Who’s counting? It has not been the easiest ride so far, but there is more potential in this car.”
All photography Aleksandr B. Seregin