With all due respect—the bare minimum, really—to Max Verstappen, Ferrari has been Ferrari’s toughest opponent this season. Kathryn reported as much from Silverstone earlier this month, and it remains as true as it was then after the French Grand Prix on Sunday. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: Charles Leclerc was in a great position to win a race, only to end his day picking up a Did Not Finish. Or hey, here’s another one from the archives: Ferrari absolutely mangles a pitting strategy, and likely loses a position in the process. These are re-runs, and they are getting exhausting.
Let’s start with Leclerc. Though it is always easiest and perhaps most cathartic to blame Ferrari’s mechanical travails for a DNF, by Leclerc’s own admission, this was purely driver error from a driver who hasn’t really been here before. In a post-race interview, Leclerc admitted that he pushed too hard at turn 11, causing his rear tires to swing out and spin him directly into the wall. He called the mistake “unacceptable,” and it really is, if his goal is to win the championship. It’s akin to his mistake at Imola earlier in the season, and it’s the type of mistake that will slowly get beaten out of him as he climbs towards the pinnacle of Formula One.
However, this is still Ferrari, so there was in fact a mechanical issue in the run-up to the retirement: after Leclerc smashed into the wall, he could have potentially reversed out and back onto the track to try to nab some points. Even one point would have been helpful, after all. Just as happened in Austria two weekends ago, though, Leclerc appeared to have a throttle pedal issue that did not allow him to reverse out of the wall, ending his race for good and prompting what will likely be the lasting sound of Ferrari’s season: a stream of heavy breaths leading into a primal rage roar of “No!” that thundered throughout the south of France:
OK, so that was Leclerc’s outing. Surely, though, Carlos Sainz did better than his last time out, when his car literally caught on fire. And yes, it is true that Sainz had the best performance of any driver on Sunday: After starting 19th due to engine penalties, Sainz made his way up all the way to third place at one late point in the race. But since this is Ferrari and this is 2022, that is not how it would end.
Prior to passing Sergio Perez into third, Sainz had picked up a five-second penalty during the safety car pit stop that followed Leclerc’s crash. See, Sainz had an unsafe release, nearly crashing into both Alex Albon’s Williams car and some poor mechanic in the McLaren pit:
So, fine, that is a penalty. Sainz was so fast, though, that it looked like he would be able to pass Perez on the track and maybe finish over five seconds ahead of George Russell for a fourth-place finish. Things looked great as Sainz ran up on Perez on lap 42, only for Ferrari to ask the Spaniard to pit while he was in the middle of an overtake. The radio call came through while Sainz was going wheel-to-wheel on Perez, and his exasperated complaints about the strategy call only increased after the team had him pit the following lap, ending his chances at finishing anything higher than fifth.
It was a strange call, or it would have been for any other team. For Ferrari, it simply feels like par for the course right now. Between the mechanical problems at Spain, Azerbaijan, Austria, and now France, as well as the strategic miscalculations at Monaco and Silverstone, Ferrari has left so many points on the board, and that’s before even taking driver errors into account. Formula One isn’t so much about being the fastest on the grid, though that’s a big part of it. It’s also about grinding out points with consistency and smart strategy.
Red Bull has that figured out, and they have the car to back up their sound process. Mercedes also knows what it’s doing after years of being the best team in the field, and only a misfire on car design is keeping them away from a real title-race challenge. Ferrari, though, is wasting what appears to be the best car on the grid with a bunch of self-inflicted wounds.
Leclerc and Sainz are fighting not just the other 18 drivers on the grid, but the Ferrari pit wall, the Ferrari cars, and their own inconsistencies. Leclerc binning his car into the wall at the Paul Ricard probably ended the title race, as Verstappen’s only problems this year have been mechanical ones that Red Bull mostly has under control. The Monagesque driver now sits 63 points behind the defending champion, as insurmountable a gap as can be just 12 races into the season. With the summer break just one race away, Ferrari will have to hope that it can fix everything that ails it in August’s time away. Otherwise, what could have been a return to its historical form will end up as yet another “next year is our year”-type of campaign.