Charles Leclerc described his performance at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix as perfect which it absolutely was from him and the team to beat Sergio Perez to second place in the championship.
The maths were simple, whoever finishes ahead of the other will be the 2022 Formula 1 runner-up to Max Verstappen.
Perez was the big favourite given Ferrari‘s tyre wear struggles in the second half of the season and how dominant Red Bull looked all weekend.
It didn’t look good for Leclerc early on as he went for a half-hearted move into Turn 5 on Lap 1 and dropped away from Perez who was almost being towed along by Verstappen.
So how did Ferrari turned it around? Let’s take a look.
Red Bull pit too early
Perez was three seconds ahead of Leclerc after seven laps so things were going very well for the Mexican.
Smartly, Leclerc began to close the gap and got within two seconds with some smart tyre management, forcing Red Bull to pit Perez so they could avoid being undercut. This was a possible mistake.
Crucially, Perez lost a couple of precious seconds battling Sebastian Vettel when he should have overtaken him and cracked on with the job.
Instead, he went deep into Turn 6 after he initially got by the Aston Martin driver, which allowed Vettel to get a better run out of Turn 7 before he used the slipstream and DRS to get back past.
On the next lap, Perez eventually made the overtake and stayed ahead but he lost at least two seconds from that small mistake. Remember that figure for later.
Meanwhile Leclerc stretched his first stint to Lap 21 before his one and only pit stop onto the hard compound.
It wasn’t clear whether the one or two stop strategy was best, but Leclerc pushed very hard again and closed the gap to get within undercut range for a second time as the race approached Lap 34.
“I was 110 percent from the first lap to the last lap,” said Leclerc. “Honestly, we had the perfect race for us, there was not much more today.
“I knew that the only possibility for us to beat Checo today was with a different strategy and playing with the tyre management, which we did really well.”
Ferrari told Leclerc to “box opposite Red Bull” which meant if Perez pits, stay out, if he stays out you pit. The former happened.
Perez had 20 seconds to catch and overtake his rival with 25 laps remaining. Ferrari had a dilemma, pit or go for it to the end on ageing hard tyres.
They had to commit to a one-stop because pitting again would mean coming out some way behind Perez with only a small tyre advantage.
Also a safety car, or virtual safety car, would have favoured Ferrari too so they absolutely did the right thing, even if it didn’t work out.
Did Leclerc benefit from lapped traffic?
The time lost from going through traffic was going to be important with Perez losing time behind Pierre Gasly and Alex Albon at the end, whilst Kevin Magussen had hampered Leclerc.
It was fairly equal in terms of the time lost behind lapped cars so it all came down to the drivers, who could extract the most from their tyres.
Given Ferrari‘s tyre wear issues across the season, Leclerc went into the unknown but handled the Pirelli rubber brilliantly.
As he’s proved at other events this season, he had much better race pace than teammate Carlos Sainz and his feel and skill paid off to keep Perez at bay.
Red Bull were forced to pit both times when they did so not much more was realistically possible. It could easily have been a race where Leclerc was on a two-stop and Perez was on the one-stop, with just a couple seconds between them at the end.
What did happen was Leclerc held off Perez by 1.3 seconds with a superb drive. Both drivers threw everything at it and it was a stunning race-long battle for second place in the race and the championship.