The French Grand Prix followed an all-too familiar script that’s played out several times in 2022.
After 53 laps around the Circuit Paul Ricard, Ferrari found a way to squander a potential race-winning car with an error/confused strategy/reliability woe, Mercedes benefitted and took home more points than their pace probably deserved, while Max Verstappen and Red Bull kept their nose clean to take the chequered flag.
While the fallout from Charles Leclerc‘s mistake and Ferrari‘s debatable tyre call with Carlos Sainz continues to dominate the headlines, Verstappen‘s stellar drive in the blistering heat at Le Castellet has somewhat gone under the radar.
Verstappen’s maturity on full display
Despite taking just three pole positions so far in 2022, the Dutchman has seven victories to his name. That’s helped him accumulate a 63-point advantage over Leclerc in the standings, meaning the title is the Dutchman’s to lose with 10 races remaining.
Verstappen‘s maturity shined through once again and made the difference in France on Sunday. The Red Bull driver had the straight-line speed advantage over Leclerc early on, and it seemed only a matter of time before he’d take the lead from his rival.
Instead, Leclerc kept his cool under pressure and seemingly executed Ferrari‘s strategy to perfection, keeping his rival at bay thanks to the Scuderia’s higher downforce setup.
After falling out of DRS range, Verstappen was eventually brought in for new tyres, with the advantage seeming to sway to Ferrari. Leclerc remained out and pushed to the limit as he tried to reduce the risk of an undercut.
That’s when the difference between the two drivers came through. Whereas Verstappen pushed his Red Bull to the limit without going an inch too far, Leclerc faltered while doing what was needed in order to win on Sunday.
Leclerc headed to France on the back of a victory in Austria, but he remained 38 points back of Verstappen. Whether it be an engine failure while leading in Spain and Azerbaijan, a strategy hiccup in Monaco or a simple mistake like at Imola, Leclerc‘s frustration has been evident at times throughout the season.
It was on full display after retiring in France, as he let out a piercing scream on the team radio. It’s an understandable response given how Verstappen continues to shrink Leclerc‘s margin for error.
The reigning World Champion has finished on the podium at all but one of the races he’s finished this season, the exception being the seventh at Silverstone. That was down to a loss in performance after a piece of debris from an AlphaTauri car lodged itself in his Red Bull.
Otherwise, out of Verstappen’s nine podium finishes this season, seven of them have seen him climb to the top of the podium.
Verstappen making the most of his experience
What’s becoming clear is that while Verstappen and Leclerc are both 24 years of age, they aren’t on the same level when it comes to F1 experience.
This is Leclerc‘s fifth season in the sport, and his first with a title-winning car at his disposal. After 93 entries, the Monegasque has shown he has the speed and the temperament to take poles and win races, but a title may just be a bridge too far just yet.
Verstappen, meanwhile is in year eight. During his fifth season in F1 in 2019, the Dutchman won three races and he even took his first pole in Hungary. However, he was also involved in incidents with Kimi Raikkonen in Belgium and ignoring yellow flags during qualifying for the Mexican Grand Prix.
Those kind of mistakes made people question whether Verstappen would ever be able to sharpen his focus and become World Championship material.
Safe to say, Verstappen has eliminated those kind of errors from his repertoire. It’s what helped him fight and eventually come out on top in last season’s epic championship battle with Lewis Hamilton. Red Bull have also grown as a whole around him after years of growing pains as well.
Contrast that with Leclerc, who’s mistakes aren’t helped by the fact that Ferrari have shown week after week that they’re one wrong call or confused strategy away from squandering the performance advantage of the F1-75, and that’s why the the 2022 championship is beginning to have an air of inevitability to it.