Charles Leclerc declared the start to his 2023 Formula 1 season the “worst ever” after a tangle with Lance Stroll ended his Australian Grand Prix on lap one.
Leclerc’s only finish in the year’s three F1 races so far is seventh place in the Saudi Arabian GP, where he was limited by having to start 12th due to a 10-place penalty for changing engine components in the wake of his Bahrain GP failure.
He only qualified seventh in Melbourne with an uncharacteristically poor Saturday performance, then swiftly exited in the gravel after the brush with Stroll’s Aston Martin.
Asked by The Race to sum up his feelings, Leclerc replied: “Frustrated, obviously. It’s the worst ever start of the season. Only six points or eight points, I don’t know what it is in total. Frustrating.”
In terms of his Ferrari career, yes. In his rookie season with Sauber in 2018, Leclerc didn’t make it into the points at all in his first three races before his breakthrough sixth place in round four in Azerbaijan. But as a rookie at the team that had finished last in the preceding season’s standings, no one was expecting an abundance of points back then.
Even in Ferrari’s compromised 2020 and 2021 seasons, Leclerc had exceeded his current tally of six points by now – taking 18 in the first three races of 2020 (albeit entirely through second in a season-opener that was followed by two disasters for Ferrari) and 28 at this stage the following year. He’d scored 36 and come close to a Bahrain win after three races of his first Ferrari campaign in 2019.
The most painful contrast is to last season when Leclerc left Melbourne having won two of three races and sitting on 71 points, 34 clear of the rest and 46 ahead of title rival Max Verstappen.
That was as good as 2022 got for Leclerc, though, and his championship bid began to go off-course immediately afterwards. This year, things can only get better.
Asked by The Race how his mindset had changed given he would have gone into 2023 hoping to be a championship contender again, Leclerc said he just wanted a trouble-free race now.
“For now instead of thinking of long-term targets, just finishing a race without any penalties or issues is the priority and getting some momentum and seeing what’s possible [is the aim],” he said.
The stewards quickly declared Leclerc and Stroll’s clash a racing incident, and Leclerc agreed.
“At Turn 3 I wasn’t planning to do any overtakes but Lance had to brake quite early or slow the car down a lot while braking because Fernando [Alonso] had to because of the cars in front,” he said.
“And so I saw that there was a gap on the outside. I went for it.
“Unfortunately Fernando had to slow the car down even more towards the end of braking and Lance found himself between Fernando and myself and we had contact.
“I’m obviously not blaming it on Lance, I think it’s a racing incident.
“But it’s just very frustrating because the end result is that I’m going home with basically no points.”
Leclerc did retain some optimism as he believes the set-up changes Ferrari made in Melbourne will pay off in race pace – and the evidence of team-mate Carlos Sainz’s charge from 11th following a pre-red flag pitstop to fight for the podium suggests that may be the case.
He said he didn’t really like the fact F1 was now pausing for nearly a month until the Azerbaijan GP as he would prefer to keep racing and trying to solve Ferrari’s problems, but said he would “use it in the best way possible to improve the car especially”.