After retiring on the first lap of the Australian Grand Prix, a “frustrated” Charles Leclerc declared he was having his “worst-ever start” to a Formula 1 season.
In terms of his Ferrari career, that dubious accolade is now certainly true.
But as long as Leclerc adds at least two points to his meagre current 2023 tally of six at the Azerbaijan Grand Prix, it won’t become statistically his worst-ever start.
That came in his rookie campaign with Sauber in 2018, during which he failed to score on the first three weekends before getting off the mark with a superb sixth place in – appropriately – Baku.
Then the reigning Formula 2 champion, Leclerc had failed in his ambition of landing in F1 not looking like a rookie. Thirteenth on his debut in Australia was a solid start and he showed good race pace despite not being as on top of the fuel-saving as he needed to be, but he overdrove in qualifying both there and in Bahrain next time out, admitting “I just need to calm down a little bit”.
He then struggled with tyre degradation in a tricky Sakhir race, pushing for an early stop against the team’s wishes after getting a flat-spot and being surprised that his tyres didn’t last.
Third time out in China, Leclerc’s personal qualifying performance was reasonably good despite a spin and a Sauber that couldn’t do better than 19th on the grid. An off in the race that damaged his floor meant he finished in the same position.
Across his first three F1 races Leclerc hadn’t qualified above 18th or finished above 12th and was being generally outperformed by more experienced team-mate Marcus Ericsson, who’d scored points for ninth in Bahrain.
But the Sauber team, headed by now-Ferrari team principal Frederic Vasseur, was happy to let its new driver make mistakes, knowing he was a quick study.
Leclerc had realised the driving style that had taken him to back-to-back GP3 and Formula 2 titles was the root cause of his problems
“You drive GP3 and Formula 2 cars with a lot of oversteer and this is the way to go fast,” Leclerc said.
“I did not expect to go quicker when going towards an understeer set-up in F1, but this seems the way these cars work.
“I just need to get on with it. I made quite a lot of mistakes in the first three races.”
Leclerc refined his approach, modified his set-up direction to a more understeering balance that he described as a “night and day” performance difference and quickly learned from the mistakes.
That set the stage for Azerbaijan. From Friday practice, he was on it and set an impressive long-run pace. He qualified 14th and ensured he kept his head while others made errors.
The reward was sixth place and proof that the hype was justified. He never looked back, producing a superb rookie season that ensured he was fast-tracked into Ferrari’s line-up.
Though he’s never been on the podium there in F1, Baku has a special place in Leclerc’s career.
His first Baku race weekend was an F2 masterclass in which only a contentious yellow flag penalty denied him a double win in the emotional circumstances of the recent passing of his father.
He’s taken two pole positions there, including a surprise one in 2021 when Ferrari was not on Mercedes and Red Bull’s level. He led from another pole in 2022 and was in victory contention after an early VSC pitstop when he suffered an engine failure – although a win was far from guaranteed given the Red Bulls’ pace and how strategies were playing out.
Leclerc’s Baku CV also includes his famous “I am stupid, I am stupid, I am stupid” moment from qualifying in 2019 – the radio message that followed misjudging his braking and hitting the wall on his first Q3 run while favourite for pole position. That accident is totemic of Baku being a track where Leclerc excels, but often things don’t go right.