The handful of days between leaving Austria and arriving in Silverstone gave the teams little opportunity to refocus their ambitions, but nor did they need to as it was clear that their ambition remained unchanged: to shut down the gap to Charles Leclerc. With a 49 point lead over closest rival Oliver Rowland it was obvious that he was going to remain in the lead at the end of the weekend no matter what happened, but that only focused his rivals’ attention on the job ahead of them.
If they were hoping for hot, summery conditions to assist with their task, they were to be disappointed: the usual overcast Silverstone conditions were installed when the teams took to the circuit for free practice, unusually run on Thursday afternoon from the old paddock complex they call home for the weekend rather than the F1 paddock, with everyone hitting the track immediately to get some runs under the belt in case the threatened rain arrived.
Unfortunately for everyone else, Leclerc continued his imperious form at the Northamptonshire circuit, topping the times at the 10 minute mark and staying there for all but a few moments when Nicholas Latifi and Luca Ghiotto briefly borrowed the top spot until he reclaimed it next time through, and then ran quicker still later in the session to top free practice ahead of Oliver Rowland and Ghiotto.
Rowland has long been vocal about the need to steal pole away from the Ferrari Academy driver, for the points as well as for the opportunities it presents in the race, positionally and tyre management wise. Unfortunately for the British racer, he and the others were unable to stop Leclerc grabbing his sixth pole from as many attempts, a record that is unprecedented at this level of racing.
The Monegasque driver was untouchable: fastest on both sets of tyres despite the changeable conditions following an earlier rain shower, Leclerc was competing with himself for the top spot, with his rivals unable to make any in roads on his time around the fast, flowing circuit as he finished the session almost half a second faster than his nearest rivals, Rowland and Norman Nato.
Leclerc was deflecting questions in the press conference about the ease with which he claimed pole number 6, but the advantage was self-evident: “to be honest we didn’t expect anything, we were just working on ourselves and it went quite good today. We had a good free practice and we worked a bit on the car, and more on me obviously, and today it was a good session overall.
“Tomorrow we need to make a good start, which will be the key to the race, and after that in the race it was quite good in Austria, so I’m looking forward to the race. Obviously the degradation is quite high here because of the high speed corners, so the key will be to be in the front in this section of the track, and we’ll see how it goes.”
Saturday arrived, another race on a slightly damp track, and with it came a fifth race win for Leclerc. The Monegasque driver led his rivals into turn 1 and that was about as close as it got: the usual string of fastest laps to build a lap on the soft tyres, with running in clear air allowing him to run a lap more than his rivals and build a bigger lead before the stop on lap 7 and re-emerging in the points and pushing forward, overtaking rivals on the hard compound with his fresher rubber before reclaiming the lead when Nobuharu Matsushita returned to the pits and building a bigger lead for an eventual margin of 9 seconds over Nato and Rowland.
The main talking point of the race was on his in-lap, when oil and smoke started pouring from the back of his car: if his rivals were hoping for a mechanical problem they were to be disappointed once again, as it was simply a loose cap allowing oil to escape until it dropped below a certain level, after which it stopped leaking out, with Leclerc’s race entirely unaffected by the apparent drama.
Behind him were battles aplenty – Nato and Rowland scrapped throughout the race after the Briton’s poor start allowed the Frenchman through, Artem Markelov and Matsushita topped and tailed the race with fights, as did Ghiotto and Nicholas Latifi – but unfortunately for all of them, they were unable to get close enough to fight with Leclerc, who sailed serenely on to another victory, only briefly disturbed by the oil leak.
“I was nervous at that moment,” he confirmed in the press conference, “I think I saw it before the team did: I went on the radio and asked them if they saw on the screens that there was smoke coming out of my car, and I had no answer. A lap later I asked again, and they told me that they did see it, but they didn’t know what was going on. We had already stopped for the prime tyres, so I just carried on.
“I was a little bit scared - I was looking at the screens on the straight and I saw my car with smoke behind it, I looked in the mirrors and I thought the engine would blow up - but nothing happened. After that, on the prime tyres, we were quite fast: I knew Norman was behind me and trying to catch me but I tried to stay calm, and when he reduced the gap to me I pushed again and the car was very good until the chequered flag.
“It was a really good race: I think it’s probably the most positive one of the season, and it shows that I and the team have done a step since Bahrain. I’m very happy.”
A cold, dreary Sunday morning brought the sprint race, the end to a long back to back couple of rounds and a chance for Leclerc’s rivals to finally reclaim some momentum with the Monegasque starting from P8: Latifi tore off into the distance from pole position in exactly the same way Leclerc had the day before, while his rivals squabbled among themselves behind him.
Ghiotto eased himself into P2 while Rowland made up for his poor start the day before with a great one to run outside Jordan King at turn 1 before heading off after the others, but King had other thoughts, fighting back until the pair came together at turn 3, with the MP man coming off second best and allowing Markelov to get a run on Rowland, who edged him onto the grass to stop the Russian’s march, keeping P3 but collecting a 5 second penalty for his efforts.
Leclerc had moved forward 2 spots and was looking for more, but Sergio Canamasas had other ideas, defending robustly for lap after lap against the odds until Leclerc finally found a route through and looked to disrupt the top 4. But late in the race Ralph Boschung touched the grass while trying to get past Alexander Albon, spinning across the track and crashing heavily into the wall at Stowe, prompting a safety car that few would have wanted to see.
If the front pair were hoping the SC would see them to the end of the race, Rowland was looking for an opportunity, thinking that backing his rivals into each other would force them to fight among themselves, giving him time to overturn his time penalty. But the move was in vain: Latifi sailed off into the distance, Ghiotto limped home on tired tyres, Markelov slid past Rowland at the restart to claim P3, and the Briton was given an additional 20 second time penalty for impeding his rivals behind the safety car and at the restart.
For Latifi, who led a win slide in the Barcelona sprint race when he ran wide late in the race, it was redemption and proof that his recent improved form was no fluke: “I’m just really happy. I was on the podium in Barcelona and could show we were able to challenge for wins: that one unfortunately got away from me, but we managed to get this one back!
“We showed good pace in the race yesterday but just unfortunately got stuck behind slower cars, and it’s difficult to overtake around here. I knew the start was going to be crucial: I didn’t get the best one, but I managed to hold off the position and then put my head down, pulled a few fast laps, and managed the race from there.
“I had a big gap so the safety car was the last thing I needed, and I don’t think the race should have been restarted with how late the safety car lights came out: it left me no time to build a gap to the safety car and to control the pace, but I still had good tyres so I managed to control it and just pull clear, make no mistakes on that last lap, and to bring it home for the win.”
Unnoticed initially in a scrappy restart, but certainly discussed afterwards, was the fact that Canamasas managed to fight back past Leclerc on that last lap to grab P5 on track, showing his rivals that he is beatable in the cut and thrust of racing. But to get him into that position again a few of his rivals need to beat him in qualifying so he doesn’t start from the front every time and, with only 2 weeks until the next round in Budapest, time is running out to find a solution to that season-long problem.
The teams arrived in the mountainous region of Styria, Austria on Wednesday with one ambition: close the gap to Charles Leclerc. The Monegasque rider left Baku after an almost perfect weekend had rebuilt his lead in the drivers’ championship after a tough one in Monaco, and his rivals knew that the tight, twisty Red Bull Ring was an opportunity to redress the balance once again.
Thick, dark clouds swirled around the circuit as the teams lined up in the pitlane for free practice, with all drivers straight out to ensure as much track time as possible on a circuit that requires a perfect lap to find a good qualifying position given the historically close times there.
The times tumbled on the first set until Leclerc grabbed P1 15 minutes in, before everyone concentrated on long runs until the final 5 minutes: a number of drivers pushed again, setting fastest sector times until Sergio Sette Camara pulled up on track ahead of the pits, prompting a VSC period and leaving Leclerc on top at the flag, ahead of teammate Antonio Fuoco and Nyck De Vries.
Anyone hoping to bring Leclerc’s run of pole positions to an end was in for disappointment: the Ferrari Academy driver made it five from five, setting the two quickest laps of the session just to be sure. With rain between the sessions and clouds overhead the drivers were immediately out to secure a time, and Leclerc soon held the top spot again, by a tenth over Sette Camara as they returned to the pits. On the second set ART teammates Alexander Albon and Nobuharu Matsushita briefly peeled P1 from Leclerc’s hands, but Leclerc was not to be denied: he grabbed pole by three tenths from Sette Camara (who finished in the gravel on his last lap) and Fuoco.
Leclerc still felt it was the toughest qualifying session so far, though: “Yeah, definitely! We expected the gap to be a bit smaller because it is a short track, and we pushed like crazy! I think that Sergio was on a very good lap before he stopped, so it would have been very close there. But I am very happy: fifth pole in a row, fifth qualifying and we grabbed all poles. I think our strong point is definitely qualy.
"But it doesn’t define the results tomorrow: we need to push and make a good start and a good race tomorrow.”
Unfortunately for his rivals, that’s exactly what he did. Leclerc led Fuoco into turn 1 and didn’t look back, building a solid lead and controlling the pace while managing his tyres ahead of his rivals on the prime strategy while the option drivers, led by DAMS teammates Nicholas Latifi and Oliver Rowland, struggled early on the supersofts before stopping for fresh rubber. After the stops, the pair went in different ways: Rowland pushed hard to overtake and try to hold the gap up to Leclerc, while Latifi bided his time, managing his tyres for the final few laps.
“After the first 3 laps I knew my supersofts were gone,” Latifi noted later, “and when I heard these guys were pitting I knew there were a lot of laps to the end, and based on my experience from the beginning of the race I knew they would start dropping.” And so it proved. The PREMA pair pitted earlier than expected – Fuoco with 9 laps remaining, Leclerc next time around – and although they both set fastest laps on the fresh rubber it was clear that they fell off their peak far too soon.
And then Latifi struck: with 5 laps to go Latifi battled past his teammate before closing in on the top two, running inside and through Fuoco at turn 1 with a gap of 6 seconds up to Leclerc with 3 laps remaining, before closing that gap to just 1.3s at the flag. The Monegasque was happy, but relieved, to be on the top spot for the fourth time this year: “It wasn’t easy, definitely! At the end Nicholas was coming very, very quickly!
“We had a good start and I managed the tyres as much as I could, because I knew I had to do a lot of laps to the pitstop, so I was managing the gap to the end. At around the middle of the stint I could push a bit harder to open out the gap and that helped us to win the race, because at the end the gap was not huge! The last part of the race was really hard to manage, because the soft tyres degrade a lot quicker than we thought, and Nicholas was just very quick.
“I don’t think we could have done any better with the strategy we had: we pitted when we had to because the tyres were done, and we finished on the limit with the option tyres, so I’m happy about the race.”
But tomorrow’s another day, and the sprint race gave his rivals a chance to grab something back, a chance that became bigger still when Leclerc retired early in the race. Artem Markelov took all the advantage after a long hold at the start by blasting off unopposed to turn 1, with P2 man Ralph Boschung bogging down off the line and being swamped: Raffaele Marciello ran blind into the back of the Swiss man, retiring on the spot and prompting a visit by the safety car.
The Russian easily controlled the restart, and indeed the race as he could dictate the pace and was unchallenged throughout, but behind him Rowland had made a tremendous start and was looking to usurp Alexander Albon, now returned from injury, for P2. The Thai driver was not prepared to gift his position: Rowland stuttered and Fuoco pounced, looking for a way past at turn 4 but being squeezed onto the kerbs and back into the path of teammate Leclerc, who had nowhere to go and was tapped into a spin and retirement.
Following a brief VSC period Markelov and Albon headed off into the distance, while Rowland used his experience from the feature race to protect his tyres until late in the race, when he tried in vain once again to demote Albon until they finished line astern behind Markelov. “It was actually a hard weekend for me,” he noted sanguinely after the race, “I qualified in P15, but we did a good job yesterday, working hard to get up to P8 and the reverse pole.
“Today we had a great start, a great restart after the safety car, and I’m pretty happy: thanks to the team, and to everyone who supports me. This was actually a good boost for me for the next race, but I need to improve my qualifying compared to this race because it was a bit of a disaster! If I get a good qualifying I think I can fight again for the top 3 in Silverstone.”
The rest of the field probably agreed with the sentiments, but more than anything they will need to ensure that Leclerc doesn’t improve too. And on current form, it’s hard to bet against him turn 5 into 6 poles in Silverstone’s Round 6.