The Monegasque appeared to be in full control of the race as he began to open up a gap to Verstappen’s Red Bull having soaked up some intense pressure early on.
But the destiny of the race – and potentially the 2022 F1 title – dramatically turned when Leclerc made a critical mistake and ended up spinning off into the Turn 11 barriers. The anguish and devastation was clear as he let out a haunting scream over team radio.
It was the third time this season that Leclerc has retired while leading a race, and after seemingly reviving his title bid with a much-needed victory in Austria, the Ferrari driver’s championship hopes now look to be in tatters.
Verstappen took full advantage to cruise to victory and extend his championship lead over Leclerc to a whopping 63 points. Had Leclerc successfully gone on to make it back-to-back victories, he would have reduced Verstappen’s advantage down to 31 points.
With the summer break following this weekend’s Hungarian Grand Prix, it was a golden opportunity missed for Leclerc to grab some momentum at a key stage of the season. Instead, Verstappen finds himself in the driving seat for a second world title.
Does Leclerc make too many errors to be champion?
It is not unusual for Leclerc to be hugely self-critical following a mistake, but he seemed particularly hard on himself when assessing his unforced error in France.
“If I keep doing mistakes like this, then I deserve to not win the championship,” he said.
“I am performing at the highest level of my career. But if I keep doing those mistakes it is pointless.
“I am giving away too many points. Seven in Imola; 25 here because we were probably the strongest car on track.
“So if we lose the championship by 32 points at the end of the year, I will know where they are coming from and it is unacceptable.”
Granted, he knew the scale of the chance he had just blown, as well as the repercussions it has on his title aspirations, but the majority of the points he has lost to Verstappen this season have not been through his own doing.
Since the Australian Grand Prix in April, the pendulum of momentum in the title race has swung drastically towards Verstappen. Until throwing away a likely victory in France, there was only one standout driver error from Leclerc.
That came at the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix when Leclerc spun out of third place while pushing too hard in his pursuit of second-placed Sergio Perez. Leclerc recovered to finish sixth but gave away crucial points to Verstappen at Imola.
However, Leclerc’s biggest setbacks have come after a team strategic error at the Monaco Grand Prix, and two catastrophic engine failures while leading in Spain and Baku.
And Ferrari team boss Mattia Binotto leapt to the defence of Leclerc, insisting it is unfair to label Leclerc as error prone.
“I think he was driving certainly at the limit, so there are things that may happen when you’re driving to the limit,” said Binotto. “Why it happened, is there anything else, we take our time with him to discuss, and to judge, but at the moment there is no reason certainly to blame him.
“And I’m pretty sure he will learn. We have always seen that Charles is reacting very strongly and well to when he’s doing mistakes. And I’m pretty sure that it will be back in Hungary stronger and hungry.”
Are Ferrari now relying on Red Bull to slip up?
Red Bull’s eighth victory of the season has seen them stretch their lead over Ferrari in the championship to 82 points as the team looks to bring the constructors’ title back to Milton Keynes for the first time since 2013.
Red Bull and Verstappen now sit in a commanding position in both world championships on the eve of the summer reset.
“If you had told me going into Christmas last year that with the biggest regulation change in 40 years, with the effort that we put into last year’s championship, that we’d be sitting here with eight grand prix victories, two sprint race victories, and leading both championships by 63 and 82 points, respectively, that would have been beyond my wildest expectations,” said Red Bull team principal Christian Horner.
“I think that it really is testament to the determination, the dedication and the hard work that has gone on behind the scenes within the factory now. We’ve seen Ferrari very competitive also this year, we see others, Mercedes for sure are gathering momentum.
“But considering we were probably the last team to transition fully onto this car, it’s been a phenomenal job.”
So are Ferrari now relying on things to go wrong for Red Bull? After all, Leclerc’s previous 46-point championship lead – built up across the first three races – was wiped out over the course of the next three events, demonstrating just how quickly things can change in F1.
Indeed, Red Bull have suffered from reliability woes of their own, with Verstappen twice retiring with mechanical trouble. But Verstappen’s Red Bull has been bullet proof since his Melbourne DNF, while his driving has been practically flawless.
“I’m not counting points,” stressed Binotto. “And if you would have asked me before this race what was the gap to Red Bull or Max, I couldn’t answer to you because I’m not looking.
“What we are focused on is trying to go at each single race and get the maximum results from it. And it didn’t happen here in Paul Ricard. But Again, I think we’re already focused on Hungary going there for a 1-2.
“I think each single race counts as the others and at the end of the season we will do the sum and let’s see where we are. And I think what’s more important to see today, once again, the good package, there is no reason why not to win 10 races from now to the end.
“The way to look at it is positively and I like to be positive staying optimistic. Could something happen to Max and to Red Bull? It already happened to them as it happened to us. Maybe it happens as well.
“But I’m not counting on it. I think we need to be focused on ourselves and do the best.”
With a maximum of 268 points left up grabs over the remaining 10 rounds, anything could happen, but there is a growing feeling that Verstappen and Red Bull are now an unstoppable force in 2022.