Crashing on a Formula 1 qualifying lap in Monaco is hardly indicative of criminal recklessness.
The margins are razor thin and the rarity of accidents these days proves just how remarkably skilled even the worst grand prix drivers are when it comes to hustling a stunningly fast car around an impossibly small track.
“I went for it. It’s one of my strengths and it’s why sometimes I am good in qualifying. It’s also why I have done this mistake” :: Charles Leclerc
From that perspective, Charles Leclerc’s crash in the final minute of qualifying last weekend is of little concern. He was pushing hard, he perhaps misjudged how much grip there was on an evolving track and ended up turning in a little early. Once he’d hit the wall, it was game over.
But there is a wider pattern to consider with Leclerc. While he’s had a clean season up to that point, the one question mark over his stellar 2020 campaign was the number of mistakes.
These usually came in the race rather than on Saturday, although if you cast your mind back further to 2019, incidents such as his Q2 shunt in Baku when in contention for pole position contributed to Ferrari’s struggles in the first half of the season.
The question of whether he needs to moderate his approach inevitably came up after qualifying, In fact, Leclerc put the question to himself in response to something I had asked him about that final qualifying lap. Chances are, the topic was on his mind because he’d been asked about his approach by several television interviewers before, but it was interesting to hear him ask himself, and answer that question.
“It didn’t start great and then in the last sector I tried to push a bit more,” said Leclerc. “I made a little bit at the beginning of it but then lost it all obviously with the crash.
“I went for it and in the end it’s one of my strengths sometimes and it’s why sometimes I am good in qualifying. It’s also why I have done this mistake today.
“Whether this will make me change the approach for all the races to come… no, because in the end I had to go for it.”
Leclerc’s approach to the lap itself was reasonable. He’d lost time in the first sector so knew that he needed a mighty effort to recover from there and then make an improvement on his first run time. He also will have know that, if the worst happened, then those behind him on track will not have been able to improve.
For the sake of clarity, that’s not a suggestion he either did it deliberately or used that as a justification for taking absurd risks, simply one small part of the equation that the best grand prix drivers always have factored in.
But the risk/reward equation did have another factor, namely the risk of damaging in the car that would lead to a grid penalty or a pitlane start. And, for that matter, even the danger of being unable to start the race.
In the end, the worst happened and although Ferrari made an error in not spotting the problem, ultimately it was caused by Leclerc’s mistake. If that crash didn’t happen, there’s every chance he would still have been on pole and won the race.
So to take the question Leclerc posed himself, does he need to change his approach?
Looking over the past 22 races, stretching back to the start of last season, the Monaco Q3 crash was the sixth significant error Leclerc has made.
That includes wiping out himself and team-mate Sebastian Vettel on the first lap of the Styrian Grand Prix, crashing out at the Parabolica in the Italian GP, hitting Lance Stroll on the first lap of the Russian Grand Prix, dropping to fourth at the end of the Turkish Grand Prix when he seemed to have second in his grasp and clattering into Sergio Perez on the opening lap in the Bahrain Grand Prix.
Just taking the number – six in 22 – it’s clear that this error rate is too high for a driver who has the ability to be world champion. In fact, it’s too high for any grand prix driver.
But within that top-line statistic there is significant nuance to delve into. So let’s consider the context.
At the start of the season, Leclerc said “I’ll probably choose my fights a little bit better” of his approach to this year. This was during a press conference when he was asked about the need to cut back on errors, during which he also explained that he took a consciously adopted high-risk, high-reward mindset in 2020 given the limitations of the Ferrari SF1000.
Leclerc puts the car right on the edge, perhaps more so than any other driver, and usually it pays off
“It was definitely a difficult moment for the team and I was extremely motivated to do something special,” said Leclerc.
“And that motivation sometimes translated into crashes on the track, which was not great. But as I’ve done in the past with my mistakes I always try to understand why I’ve done them and not do them again.
“So I will still be as motivated to try and do great results and we’ll have to see where we are exactly, to adapt my aggressivity on track – but of course I will try not to reproduce these types of mistakes.”
We have seen Leclerc in the wall in qualifying before, in Baku in 2019. During Q2, while attempting to get through on the medium Pirellis, he crashed entering the narrow ‘Castle’ section after locking up under braking. That cost him a shot at pole position.
Again, an unforgiving circuit but a very different crash despite the superficial similarities. And Leclerc has had significant success with this attacking approach on street tracks. In addition to the fact he did earn pole position in Monaco, even if he couldn’t use it, he also turned in a stunning livewire lap in Singapore two years ago.
These laps are Leclerc’s speciality. He puts the car right on the edge, perhaps more so than any other driver, and usually it pays off. You can make a case that he might be dancing too dangerously on the edge, but generally qualifying has not been a problem for him.
At worst, he suffers in conditions such as Portugal where he was trying too hard to get the perfect lap in difficult conditions that rewarded a little margin being taken, but usually it pays off.
But qualifying mistakes haven’t been a problem for him over the past year or so, which means that Monaco should probably be an outlier. That’s not to say there isn’t something to learn and next time he heads into a similar situation, perhaps he will just leave the necessary margin for error?
He’s hardly the first to have been caught out in Monaco. Max Verstappen and Fernando Alonso (pictured below in his 2010 practice crash), to name but two, have ruined Monaco weekends with crashes in the past and learned from the experience. Leclerc will do the same.
Last year’s errors were a little more concerning, but haven’t been repeated this year. First-lap over-aggression or carelessness happened a little too much as a result of Leclerc’s determination.
But he was often trying to protect high grid positions in a mediocre car, and by his own admission occasionally did go overboard.
We’ve seen no repeat of that this season, which suggests he has tempered that approach. This was something that would have become a big concern had he carried it into this more promising season. So far, he hasn’t, although he’s only started four races this year so we have to reserve judgement for now. That’s where his approach will be tested.
So Leclerc is right that he doesn’t need to change his approach. He’s a stunningly fast qualifier and must continue to be so if he’s to fulfil the enormous potential he’s shown.
But he might need to refine it. That’s something that comes with experience and it’s worth remembering he’s still a 23-year-old in his fourth season, so while no raw rookie he’s still evolving his craft.
What you can be certain of with Leclerc is that he will not give himself a free pass on this. He will understand his mistake and the circumstances surrounding it better than most.
Did he simply push too hard trying to make up for a mediocre start to the lap? Was the pressure of what might be Ferrari’s one shot at victory on merit this year a factor? Did the occasion get to him?
Or, more likely, was it just an occasion where he nibbled at the margins that bit too much and paid the price in a situation where millimetres count?
Leclerc has a long career ahead of him and surely it’s only a matter of time before he’s tested in a world championship fight.
Just imagine how good Leclerc with the same attacking approach, but some of the remaining rough edges refined and smoothed out as a result of experiences like Monaco, will be in that situation.