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Charles’ championship back on track

FORMULA 1: After three months of setbacks from Red Bull Racing, Ferrari finally managed to fight back in the championship fight, although Charles Leclerc’s victory in the Austrian Grand Prix last Sunday (July 10 ) was bittersweet.

A boost from Charles Leclerc after his victory in the Austrian Grand Prix last Sunday (July 10). Photo: AFP

It had been three months to the day since Charles Leclerc had last won a race, and at the Spielberg arena he finally took the checkered flag to deliver a blow to Max Verstappen’s championship lead .

Damaged points were marginal. Between the distant memory of his previous victory in Australia and Sunday morning in Austria, the Monegasque had sent a staggering 90 points to Verstappen to languish 44 points behind. He shrunk that from just six on Sunday night. His 38-point deficit is still comfortably more than a clear race win.

But the morale-boosting qualities of its triumph over the drought cannot be underestimated. After months of strategic yelling and unreliability, the most realistic challenger of the season for the defending champion was on the top step again.

“I really needed that one,” he agreed. “I mean, the last races have been incredibly difficult for me but also for the team.

“Finally showing that we have the pace in the car and that we can do it is incredible. You have to push to the end. »

And this victory was decisive despite the 1.5 second lead at the flag. Although Verstappen took pole and secured a comfortable sprint victory, Ferrari easily got the measure of Red Bull Racing in grand prix conditions.

The Red Bull Ring is a traction circuit and corner exit has been one of the Scuderia’s strengths throughout the season. Combined with a thinner rear wing to neutralize RBR’s top speed advantage, the SF-75 was the undisputed master of the track on Sunday.

It was so the case that Ferrari felt free to change strategy on the fly, going from a one-stop race to a two-stop race in the late afternoon just to ensure that Verstappen, who has was forced to stop twice due to heavy tire wear, might not come back late in the race.

It meant Leclerc had to pass the Dutchman on the track three times, but he made it look easy on each occasion, his victory never really in doubt practically from the lights out.

But for all Ferrari’s bull speed, unreliability continues to plague its race result and ambitious championship like a cloud of dirty, black engine smoke.

This smoke emanated from the back of Carlos Sainz’s burnt-out car.

In the closing stages of the race, as he gauged Verstappen for an overtake to form a dominating Ferrari one-two, Sainz’s power unit exploded dramatically into smoke and flames which eventually consumed the rear of his car .

This briefly prompted a virtual safety car that allowed Verstappen to close in on Leclerc and turn an easy win into a tough one.

It’s Sainz’s second engine failure of the season and almost certainly guarantees him two rounds of grid penalties before the end of the year.

The stoppage came just three races after Leclerc suffered a similar setback at the Azerbaijan Grand Prix.

Ferrari has been candid that it hasn’t pinpointed the source of its reliability problem, and its strategy of handing Leclerc two new engines and associated penalties in Canada was an act of buying time by expanding its coin pool.

The engine that failed in Sainz’s car is of the same specification that Leclerc relies on.

“I have to admit I was very nervous,” Ferrari team principal Mattia Binotto said afterwards. “I was so nervous that I stopped watching the race in the last three laps.”

While Ferrari and Leclerc have managed to catch up on the points table, there will be plenty more nervous racing for Binotto this season until the team can figure out why its engines keep blowing up.

Until then, any championship hopes better to stay on the ice.