Ferrari’s dream start to the 2022 Formula 1 season turned into a nightmare on its home turf on a cloudy and wet Sunday. The duo of Carlos Sainz and, especially, Charles Leclerc came into the Emilia-Romagna Grand Prix riding one of the new season’s best cars, with the points to back it up: Sainz did not finish the last time out in Melbourne but held third place in the Drivers’ Championship with a healthy 33 points, while Leclerc won the Australian Grand Prix to put him at 71 for the season, way ahead of George Russell’s 37. The stage was set for Ferrari to continue its comeback tour at its home circuit in Imola, Italy.
It didn’t play out that way on Sunday. Through both bad luck and misguided risk, Ferrari got handed a reality check in place of a party in front of the fired up tifosi crowding the track. Instead, Max Verstappen took the win with teammate Sergio “Checo” Perez following behind, giving Red Bull a one-two finish and the joy of embarrassing Ferrari in its own backyard.
Sainz continued his bad luck in qualifying, spinning out in the second phase and eventually starting 10th in Saturday’s sprint. To the Spaniard’s credit, he clawed back up to fourth, placing him in the second row of Sunday’s grid.
That hard work was all for nothing, but this time he didn’t have himself to blame: As the mob of cars spun their wheels out of the start, Sainz’s was nudged by Daniel Ricciardo’s McLaren in the first corner, sending Sainz into the gravel and ending his race before it truly began.
There’s no sugar coating it: Ricciardo screwed over Sainz with the tap, and though the Australian ended up finishing last among the drivers to complete the race, the damage was done. After the race, Sainz was clearly fed up with his second straight DNF, saying “I was the unlucky guy that for someone’s mistake, I had to pay. It’s how it is.” This type of thing happens, and it especially sucks for Sainz coming days after a big contract extension from Ferrari. For his part, Ricciardo apologized later, potentially tamping down any drama between the two, hopefully leaving this as nothing more than a bleak footnote on Sainz’s season.
On the other hand, though, Leclerc has no one to blame but himself for what ended up being a disappointing sixth place finish. The Monegasque championship leader couldn’t replicate his fast start in the sprint, which let him pass Verstappen and lead most of that qualifier. Instead, the chase was on in one of the season’s least overtake-friendly tracks. Leclerc spent most of the race in third, chasing not Verstappen but instead Perez, and not really getting close to him aside for a few moments.
With ten laps to go, Leclerc could have settled into a safe third place and pick up 15 points for his fourth straight podium finish of the year. Instead, though, he risked it all on a still-damp track in order to pass Perez and nab the extra three points that second place entails. It did not work out for him: on one of the track’s famous chicanes, his car slid a bit coming out of the first turn and spun off the track and into the wall:
Luckily for Leclerc, he was able to get the car under control and back into the race, but a subsequent pit stop to check the damage and replace the tires left him back in ninth place. He was able to make his way up to sixth on the fresh tires before the end of the race, but the damage was done: Instead of picking up 15 points and a podium, he left Imola with just eight points and a near disaster in his ledger.
This is Leclerc’s first year really challenging for the championship, as Ferrari mostly nailed the car design under the new regulations that came into effect this year. (The Red Bull car still appears to be much faster on straightaways than anyone else, but Ferrari has had a more reliable engine.) With championship mainstay Lewis Hamilton in his own brand of hell back in the new Mercedes, the field is as open as it could be for Leclerc, who will likely have to fight only Verstappen, for the driver’s crown.
Decisions like the one to push a risky strategy at the end in Imola are the type that championship contenders quickly get beaten out of them. The Formula 1 season is not a sprint, despite the speeds these cars regularly reach. It’s a marathon, one in which the points in the first few races count just as much as the ones at the end. The safer play doesn’t get as much glory—if Leclerc had kept the car under control and passed Perez for second, the story would be much different today in tone—but it’s the kind of play that can make all the difference in the fall. Let’s remember last year’s controversial finish ended with Verstappen just eight points ahead of Hamilton.
By putting Sunday’s race on the line for only three more points, Leclerc and his team made a tactical risk-reward error. With Sainz knocked out so early, Ferrari needed as many points as possible from its star driver in order to keep pace in the Constructor’s Championship; taking three extra points away from its main competitor in Red Bull was simply not as important as finishing safely in third would have been. Instead, it took a near-miracle to not miss out on the points entirely. It’ll be a tough lesson to learn, but I’d feel safe in wagering that they won’t make the same mistake again this season.