Leclerc ready to put Ferrari woes and COVID behind him

By Sports Desk February 26, 2021

Charles Leclerc has been putting in the hours to ensure Ferrari bounce back from their worst season for 40 years.

In 2020, Leclerc finished eighth in the drivers' standings, with 98 points and two podiums to his name.

Even that fairly meagre return meant he fared better than Sebastian Vettel, who had 33 points and a solitary podium down in 13th.

The former world champion has joined Aston Martin for 2021 following the lowest points total of his career, with Carlos Sainz in place as Leclerc's new team-mate.

The Monegasque was cautiously optimistic at Friday's season launch, having left few stones unturned during the off-season, but he knows it is foolish to predict how a wounded Ferrari might fare against Formula One's other heavyweights.

"There has been a lot of work. We have been pushing quite a lot," he said.

"It always looks positive on paper but then we need to see what the others have done as a step.

"I have never been in [the] Ferrari [factory as much] as before this season. We have been doing quite a bit of tests with the old car. I feel very ready.

"I have been working in a similar way as in the past, trying to understand what my weaknesses were last year.

"I still believe tyre management is something I should push. I improved a lot last year and I hope there will be another step this year."

Last month, Leclerc was forced to put such intensive preparations on hold as he self-isolated having tested positive for coronavirus.

However, he offered assurances that there have been no lingering effects.

"COVID did not hit me that bad," said the 23-year-old. "I did some physical tests to make sure everything came back to normal and that is the case."

Having comprehensively out-driven Vettel as the younger man, Leclerc anticipates a different dynamic when Sainz – fresh from two seasons at McLaren – joins him on the grid for the 2021 opener in Bahrain on March 28.

"It is very clear we need to push for the team," he added.

"Carlos wants to beat me and I want to beat him too. We will try to be careful when we fight each other on track.

"What is most important is we separate what happens on the track and off the track. It is a fine line that every team-mate needs to find.

"Carlos is very competitive but he is also here for the benefit of the team, as I am. We will have to play it smart on that one."

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    A high-speed street race in Jeddah will become the 76th circuit to host an event in F1 history and could be the scene of Verstappen being crowned world champion for the first time.

    Verstappen takes an eight-point lead to Saudi Arabia and after the event there will only be 26 left up for grabs in the Abu Dhabi season finale.

    But it is his in-form title rival Hamilton who will be feeling the best heading to a new venue as he seeks a third consecutive race victory for the first time in 2021.

    Hamilton has launched a stunning late-season charge in his bid to win an eighth world title that would take him above Michael Schumacher for the all-time record but still finds himself with little margin for error.

    Should Verstappen win the title, it would be the first time a championship has been decided at a debuting circuit since 1981 when Nelson Piquet was crowned in Las Vegas.

    There is also a scenario where the two drivers could, fittingly, go into the last race of the season tied.

    If Hamilton wins while setting the fastest lap and Verstappen comes second, the top two would be level going into the final event for the first time since 1974, when Emerson Fittipaldi did battle against Clay Regazzoni.

    It has been an incredibly consistent season for Verstappen, who has nine wins, nine pole positions and finished in the top two for 16 of the 17 races he has finished.

    Verstappen could earn a 17th podium in Saudi Arabia that would equal the record jointly held by Hamilton, Sebastian Vettel and Schumacher for the most in a single season.

    But victory is all that really matters to both drivers on Sunday, with a brand-new circuit containing 27 corners – the most on the F1 calendar – set to play a huge role in determining the outcome of a dramatic season.

    LAST TIME OUT

    Hamilton celebrated consecutive Formula One wins for the first time since May in the first-ever edition of the Qatar Grand Prix.

    Verstappen limited the damage despite a five-place grid penalty due to a yellow-flag infringement in qualifying, impressively recovering to finish second.

    The Dutchman also took the extra point for the fastest lap, assured of beating Hamilton to that feat due to a late virtual safety car following a series of punctures.

    That outcome set up a tantalising final two races of the season in Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi.

    The two title rivals were joined on the Losail podium by Fernando Alonso, the two-time champion's first top-three finish since 2014.

    Valtteri Bottas, running in third, suffered a puncture as he attempted a one-stop strategy and ultimately retired, while Sergio Perez questioned Red Bull's call to bring him in twice as he pursued a podium.

    The Mexican could not catch Alonso and had to settle for fourth place, ahead of Esteban Ocon and Lance Stroll.

    WHAT TO EXPECT IN SAUDI ARABIA

    With all the momentum behind him, Hamilton goes into the race at Jeddah Corniche Circuit as the favourite for victory, a result which would put the record eighth title within his grasp.

    But for Verstappen this event is the first of two opportunities he will have to be crowned world champion. Even a small mistake from either driver at this stage could prove pivotal and the stakes could not be higher.

    Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff said their W12 car is performing better than it has been all season ahead of the event, with Red Bull under pressure to bounce back.

    The constructors' championship is also up for grabs. Red Bull have closed to within five points of their rivals, while Ferrari are looking to lock up third place ahead of McLaren.

    Aside from the championship implications, the debut of the fastest street circuit on the calendar at another new F1 venue should be intriguing.

    F1 have revealed average speeds are predicted to be over 155mph with top speeds almost reaching 200mph in what could be a spectacular night race under the lights.

    TOP FIVE OPTA FACTS

    Hamilton history – The Briton has become the F1 driver with the most seasons (eight) that contain at least seven victories, surpassing Schumacher (seven seasons).

    Maiden Mercedes – The team have won the race and taken pole position in the last five circuit debuts in F1. As well as in Qatar time out, it also happened in Sochi (2014), Baku (2016), Mugello (2020), Portimao (2020).

    Pole position – If Mercedes claim pole it will be their fourth in a row and best run of the season. However, Red Bull have had the better of qualifying this season, as Hamilton and Bottas combined (eight) have fewer poles than Verstappen alone (nine).

    Max milestones – Should Verstappen be crowned world champion, he will be the first Dutchman to achieve the feat, the first non-Mercedes driver to do it in the eight hybrid era years and the fourth-youngest in history at 24.

    Perez progress – While Verstappen's team-mate will not be thrilled to sit fourth in the standings, he has still collected nine points more in 20 races for Red Bull (190) than his predecessor Alex Albon did in 26 races (181) for the team.

    CHAMPIONSHIP STANDINGS

    Drivers

    1. Max Verstappen (Red Bull) 351.5
    2. Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) 343.5
    3. Valtteri Bottas (Mercedes) 203
    4. Sergio Perez (Red Bull) 190
    5. Lando Norris (McLaren) 153

    Constructors

    1. Mercedes 546.5
    2. Red Bull 541.5
    3. Ferrari 297.5
    4. McLaren 258
    5. Alpine 137

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    Having founded the team alongside Patrick Head in 1977, Williams saw the team he built become one of the most successful in Formula One.

    They won nine constructors' championships and seven drivers' championships across his time with the team. Williams have not claimed either since winning both in 1997 when Jacques Villeneuve won the drivers' crown.

    The team sold to US investors in 2020. Williams and his daughter Claire, who had served as deputy team principal, moved away from F1 last year.

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