Refreshed Leclerc eyes F1 comeback; Hamilton encouraged

Charles Leclerc really needed the Formula One break to clear his mind. His season started so promisingly, then his big lead over title rival Max Verstappen blew up into a huge deficit.

Leclerc won two of the first three races for Ferrari as Verstappen's Red Bull had reliability woes. But a staggering 126-point swing in the next 10 races has given Verstappen an impregnable-looking 80-point lead heading into the Belgian Grand Prix on Sunday, when the season resumes.

It didn't start well for Leclerc on Friday. He was sent to the back of the grid for Sunday’s race because of multiple engine-part changes. But Verstappen was among the other five drivers receiving the same punishment.

The mental strain built up before the summer break for Leclerc as he was confronted with confusing team calls, while also getting furious at some of his own driving errors. The break came at an opportune time for a totally drained Leclerc.

“Yes, I needed it. The first part of the season has been full of highs or lows. There’s lots of accumulation of emotions which leads to being tired,” he said. “I used these weeks in the best way possible with my family, my friends. It was just great.”

There was a lot of mental clutter to clear.

Leclerc saw two nailed-on wins disappear — at the Monaco GP and the British GP — after team calls dropped him down from a dominant position into fourth place.

At the Hungarian GP before the midseason break, Verstappen qualified a season-worst 10th yet somehow won for a season-leading eighth victory. Another confusing tire strategy call cost Leclerc when he was in a dominant position and he finished sixth — one week after beating himself up for crashing when leading the French GP.

But Leclerc, who leads with seven pole positions this season, has unshakable belief.

“I still believe in the championship of course,” he said. “It’s going to be a very difficult challenge but I will believe in it until the very end.”

Unless Verstappen is dogged by the reliability issues that led to two DNFs in the first three races, Leclerc pretty much has to beat him in every race left. There are nine races to go, including this weekend's grand prix.

Seemingly impossible runs have been done before. Back in 2013, Sebastian Vettel won nine straight races after the break to win his fourth straight title.

“It’s easier to say than to do it, but I’ll give my best,” said Leclerc, who won his first race at the same Spa-Francorchamps track in 2019.

Spa, which is Verstappen's favorite track, is close to Leclerc's heart. His victory came the day after F2 driver Anthoine Hubert died after a crash on the track.

“It is a very special track for me. For every driver the first victory is very special," Leclerc said. "I got it here in very strange conditions, with what happened on the Saturday with Anthoine.

The seven-kilometer (four-plus-mile) Spa circuit nestled in the Ardennes forest is F1's longest and good for overtaking.

That makes it one of the best circuits to incur engine penalties given that drivers can claw their way back through the field. That's significant with Leclerc and Verstappen being sent to the back of the grid.

The others penalized were Lando Norris (McLaren), Esteban Ocon (Alpine), Valtteri Bottas (Alfa Romeo) and Mick Schumacher (Haas).

Their starting positions on the grid will be determined by Saturday’s qualifying.

AFRICA VISIT

Lewis Hamilton spent his break in Africa, a trip he'd planned since February. The seven-time F1 champion called it a “humbling experience” seeing people living with very little means.

“Just in like a house made of sticks, you know, literally twigs, and no shoes, no socks, and going about their daily lives. Not with social media, and not with the stuff that we all have in the western world,” he said. “It didn’t seem like they took anything for granted, which was really quite beautiful to see.”

Hamilton owns a record 103 F1 wins but none this season. However, the British driver has five straight podiums and believes Mercedes is very close to a win.

“I do, definitely. We’ve had great progress,” he said. “The car is becoming more of a racing car, which is not particularly what it was the beginning of the year.”

In Hungary, Mercedes placed both cars on the podium for the second straight race. Hamilton carved his way from seventh to second place, and pole-sitter George Russell was third.

“That was a huge boost,” Hamilton said. “We can close the gap.”

Sunday's grid penalties should help Hamilton's bid.

WEIGHT OFF

The remaining races of the season could prove to be the last of Daniel Ricciardo's F1 career, and he intends to make the most of them.

The Australian driver will split with McLaren at the end of the year after the team bought the final year of his contract. He still wants to race in F1 but that might not happen since his options are limited for next season.

“There’s kind of a bit of a weight off the shoulders. It’s just to go out there and just race, go have fun," he said. “Although the team has made this decision, the team is behind me to make me get the most out of the last nine races and to finish on a high ... try and get another Monza moment.”

Ricciardo's win at the Italian GP last September was the eighth of his career, and a rare high with McLaren.

DOMINANT VERSTAPPEN

Verstappen topped the second practice by a dominant .86 seconds from Leclerc.

Verstappen zoomed to the top midway through the session with the track still dry. Rain started after that and Hamilton and Norris struggled with sliding. Norris had the third best time.

Ferrari led the first practice: Carlos Sainz Jr. was ahead of Leclerc, and Verstappen in third.

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