MELBOURNE (AFP) – Charles Leclerc has long been touted as a Formula One world champion in the making and the Ferrari driver has emerged as the man to beat this season after a dominant victory in Melbourne.
The 24-year-old from Monaco blew away his rivals at Sunday’s Australian Grand Prix at a revamped Albert Park, starting from pole and taking the chequered flag by more than 20 seconds from Red Bull’s Sergio Perez.
The 2022 campaign is just three races old, but the pace and reliability of Leclerc’s Ferrari — coupled with Max Verstappen’s problems at Red Bull and Lewis Hamilton’s travails at Mercedes — have seen him emerge as early favorite to win a maiden drivers’ title.
Leclerc and Ferrari will have extra motivation, but also pressure, to ram home their advantage in the next race on April 24 because it takes place at Imola in front of their passionate home fans.
Leclerc sits 34 points clear in the standings after his runaway triumph, which came after victory in the season-opener at Bahrain and second place in Saudi Arabia, behind world champion Verstappen.
“Obviously we only had the third race so it’s difficult to think about the championship,” Leclerc stressed in the immediate aftermath of victory.
But he conceded: “To be honest, we’ve got a very strong car, a very reliable car too.
“I hope it continues like this and if it does, then we probably have chances for the championship, which obviously makes me smile after the last two years that have been difficult for the team and obviously for myself.
“It’s great to be back in this position.”
The level-headed Leclerc has for years been regarded as a potential F1 world champion.
Having won the GP3 and Formula 2 championships, he stepped up to F1 in 2018 and a year later won his first race for Ferrari.
Leclerc’s second victory came at the Italian Grand Prix in 2019, the team’s first victory on home soil since Fernando Alonso in 2010, prompting scenes of jubilation among the Ferrari faithful.