Max Verstappen on back foot as Charles Leclerc shows championship calibre

Verstappen fumes after 'terrible race' at Australian GP (0:36)

Max Verstappen expresses his frustration as Red Bull's reliability issues forced him to retire at the Australian GP. (0:36)

On the basis of pure performance, there has been very little to choose between Charles Leclerc and Max Verstappen this season. But on the basis of championship points, the gap is already vast.

With three of this year's 23 races complete, Leclerc has a 46-point lead over Verstappen -- a margin larger than either Verstappen or Lewis Hamilton had over one another at any point in last year's championship battle.

The reason for the gap is clear. Two retirements from second place -- the most recent of which came on Lap 38 of Sunday's Australian Grand Prix -- means Verstappen has sacrificed at least 36 points to Leclerc through reliability in just three races. Give him those back, plus a point for fastest lap here or there, and the gap between the two would be in single figures.

The missed opportunities are not lost on either Verstappen or Red Bull.

"We are already miles behind," Verstappen said after retiring on Sunday. "I don't even want to think about the championship fight at the moment; it is more important to finish races.

"Of course, today was in general a bad day again. Not really having the pace, I was just managing my tyres to bring it to the end. It looked like an easy P2 anyway and I knew I could not fight Charles, so there was no point in trying to put pressure on him. We didn't even finish the race, so it is pretty frustrating and unacceptable."

Red Bull team principal Christian Horner added: "It is totally understandable, his frustration. That was a really, really disappointing result not to finish the race.

"I mean, we don't know what the issue is yet. I don't think it's actually engine related. I think it might be a fuel issue, but we need to get the car back, we need to be able to look at what's exactly happened."

But Verstappen's misfortune should not take anything away from the performance of Ferrari and Leclerc this year. Even before Verstappen's retirement, Leclerc had the race under control in a way he hasn't experienced in any of his three previous wins in Formula One.

"It was the first race where we could control a little bit the gap, and honestly, what a car I had today," he said after the race. "Of course I did a good job all weekend, but it was not possible without the car and this weekend, especially on race pace, we were extremely strong.

"The tyres felt great from the first lap to the last lap. We were managing the tyres extremely well. And I'm just so happy."

Of course, it's still early in the season. A gap of 46 points could be overturned in just two races if Leclerc fails to finish and Verstappen wins, but more likely it will take 10 or so races, assuming Verstappen starts to regularly outperform Leclerc. Considering there are 20 races left, it's perhaps not as big a disaster as it first seems, but it's clear Red Bull must get on top of its reliability issues immediately -- hence Verstappen's comments.

For Leclerc, however, a championship lead of this size is virgin territory. In fact, he has never led an F1 championship prior to this season and has very rarely had such a competitive car at his disposal. But years of championships titles in the junior series prior to F1 means he is not entirely unprepared, and he has already adapted his approach to the championship campaign.

"I've been in this situation in the junior categories before but then to be in this situation in Formula One means a lot, and especially after the last few years, and especially with a team like Ferrari," Leclerc said on Sunday. "So it feels incredible.

"The mindset is a bit different compared to the last two years because now I know that underneath me I've got a car that is capable of winning and I don't really have to overdo things or to do something extremely special and spectacular to actually get one or two positions, because I know that it's in the car and I just have to do the job. So the mindset is a little bit different this year.

"And then to keep up with Red Bull in terms of development is going to be difficult, but yeah, it's the same team that did this car, that will work on the development for this year's car, so I am confident. There is no reason for us to be on the back foot because we've done a great job, all the guys at Maranello [Ferrari's HQ] have done a great job, building up this car for this year."

Key to the championship will be the relative development rates of Red Bull, Ferrari and Mercedes. It's clear Ferrari already has a more developed car than its rivals and, significantly at this early stage of the year, a better understanding of how to maximise the potential from it. That's perhaps no surprise given the time and resources Ferrari was able to pour in to the development of this year's car over the last two years while Red Bull and Mercedes were fighting for championships.

On the flip side, there may still be more low-hanging fruit for Red Bull and Mercedes. Clearly Red Bull's short-term focus must be its reliability issues, but that won't stop the drivers and engineers developing their setup directions.

Verstappen and teammate Sergio Perez both struggled with the balance of the car in Australia, and in qualifying Verstappen lost pole position to Leclerc thanks to time that went missing relative to the Ferrari in the slow-speed chicane at the end of the lap. The tricky balance of the car also seemed to impact tyre performance, as Red Bull tore open the surface of their front left tyres while Ferrari managed to avoid a similar issue with Leclerc.

But while Red Bull is clearly still understanding its car from both a performance and reliability perspective, Horner is confident his team will start gaining ground on Ferrari very soon.

"Obviously they started this project a lot earlier than we did, so to a degree we are playing catch-up," he said. "But the fact that we are playing catch-up from the second-fastest position is encouraging and we are starting to understand some of the issues that we have.

"I'd rather fix a fast car than try and make a reliable slow one fast. So, you know, we need to get on top of it. We can't accept DNFs, but we need to understand what the issue is and we have got to address it."

Mercedes getting results, but the performance is still missing

Just as Verstappen's championship position isn't a true reflection of his performance this year, nor are the championship positions of Mercedes and George Russell. According to the standings, Russell is Leclerc's closest competitor this year, 34 points adrift, and Mercedes is the second-best team, 10 points ahead of Red Bull in third.

But Russell would be the first to admit that he doesn't have the second-best car this year, and it's very unlikely Leclerc sees him as his main competitor for the title. On Saturday evening, Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff put his team's championship chances at 20 percent -- which may even be a tad optimistic.

Nevertheless, Mercedes has done well to limit the damage to its championship challenge at the opening rounds of the season. Aside from Hamilton's horror race in Saudi Arabia, the team has maximised its points with the package it has. The big question is whether that package will improve at the coming races and whether Mercedes' own development will simply be cancelled out by the developments of Red Bull and Ferrari.

On average, Mercedes has been 0.85 seconds off pole position at the first three rounds of the season, and the gap to pole as a percentage has been slowly creeping up at each round. Mercedes claims the performance it has seen on track has been roughly a second off what it expected from its simulations back at the factory, so theoretically if it solved its issues, it could instantly become a front-runner.

However, it's clear that the problems are more complex than simply fixing the highly publicised bouncing the car experiences at the end of straights, and the team's engineers are fighting fires on several fronts with no quick fix in sight.

"Is curing the bouncing going to miraculously unlock a second within the car? No, for sure not," Wolff said. "But there are many other little improvements we can make on weight and other things we can optimise and we just need to chip away the small gains while understanding the car.

"I'm optimistic that eventually we will get there, whether it is two races or five, we just need to stay humble."

Hamilton, who is fifth in the standings, three points ahead of Verstappen but 43 behind Leclerc, isn't willing to give up just yet.

"I prefer to stay optimistic," he said after finishing fourth on Sunday. "There are 20 races still to go. If you think realistically with the way our sport goes, the top teams often develop at a similar rate. Will that be the case with this new car? Who knows?

"But I'm really, really hoping we can get in the fight. With every bit of improvement we make, [Ferrari] and Red Bull will probably make similar sort of steps, so it's not going to be easy. And yes, the gap is pretty big right now, but there's a long way to go."