Charles Leclerc kicked 2022 off with a flying start. After the first three races he was 34 points clear of second-placed man George Russell, while Max Verstappen wasn't even in the top five.
Even though Formula 1 had just started the longest season in its history, it looked like Leclerc and Ferrari were going to take some beating as he consistently showed his speed.
But that points advantage quickly narrowed and after Leclerc's retirement from the Spanish Grand Prix, Verstappen took the lead in the championship and hasn't looked back since.
On the eve of the Japanese Grand Prix, where Verstappen can clinch his second title, RacingNews365.com sat down with Leclerc to look back on his season. The Monagasque says it took a long time before he realised that it would be an impossible task to take the lead back from the Dutchman.
"After the Belgian Grand Prix I realised that I was not going to win the world championship," said Leclerc. "We came back just after the summer break and then of course you think back to the first part of the year, but I still believed in the title!"
"Then we saw that gap in performance between us and Red Bull at Spa, a gap we had never seen in the first part of the year, so I knew it was going to be very difficult."
This was the race that Verstappen managed to win from 14th on the grid, having served numerous power unit-related penalties. It was also the second occasion in a row that the Dutchman managed to win unfavourably from the back of the field.
In Hungary, before the summer break, Verstappen went from 10th to 1st at the Hungaroring, passing Leclerc in the process, whose team made a strategical error and put him on the wrong tyres during the race.
"If I look back at Hungary, to be honest, our first impulse [on strategy] was okay," Leclerc recalls. "Then from that moment onwards, our race was much more difficult. But again, that's part of the races that we need to learn from and get better in the future."
Room for improvement at Ferrari
Out of the nine pole positions taken by Leclerc this year, only two have been converted into race wins. His win in Austria was the only one where Verstappen started from pole.
Leclerc thinks he knows why the team has struggled to turn their one-lap pace into ultimate race pace, particularly after the Belgium Grand Prix where the speed difference between Ferrari and Red Bull was one of the biggest of the season.
"Now that we have had a few other races after the race in Spa, we understand a few things better. The car was not in the sweet spot there and we have now made some steps in that.
"We had a hard time with two things in Belgium. I don't want to go into too much detail about that, but we probably didn't handle those problems well at the time," he explained.
"However, Red Bull has taken bigger steps than us this year and that's why they are stronger now, but the big difference in Belgium was mainly because we didn't have the pace at all.
"I don't think the difference in performance between Ferrari and Red Bull is very big. If you look at the season as a whole, we've been very competitive."
Leclerc believes the race weekend execution at Red Bull is a lot better than Ferrari, which is why the team is haemorrhaging crucial points in the championship.
"The problem, however, is that we didn't perform well every race weekend, so we lost a lot of points," he said. "Whatever the reason, it often didn't fall our way on Sunday. We have to work on that as a team, to be better and get better results.
"We had already taken a [positive] step in Monza. The circuit was similar to Spa, but it went much better. That was good to see. We were still a bit slower than Red Bull on Sunday, but it certainly wasn't as bad as in Spa the week before."
NOT MANY PEOPLE WOULD HAVE BELIEVED HOW GOOD FERRARI WOULD BE THIS YEAR
Ferrari on an upward trend
While Leclerc is still mathematically within a chance of taking the Drivers Championship, realistically he is looking ahead to the end of the season and what can be done to mount a stronger challenge in the 2023 season.
"It looks very, very difficult to win the title, but I don't want to speak too much about the championship, I'm not really focusing on that. There are still a few races to go and I'm doing everything I can to finish the season in a good way and get better as a team on Sundays."
Leclerc believes Ferrari is on an upward trend. Compared to the previous three seasons this is the only one where he has regularly challenged for podiums and wins.
"If I take a few steps back and look at the overall picture, I don't think many people would have believed beforehand how good we would be this year," he points out. "That's really the positive point of this season."
"Everyone is used to it now, because we are almost at the end of the season. But if you look back at 2020 and 2021, those have been two years where we had a very difficult time in terms of performance. That said, we have to take an extra step to really fight for the world title."
There is just five more races in the 2022 season. For Leclerc this means five more opportunities to show Red Bull and Verstappen they mean business for 2023.
"We have seen in the last few races that we lost some performance in the race. In Spa that was noticeable, but we have gained some back. We are still a bit behind Red Bull on Sundays, so we will focus on that focus. In qualifying we have the pace to sometimes take pole, but on race day Red Bull find something again and they have the upper hand.
"I don't think it's a good thing to change your approach when things are going a bit worse than you expected. So I'm just going to try and approach it the same way, race-by-race, and hopefully win as many we can."
F1 Podcast: Should Perez’s Singapore penalty have been decided during the race?
RacingNews365.com F1 journalists Dieter Rencken and Michael Butterworth discuss the key topics from the Singapore Grand Prix, including whether Sergio Perez's punishment should have been decided during the race rather than after.