Charles Leclerc has long been hailed as a future Formula One world champion, and following a strong victory in Melbourne, the Ferrari driver has emerged as the man to beat this season.

The 24-year-old Monaco native swept away his competitors in Sunday’s Australian Grand Prix at a redesigned Albert Park, starting from pole and winning by more than 20 seconds over Red Bull’s Sergio Perez.

The 2022 season is only three races old, but the pace and dependability of Leclerc’s Ferrari, combined with Max Verstappen’s issues at Red Bull and Lewis Hamilton’s struggles at Mercedes, have seen him emerge as the early favourite to win his first drivers’ title.

Verstappen is 46 points – nearly two clear victories – behind Leclerc after only three races, two of which the Red Bull has failed to finish.

Sergio Perez of Red Bull finished second after battling Mercedes drivers George Russell and Lewis Hamilton.

Despite Mercedes’ dismal start to the season, Russell is currently second in the drivers’ championship and Mercedes is second in the constructors’ title.

Leclerc 2.0?

Leclerc was keen to dismiss allegations that he is racing as a “2.0” version of himself this season heading into the weekend. He retorted that there had been a progressive, year-on-year improvement, not a dramatic step change that corresponded with Ferrari taking the lead.

That progress was evident in the way in which he won his fourth Formula One race. Prior to this season, he had two victories in 2019: the Belgian and Italian Grand Prix. In both races, he was under intense pressure from Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas in the closing stages, and he crossed the line with a lead of less than one second.

So far in 2022, he has proven his mettle in battle with Verstappen. But in Australia, he showed the depth of his abilities by seizing command of the proceedings and never appearing like he was about to lose first place.

Leclerc and Ferrari to go all the way?

Leclerc and Ferrari will be motivated, but also under pressure, to extend their lead in the following race on April 24 at Imola in front of their adoring home supporters.

Leclerc now leads the championship by 34 points, having won the season opener in Bahrain and finishing second 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.”