Leclerc led the opening two laps in Baku after taking his second straight pole for Ferrari on Saturday, but was passed by Hamilton’s Mercedes as they came across the line to start the third lap.
Hamilton had managed to gain on Leclerc through the high-speed final sector, eventually getting the pass completed into Turn 1. Leclerc then lost places to the Red Bulls of Max Verstappen and Sergio Perez within the next five laps, leaving him fourth before coming into the pits.
But Leclerc has revealed that an errant tree branch on the track at Turn 15 prompted him to cut the corner and then back off to ensure he did not gain a lasting advantage over Hamilton, allowing the Mercedes to close up.
Verstappen was seen taking similar evasive action on the world feed during the race.
“It was starting to be quite OK in the first few laps,” Leclerc said.
“Then there was something that I think hasn’t been seen on TV. There was part of a tree in the middle of Turn 15, and there I actually lost quite a bit of time.
“I cut the track and I was a bit worried to gain time on Lewis behind that hadn’t cut the track. So I slowed down and then he overtook me.
“From then on, it was quite difficult, because I was behind Lewis in dirty air, which I struggled a little bit, as soon as I lost the DRS, Max overtook me.
“Then you are just in a vicious circle that is very difficult, because I had cars all around me that had a bit more pace than I did.”
Charles Leclerc, Ferrari SF21
Photo by: Zak Mauger / Motorsport Images
Ferrari opted to bring Leclerc in early, only for him to lose a position to Pierre Gasly, while Aston Martin driver Sebastian Vettel battled past after the first safety car restart.
Leclerc ultimately finished the race in fourth place, narrowly losing out to Gasly in a late battle to complete the podium.
Despite taking pole, Ferrari had downplayed its chances of maintaining its advantage over Mercedes and Red Bull in the race, leaving Leclerc unsurprised by his early loss of places.
“I struggled a little bit, then I recovered a bit of pace, but then we decided to stop early to go on those hard tyres,” Leclerc said.
“Let’s say there was nothing that was unexpected in those first few laps, because we expected Mercedes and Red Bull to be a bit stronger anyway.”