After the Bahrain Grand Prix one name was on everyone’s lips: Charles Leclerc.
Leclerc regains his lead
Ferrari were back. After a mystifying opening round in Australia the red cars headed all three practice sessions.
But Sebastian Vettel still didn’t feel his SF90 was handling as well as it had in pre-season testing. Leclerc headed all three stages of qualifying and beat his more experienced team mate to pole position.
He lost that advantage within moments of the start. Vettel’s start was sweeter, and Leclerc wisely opted not to force the issue on the outside of turn one. That helped give the fast-starting Valtteri Bottas a shot at the Ferrari on the outside of turn four. Again, Leclerc opted not to fight.
Within a lap he was back in front of the Mercedes. Approaching turn one he dodged to the right, out of the W10 slipstream, giving his wings the benefit of clean air and braking as late as he dared. Bottas, perhaps noticing the SF90 looming in his mirrors, snatched a brake, ran wide and surrendered second. Lewis Hamilton, lurking behind, grabbed his opportunity to take third place back.
By lap five Leclerc was zeroing in on his team mate, having slashed chunks out of Vettel’s lead. Approaching turn one he mimicked his move on Bottas, feinting to the inside, but fell in behind his team mate.
“I’m quicker guys,” he pointed out approaching turn four. “Copy,” came the reply. Then, a few moments later: “Stay there for two laps, stay there for two laps.” But Leclerc wasn’t having any of it. He’d wasted 10 laps behind his team mate at the end of the Australian Grand Prix and he wasn’t about to sit back while Vettel played himself in.
As lap six began he hurtled up alongside his team mate and went by on the outside of turn one. Vettel pressed after him hard, the tail of his Ferrari snapping as he applied the power through turn two. Leclerc timed his defence perfectly as they approach turn four and Vettel got off the power quickly to avoid an all-SF90 pile-up.
For the first time ever Leclerc was leading an F1 race. Until misfortune intervened, it never looked like anyone else was going to win the Bahrain Grand Prix.
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Vettel spins it away again
The tyres were fading faster than expected on the abrasive Bahrain surface. On lap 12 Max Verstappen pitted, then Bottas covered him the next time by. Ferrari may have rued waiting until lap 14 to being Leclerc in, as Hamilton pitted on the same lap and now Vettel was vulnerable to a rapid out-lap by the Mercedes driver. Sure enough, when Vettel came in the next time around Hamilton went by into second.
While most of the front runners switched from softs to mediums at their first stops, Hamilton took on another set of soft tyres, committing to a two-stop strategy. But within a few laps he was clearly struggling, and instead of catching Leclerc fell into Vettel’s clutches. On lap 23 Vettel passed the Mercedes and restored a Ferrari one-two at the head of the field.
But this was also doomed not to last. At the second round of pit stops Hamilton was again the first of the two to pit and again took a chunk out of Vettel’s advantage. Now on the medium tyres, he closed on the Ferrari and tried to get around the outside at turn four. Vettel held him back, but through the three DRS zones Hamilton closed in and drew alongside again.
Vettel had been unhappy with the rear balance of his car all weekend. His straight-line speed in qualifying was 4kph higher than Leclerc’s suggesting he might be running slightly less downforce and therefore drag. But race day was windy, and at turn four the cars were catching a vicious tailwind.
Three times in the previous nine races Vettel had spun off while on the inside of a rival. Incredibly, when Hamilton went around the outside of him at turn four on lap 38, it happened again.
“I was surprised when I lost the rear that suddenly,” said Vettel. “Once I was in the spin obviously it was already too late. Certainly I had a look at it again, certainly it was my mistake so I need to digest that.”
Vettel had been shown a clear pair of heels by Leclerc in qualifying and the race. Was he feeling the pressure of being upstaged by his far less experienced team mate? “To be honest I don’t think it has anything to do with pressure,” he insisted.
Regardless, his chance of a podium finish was gone. While he spun around his left-rear tyre delaminated, and on the back straights the vibration caused his front wing to break off, showering the cars behind in sparks. He limped in, took a new wing and tyres, then easily picked off Lando Norris and the Renaults to take fifth.
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Engine problem denies Leclerc
After passing Vettel, Hamilton did not show any indication of being able to catch Leclerc. The Ferrari driver pulled clear by up to a second a lap, and by lap 42 Hamilton was 10 seconds in arrears. Then the gap started to come down. Leclerc was in trouble.
Alarmed radio messages followed. Leclerc feared his engine was about to blow. There was a suggestion the MGU-H had failed, though this was later denied. Whatever the cause, the Mercedes were now catching him by anything up to six seconds per lap.
On lap 48 Hamilton, almost apologetically, took the lead. “I went past Charles down the back straight and I raised my hand to him because there’s nothing I could do,” he said. Six laps later Bottas did the same, relegating Leclerc to third.
Verstappen was closing in fast. But salvation came Leclerc’s way from an unlikely source. His Ferrari may have let him down, but at least he wasn’t driving a Renault, as both of their cars expired within seconds of each other as they began lap 54.
Daniel Ricciardo’s RS19 suffered a serious fault and its ERS light illuminated to warn it was in an unsafe mode. Having jumped out of the car, he couldn’t put the steering wheel back on, which with little time remaining in the race meant the marshals had to leave it where it was, and proceedings finished under the Safety Car. Leclerc’s third place was protected.
“I probably have some lucky stars because of the Safety Car,” he remarked on the radio. He’d been worried about making the finish at all, let along hanging on to third. “Obviously being very slow on the straight, we were spending a lot more time on the straight so you are using a lot more fuel than normal.”
Verstappen, who felt he had gone the wrong way with his set-up on Saturday, charitably said he didn’t deserve to take third place off Leclerc. Vettel finished fifth in a healthy Ferrari his team mate would surely have put to better use.
Norris and Albon claim first points
The race wanted little for action. Lando Norris emerged from a lively midfield scrap with a superb, ‘best of the rest’ sixth place for McLaren. His team mate might have done the same, but having made a great start he clashed with Verstappen at turn four. The McLaren came off worse, suffering a front-right puncture, and sending Sainz crawling into the pits.
Norris fell back at the start and took a few laps to make some headway. “I struggled a bit in the DRS train that formed but as soon as someone lost DRS, I could get them,” he said. “I maybe struggled a little in the final stint but managed to stay ahead of Kimi [Raikkonen].” The Alfa Romeo driver followed him home seventh.
For a second weekend running Pierre Gasly struggled with the Red Bull. However despite a slow pit stop which dropped him behind Alexander Albon’s Toro Rosso, he recovered to grab eighth. Albon was next, joining Norris in claiming his first career points with ninth, while Sergio Perez grabbed the final one for Racing Point.
Hamilton hails Leclerc
Hamilton’s 74th win may have been one of his most fortuitous, but it might not have happened had he not applied such savage pressure to Vettel. Afterwards he was full of praise for Leclerc, but acknowledged that the two of them are yet to face off in a proper F1 fight.
“Every time you come across a new driver you have very little experience with, of course you approach with caution. You don’t know how they behave, you don’t know if they’re erratic, if they’re super-aggressive, or they’re more relaxed, or more prone to mistakes, all these different things.
“I’ve not had any time on-track with him to assess. He looks like a very stable, very fair, balanced driver as far as I can tell. But through the season you’ll see. He didn’t make any mistakes this whole weekend so I approach him currently the same as I approach Sebastian.”
In Bahrain Leclerc made sure Hamilton and everyone else knows his name. They will come to learn a lot more about F1’s new star this year.
Quotes: Dieter Rencken
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