It seemed inevitable that Charles Leclerc would become the latest Formula 1 driver to add a pole position to his career achievements at some stage in 2019 – but few could have seen it coming so soon, and in such emphatic fashion as it did in Bahrain on Saturday night.

At the same track where 12 months ago, some doubts crept in about Leclerc’s readiness – poppycock of course, but that’s F1 for you… - following a difficult qualifying session that ended with the Monegasque saying he was “such an idiot”, he made a splash by taking a memorable pole position.

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The ship may have sailed to beat Ferrari teammate Sebastian Vettel’s record for being F1’s youngest pole-sitter, but Leclerc’s result saw him slot into second place on that list. He did become the youngest driver ever to do so for Ferrari, though, and in just his second race wearing the colours of the Scuderia.

Leclerc’s arrival has been played up time and time again as being make or break for Vettel at Ferrari. But the four-time world champion was assured that, if required, he would be given the priority early in the season – something we saw in Australia when Ferrari gently told its drivers to hold position when running fourth and fifth, almost a minute down on the Mercedes of Valtteri Bottas at the chequered flag.

The tables turned in Bahrain. Ferrari came flying out of the traps on Friday as it easily swept to a one-two finish in both FP1 and FP2. Team principal Mattia Binotto stressed the gap to Mercedes – standing at six-tenths of a second by the end of the day – had been exaggerated by using different engine modes. Regardless, it seemed like a drastic change in fortunes compared to Australia. The form continued through FP3 as Ferrari once again locked out the top two positions, with Leclerc leading from Vettel, just as he had done in FP1.

Come qualifying when all excuses were cast aside, Ferrari proved it hadn’t been bluffing with its practice form. Mercedes managed to cut the gap – Lewis Hamilton was within three-tenths of the pole time in the end – but couldn’t really get in the mix for pole.

But the same was true of Vettel. Nobody on Saturday in Bahrain could touch Charles Leclerc.

Leclerc set out his stall early in Q1, beating Vettel by two-tenths and running 0.7 seconds clear of Hamilton despite the Mercedes driver going for two timed efforts. He was again able to gap the field in Q2, this time three-tenths ahead of Vettel – who, like Hamilton in Q1, had to go for two timed efforts.

Leclerc remarkably carried this form through to Q3. Had he only gone for one timed lap – his initial effort of 1m27.958s was curiously identical to Vettel’s lap record from last year – that would have been enough for his maiden pole. Vettel’s sole attempt following his additional run in Q2 was two-tenths shy, while neither of the Mercedes drivers could make up the gap to Leclerc.

Just for good measure, though, Leclerc found even more time, shaving nine-hundredths of a second off to take the outright lap record and his first pole in style.

Jubilation broke out in the Ferrari garage, with the marque’s CEO, Louis C. Camilleri, on hand to see Leclerc deliver a performance that only further proved it was the right decision to stick to the late Sergio Marchionne’s original succession plan. By sweeping all three legs of qualifying, Leclerc achieved something Kimi Raikkonen failed to during his second stint with Ferrari that spanned 100 races.

Leclerc was his usual understated self post-session. “I’m trying to stay as cool as possible because unfortunately there are no points for pole position,” he said, bringing the hype train to a momentary stop.

“Of course it is a great moment. It has been a great day and a great weekend until now for us and I hope it will continue tomorrow. The target now is to focus on the race and try and do the best race possible. But it’s amazing to be here.”

If Leclerc wasn’t going to talk his achievement up, the two men alongside him in the FIA press conference would have to do it for him.

“It’s his day at the end of the day,” Vettel said. “Certainly my day was not ideal but even with an ideal lap would be very difficult to beat him today, so well done.

“My first pole was a while ago! But certainly it’s a day that you never forget.”

Third-placed Hamilton added: “He did an incredible job and I’m really, really happy for him. The first pole, it’s a dream that you set yourself when you are young, and it only comes once. He deserved it.”

But the focus did quickly turn to the race – and namely the fight between Leclerc and Vettel on the run down to Turn 1. The matter of the “priority” Binotto mentioned in pre-season may have come up on a low level in Melbourne, when deciding fourth place, but it would surely be a different matter when fighting for a race win?

The discussions will naturally be held in the lead-up to the race, but both Leclerc and Vettel were adamant that protecting the one-two and giving Ferrari the best result possible was the priority.

“I think it’s pretty clear from the team’s point of view,” Vettel said. “We got the front row today, and a very, very tough race ahead of us tomorrow. I think we need to work as a team and try to make sure that we stay first and second.

“I think it’s pretty clear. Obviously Charles starts ahead, so he has the advantage of pole position, and then we’ll see how it goes.”

“I will do absolutely everything to keep my first place - but obviously we are a team and we need to work together,” echoed Leclerc.

If Ferrari can continue to dominate in the race as it has done through practice and qualifying, then the team orders debate should be fairly cut and dry: he who is ahead, stays ahead.

But the signs from Mercedes at the end of qualifying and over the long runs on Friday were more encouraging. All it will take is for Hamilton or Bottas to apply a bit of pressure at the front, and things could get more fraught on the Ferrari pit will.

And that will be the real test for the rejuvenated Ferrari in Bahrain. Two weeks on from its Melbourne misery, will it star under the night sky at Sakhir?

 

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