Sport can be cruel sometimes. In Formula 1 especially, where drivers’ success or failure is not entirely in their own hands, the failure of their equipment can be particularly heartbreaking.
But few heartbreaks in recent F1 history can be compared to Charles Leclerc’s in Bahrain on Sunday. The Monegasque driver was just 10 laps away from his maiden F1 victory – a dominant one at that – and announcing himself at the top table of drivers who will duke it out for the championship in 2019.
But the fashion of his display means he did the latter nevertheless. Just as Valtteri Bottas did two weeks ago in Australia, Leclerc wiped the floor with the rest of the field today in a performance that will give Ferrari serious food for thought when it comes to who will lead their charge this year.
Leclerc had been the stand-out driver all weekend long in Bahrain leading up to lights out. He topped FP1, FP3, Q1, Q2 and Q3, becoming the second-youngest pole-sitter in F1 history after leading qualifying, and looked more at ease than teammate Sebastian Vettel.
Talk of team orders at Ferrari dominated pre-race chatter, but such thoughts looked far off early on as Leclerc made a sluggish start and dropped as low as third on the opening lap. A lack of grip left him scrambling to stay ahead of Lewis Hamilton and even Max Verstappen, but he quickly settled down, getting back ahead of Bottas for P2 with a bold pass at Turn 1.
After seizing the lead on the run to Turn 1, Vettel managed to open up a 1.9-second lead over Leclerc in the first two laps, putting him out of DRS range – extra powerful in Bahrain thanks to the addition of a third zone on the run to Turn 4 – and seemingly in control of the race.
But Leclerc had other ideas.
Vettel started losing chunks of time to his teammate, who had switched on his Soft compound tyres more quickly despite his initial struggles. By Lap 5, just half a second separated the pair, with Leclerc telling the Ferrari pit wall: “I’m quicker guys.” Even so early on, would the team play it safe and tactical?
The engineers didn’t even have time to think about. Leclerc swept around the outside of Vettel at Turn 1 on Lap 6 before boldly defending on the run to Turn 4. Heart rates will have risen in the Ferrari garage, but both drivers kept it clean and fair.
That was Vettel’s only chance to try and beat Leclerc in Bahrain. His precocious young teammate wasted little time in opening up a gap, running three seconds clear. Vettel, meanwhile, was more occupied with Lewis Hamilton behind, ultimately losing second place to the undercut.
Ferrari’s decision to mirror Hamilton’s pit call with Leclerc instead of Vettel was a sign of where it saw the chips lying in the race early on. It did not want to risk Leclerc losing his near five-second buffer to Hamilton just so Vettel could keep his position. The race win was what mattered.
Mercedes appeared to have pulled a masterstroke by saving a set of Soft tyres for Hamilton to use in the second stint. While it committed Hamilton to a two-stop, he would surely be faster through the stint, giving him the chance to pile pressure on Leclerc at the front and make up for Mercedes’ pace deficit to the Ferraris.
But it wasn’t to be. In a repeat of Mercedes’ struggles on the softer compounds seen in Bahrain last year, Hamilton could not make any inroads on Leclerc at the front. In fact, he was quicker than Leclerc on just one lap - gaining two-tenths of a second – before falling into the clutches of Vettel behind, by which point he was seven seconds off the leader. The gap would swell to 14 seconds before Mercedes brought Hamilton in, alleviating him of his rear-tyre struggles.
Credit must be given to Vettel through the second stint, for he did not lose heaps of time to Leclerc. After he got the jump on Hamilton, the gap to his teammate only grew by 0.6 seconds in the space of 11 laps before he came into the pits to cover off the Mercedes driver. But Leclerc was the man very much in control of proceedings at the front.
Ferrari was right to cover off Hamilton instead of keeping Leclerc out. He didn’t have any Soft tyres spare, so couldn’t run longer before a late blitz that would also have helped a fastest lap bid (he got that anyway!). Even so, the two extra laps of undercut allowed Hamilton to reduce the gap at the front down to six seconds. Hamilton then picked off the struggling Vettel once again after a great wheel-to-wheel fight that ended when the Ferrari driver lit up his rear tyres trying to get a better exit out of Turn 4, sending him into a spin and leaving him with a flat-spot that led to his front wing failing.
It was a clumsy error, and one that (with hindsight) cost Ferrari the race win even if you account for Leclerc’s issue. We saw in the early stages that Vettel was able to get back into the groove with his tyres as the stint wore on. He certainly had the pace to re-pass Hamilton – but instead made a costly mistake.
Hamilton may have taken a slice out of Leclerc’s advantage with the undercut, but the race leader was quickly able to open the gap up again. He ran around seven-tenths per lap quicker early in his third stint, swelling his advantage to more than 10 seconds with 15 laps to go. Race victory would surely be his.
Sport can be cruel. Particularly when equipment can dictate results. A failure on Leclerc’s power unit left him without a chunk of hybrid power, causing his pace to nosedive. Hamilton and Bottas floated past, and, had it not been for a late Safety Car to the chequered flag, at least one more driver would have followed. Third place was still an unjust result for a performance that deserved so much more.
Ferrari was the team to beat in Bahrain, even if the difference to Mercedes was exclusively down to its straight-line advantage. The Mercedes drivers were fairly even with Leclerc and Vettel through the corners, but at a track where you’ve got four decent straights, it wasn’t enough to keep things stable.
Within Ferrari though, there was only ever one man likely to win the race. Even if there were a number one driver policy explicitly favouring Vettel, Leclerc’s display would have made it impossible to implement. He was on another planet to his four-time world champion teammate – a big statement to have made this early on in their partnership.
As for Mercedes? It remarkably has 87 points from a possible 88 to start the year, the only point dropped being today’s fastest lap score that Leclerc picked up. Hamilton had only a sniff of splitting the Ferraris, but by taking full advantage and pressuring Vettel into his costly error, it ended up being the move that delivered another one-two finish. Hamilton was there to pick up the pieces and snare a surprise result that, come the end of the season, could be critical.
But even the five-time world champion could not help but heap praise upon Leclerc after the race, particularly in comparison to Vettel.
"He was an outlier all weekend, even to his team-mate. He was so much faster than his teammate all weekend so he has so many positives to take from it," Hamilton said.
"We have a lot of work to do to try and keep up with him."