We all knew that Charles Leclerc was good. We knew it was entirely the correct decision to promote him into a Ferrari race seat after just one full season in Formula 1, becoming the youngest driver to wear the colours of the Scuderia in over half a century.

And we knew that, at some point, the matter of a changing of the guard at Ferrari would arise, the feeling being that Leclerc would be the team’s next world champion. 

But few could have expected that question to be asked just two races into Leclerc’s Ferrari tenure alongside Sebastian Vettel.

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Sunday’s Bahrain Grand Prix justified all of the hype that has surrounded Leclerc for some time. With the exception of a sluggish start that saw him momentarily drop to third, Leclerc did not put a foot wrong all weekend. In the race, he was head and shoulders above the rest, prompting Lewis Hamilton to call him an “outlier” compared to the rest of the field.

And had it not been for the cruel cylinder failure on his Ferrari power unit 10 laps from the chequered flag, Leclerc would have been waking up for the first time as a grand prix winner this morning.

There was heavy symbolism in Leclerc’s finest hour in F1 to date coinciding with the latest in a growing line of errors from Vettel. Ferrari had the pace to comfortably beat Mercedes in Bahrain and should have taken a one-two finish. Even accounting for Leclerc’s failure, Vettel should have been there to pick up the pieces and still take a win for Ferrari.

But like Hockenheim, Suzuka and COTA last year (to name just three examples), Vettel bottled it. His eagerness to try and keep Hamilton behind him when fighting for second caused him to light up his rear tyres and send his Ferrari into a spin, with subsequent damage to his front wing ultimately resigning him to a fifth-place finish.

Vettel insisted the pressure had not got the better of him, though. 

“I don’t think it has anything to do with pressure,” he said. “When I was fighting with Lewis the target was to stay ahead and that was the ambition. I got surprised when I lost the rear that suddenly and then when I was in the spin it was already too late.

“I had a look at it again, certainly it was my mistake and I need to digest that our race could have been a bit better without that spin at that time. But nevertheless, it was a difficult race and there is plenty of homework to do on my side this weekend.”

Perhaps Vettel didn’t have things as hooked up as Leclerc with the Ferrari SF90 car, but Leclerc looked bulletproof all weekend long. Even when embroiled in wheel-to-wheel battles in the early part of the race, the closest coming with Vettel on the run to Turn 4, Leclerc stayed cool. At no point did he look like losing – incredible maturity for a driver in only his second race with F1’s most famous team.

Even if the result was disappointing, Ferrari will take heart from its response to Mercedes’ domination of the opening race in Australia two weeks earlier. It appears to have righted the wrongs with the SF90 car, putting it in the frame for a title fight.

But with which driver?

Ferrari team principal Mattia Binotto was quick to talk up both Leclerc and Vettel after the race, even in light of their contrasting outings: “I’m happy for Charles, but I think we can count on two drivers. It has not been a good race for Seb as well. He was second when he did the mistake. He can still deliver very well.”

For all of the positives Ferrari could try and find in Vettel’s performance, the reality was that Leclerc was in a different league to his esteemed teammate. But the bigger gulf between them came in their respective mentalities in the wake of such a galling loss.

Even in the aftermath of his defeat in parc ferme, Leclerc could not help but break out into a small smile after recording his maiden F1 podium. “Of course I’m extremely disappointed, like the whole team, but it happens in the seasons,” he said. “I think we made the best out of it. We have been lucky in a very unlucky situation.”

With the exception of his initial flustered messages over the team radio as his engine began to fail, Leclerc remained totally calm; at no point did he overdrive.

The lack of that kind of composure arguably cost Ferrari the championship last year. And the lack of that composure stopped it from scooping up the win yesterday following Leclerc’s plight.

Theories about a changing of the guard at Maranello may have been talked up through pre-season, but we are now seeing the first signs of it coming to fruition.

What now for Vettel? He will want to redress the balance against Leclerc quickly. A comprehensive win over his teammate in China in two weeks would be the most straightforward way - but the pursuit of that could create its own pressures within the team. Vettel would need to manage them far better than he did those applied by Hamilton in the past couple of years, given the added dynamic of internal relations at Ferrari.

For Leclerc, though, his job is simple: just keep on improving and adjusting to life at the top of the sport.

“I am only in my second year of Formula 1, so there is a long road ahead and I have a lot of things I need to learn,” he said.

“There is experience, which is something that you cannot learn but that will come races after races. I felt more comfortable in the car compared to where I was in Australia, and I am sure in China it will be better than now.

“Seb is a pretty good benchmark, and I still have a lot of work to do, but overall I am happy with how I improved from my first to second weekend.”

Vettel may still be the benchmark in Leclerc’s eyes, but if Bahrain sets the tone for the next few races, their roles could flip around very quickly.

 

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