The wait has been arduous since the Supercars championship last turned a wheel in anger at the Townsville SuperSprint in July, with the COVID-19 pandemic having halted the series due to states and territories locking down in response to outbreaks.
Charles Leclerc was cruelly denied a first victory at Bahrain, yet his performance served notice that the Monegasque is already equipped to lead Ferrari, as highlighted by teammate Sebastian Vettel’s latest unforced error.
Having claimed his maiden pole position on Saturday, the 21-year-old recovered from a poor start to lead comfortably for much of the race. However, engine issues significantly slowed his charge, with ultimate victor Lewis Hamilton passing him with nine laps remaining.
Retaining third place behind Valtteri Bottas only thanks to a late safety car appearance triggered by simultaneous Renault retirements, he was consoled on his first podium by the knowledge that the top step would have been his were it not for circumstances outside his control.
Post-race a philosophical Leclerc remarked, “It’s a shame … but as I said, it’s part of racing, and we will come back stronger,” demonstrating a maturity belying his age, adding, “I’m never really looking at the result, I’m more looking at the potential there was to do better”.
He also spoke admiringly of his ease at the wheel of the SF90 across the weekend. “They gave me an amazing car … [it] was very easy to drive and very good,” at odds with his teammate’s struggles in race trim.
Vettel spun on lap 38 defending second place from Hamilton, the German losing traction on the exit of turn four. Though he was able to continue, the lapse caused a left-rear tyre failure, exacerbated by his front wing dramatically collapsing under the car from the ensuing vibrations as he limped to the pit lane.
The 31-year-old salvaged fifth, and only the team’s collective disappointment after dominating the weekend until its closing stages overshadowed another mistake in high-pressure, wheel-to-wheel combat with Hamilton.
While Vettel accepted responsibility for his spin, he complained of fighting with the car’s handling, which in unison with the former is deeply concerning for his prospects across the season.
“Already halfway through the first lap I realised that the car was extremely difficult to drive,” he said, elaborating that, “We didn’t have the pace we should have had today,” despite Leclerc maintaining a sizeable advantage in excess of ten seconds until encountering trouble.
Vettel was found wanting on several occasions in 2018, notably in Azerbaijan when he ran wide into turn one on a restart and cost himself victory, and in Italy and Texas when he spun on the opening laps.
Each recurrence of his self-inflicted errors consolidates the notion that he’s incapable of racing at close quarters, as Hamilton conversely reinforces his own excellence and ability to outmanoeuvre superior machinery, which was the case last season.
As for his struggles with car set-up, Leclerc already expressed his relative comfort at Australia – the circuit boasting polar opposite characteristics to Bahrain – when only team orders restricted him from passing Vettel in the later stages of the race.
Coupled with the dynamic on Sunday, the latter has already demonstrated his adaptability. Should he replicate this at China in a fortnight, Ferrari must be prepared to prioritise its upstart lest Mercedes finds itself with an unassailable points lead before the circus returns to Europe next month without shifting out of first gear.
It’s apparent that the SF90 is delicate in the handling and reliability departments, which could deliver further heartache, but if the second can be rectified and Leclerc is able to extract more out of the machinery, the team needs to place its faith in him.
As Hamilton stated, he has “a beautiful, bright future ahead of him”, and it could be that this future is much closer than anybody foresaw.