Let the flyaways begin.
Motorsport can be a cruel and fickle sport, and for no-one was that truer than Charles Leclerc in the final 15 laps of the Bahrain Grand Prix.
Equipped with a car ironed of the kinks that left Ferrari off the pace in Australia, the 21-year-old Monegasque had barely put a foot wrong all weekend in Sakhir. He dominated teammate Sebastian Vettel to claim his first Formula One pole on Saturday, and despite dropping to third at the start, he easily won back the lead in just a handful of laps before sprinting off into the distance.
But just as he would’ve been mentally digesting the fact he was bound for his maiden F1 victory in only his second race for the Scuderia, a power unit problem befouled his weekend at the death.
“There’s something strange with the engine,” he radioed frantically to his pit wall with less than 15 laps remaining. A faulty cylinder was misfiring, leaving him slowed by as much as 40 kilometres per hour on the straights. He was haemorrhaging the time he had so meticulously accumulated during the race, and it was painfully obvious it was only a matter of laps until he was swallowed up by the pursuing Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas.
“Unfortunately today was not our day,” Leclerc said philosophically. “A very hard one to take, but thanks to the team for the amazing car all weekend long — I’m pretty sure we’ll come back stronger.”
Indeed the Ferrari car had been very strong this round. The SF90 was faster than the Mercedes W10 in qualifying and held a reduced but definite margin in the race. It was a performance that more closely reflected preseason expectations than did the results of the Australian Grand Prix, which seems likely to be viewed as an outlier as the year progresses.
The team remains coy on exactly what problems required addressing, but the combination of the more typical Bahrain International Circuit layout and its more consistent conditions would have made nailing set-up more straightforward.
That said, it doesn’t necessarily follow that this will now be business as usual for 2019. Both Ferrari and Mercedes are still in the process of understanding their cars. Despite being designed with different aerodynamic philosophies, the two machines are matched closely enough that changes in approach each race could still swing the advantage one way or the other.
For example, Mercedes is adamant it was faster through the circuit’s 15 corners but had this advantage neutralised by Ferrari’s prodigious power advantage — Bahrain not only has four long straights, but three of them are DRS-enabled.
The two teams tackled the race differently and Ferrari emerged as the squad closer to the mark, so it was doubly a shame that Leclerc was unable to seal the deal — once for his own sake and twice for haul of constructors points to prove Ferrari’s progress — but there was a third element of disappointment that was more telling in Ferrari’s broader narrative than this sole mechanical failure.
When Leclerc’s power unit began to wheeze in the final stage of the race, Ferrari should at least have been able to rely on Sebastian Vettel inheriting the lead from his stricken teammate, the German having trailed the leading car for almost the entire race up to that point.
But rather than being the Ferrari rear gunner the race’s circumstances dictated he ought to have been — Vettel hadn’t been as quick as Leclerc all weekend and was anyway less happy with the car’s balance in race trim — he had again let himself down with another needless spin while duelling wheel-to-wheel with Lewis Hamilton.
Hamilton made his final tyre change on lap 34 to undercut Vettel for second place. Ferrari brought its man in on the next tour, just keeping him ahead, but Lewis, with an extra lap of heat in his tyres, was on the offensive.
The two best-decorated drivers on the grid sparred for two laps, but when the Briton got around Vettel’s outside at turn four, the German lit up his rear tyres and clumsily spun, flat-spotting his tyres so badly that the vibrations shattered his front wing.
He fell to ninth and recovered only to fifth by the chequered flag, surrendering as many as 15 points.
Mistakes, not technical problems, cost championships, because whereas mechanical failure is an unpredictable and almost always blameless fact of motor racing, driver error is not.
So as Vettel pirouetted off the track on his own accord while Leclerc was coolly powering away in the lead, it escaped few that this was precisely the reason Ferrari had promoted its junior driver after just a single season of grand prix racing.
The spectre of the team’s lost 2018 championship largely at the hands of Vettel’s error-prone driving had returned just two rounds into the new season.
Of course a single result in Bahrain shouldn’t be overstated — one race doesn’t make a team leader, just as Bottas’s powerful Australian performance hasn’t made him a Hamilton-beater — but what is clear is that Leclerc is ready to take this championship challenge by the horns immediately in the way so many had hoped the rising star would.
Leclerc is mounting his case as Ferrari’s coming man. It’s now up to Vettel to respond.