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F1: If anyone was in any doubt, Leclerc's Bahrain race should dispel it

Publication: 
Bryan Edwards
chiefofficersnet

Charles Leclerc fumbled the start and saw his pole position evaporate. It was the only thing he did wrong in the entire race as he took the lead in an audacious move on his team leader, Sebastian Vettel, and didn't look back for the simple reason there was no one to see in his mirrors. Until gremlins arrived.

It was the thing F1 fans thought they would never see, especially after Ferrari's team orders had kept a very racy Leclerc behind his significantly slower team-mate Vettel in Melbourne. That's it, then, we all thought. It's all over. Ferrari is doing what they said they would and putting the number one firmly in the number one slot.

Well, they didn't do that in Bahrain. Or so it seemed. Vettel, aided by amazing pit-stops (2.1 and 2.4 second respectively) couldn't match his young team-mate's pace. And then, when Vettel was under pressure from Hamilton, he did what he did so often last season and dropped it all on his own. That caused considerable damage - and risk to other drivers when his front wing shook itself free at high(ish) speed.

What is clear is that over one lap and over a race distance, Leclerc has the measure of the car and the measure of his team leader. Ferrari are going to have to think hard whether to deny a prodigious talent and future champion points in order to boost the fortunes of an increasingly erratic former champion.

It's against that background that Leclerc's result is especially cruel: all drivers lose races they were expected to win but not all drivers are in their second race in what is undoubtedly the sport's most iconic team. Happily circulating, times matching the best of the rest, swooping on back markers with the joyous grace of a soaring bird of prey, suddenly there was stress in his voice. He reported a significant drop in power. His lap times fell by around five seconds a lap and his buffer that had been huge suddenly began to erode. Hamilton caught up from far behind and almost sauntered past. With a 25 second deficit, Bottas turned it on and also passed Leclerc easily. Verstappen began to close ominously.

Then, within 100 metres of each other, the two Renaults broke down. Christian Horner, the boss of Verstappen's team Red Bull Racing, which this year switched from Renault to Honda, and are seeing an immediate improvement, couldn't resist a dig: even when they aren't in our car, they cost us points, he said, or something very similar. And it did for the two dead Renaults caused a safety car and, with only a handful of laps to the end, the cars ran, line astern, across the line with Leclerc gaining a lucky third which was also an unlucky third.

Later, Leclerc let slip that there had been team orders: "guys, I'm faster than him," he had cheekily told the pit wall as he steamed up behind Vettel after sorting out his poor start. That's showing the confidence and relaxation of the man for he was echoing the message from the Ferrari pit wall that, due to a furore, caused team orders to be banned (at least in theory). That message, to Filipe Massa, chasing a rare win, was to move over for Schumacher to pass with the message "Michael is quicker than you." The team, he said, told him to hold station for two laps but a few corners later he was on Vettel's tail and although Vettel didn't make it easy, Leclerc passed with a decisive move.

Up and down the pit lane, there was nothing but praise for Leclerc; not only for his driving but for his composure and his attitude. Hamilton's immediate reaction was to put his arm around the younger driver to encourage him.

Hamilton inherited the win and Bottas second but the fact is that they were a position to capitalise on the problems of the much stronger Ferrari and, in a head to head fight with Vettel, Hamilton was coming off best. Toto Wolff of Mercedes admitted as much saying "It's is a bit subdued because we are all racers and the emotional winner was Charles but in motor racing you end up in both situations. Sometimes you are lucky and sometimes you at unlucky but it all weighs out in the end. You have to take the one-two with humility and knowledge that there is work to be done and not think this was the performance ranking of the Sunday. It wasn't."

All teams are saying that this year's cars are very difficult to set up with extremely narrow operating windows for several parts of the car but, in particular, tyres. That's complicated by the fact that the tyre blankets are set 20 degrees cooler this year than last. An out lap is now unlikely to be the kind of barnstorming lap we've seen in recent years.

A special word should be reserved for Lando Norris: he's turning the McLaren into a competitive car and mixing it with cars that were, pre-season, presumed to be far superior.

The result puts Hamilton in second place in the Championship behind his team-mate Valteri Bottas with the difference being that FTD from Melbourne that Bottas was so determined to snatch.

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