SAKHIR, Bahrain — It didn’t take long for a media scrum to develop next to pole position on Sunday’s grid. Although it was easy to guess who was at the vortex of the crowd’s attention, so packed was the small patch of grass between car and guard rail, he wasn’t visible from the outside. Craning over the camera lenses, iPhone screens and microphones it was possible to get a glimpse of the calm in the eye of the storm as Charles Leclerc sat leaning against the barrier, gaze set forward, body language completely relaxed.
He seemed bemused by the level of attention he was receiving. For him this was his standard pre-race routine — a way of clearing his mind before the most important part of the weekend — but for everyone else it was the inauguration of a superstar. The crowd wanted a word, a photo, a smile. He just wanted to get in the car and win the first grand prix of his young career.
The events that followed may not have gone to script, but the way the evening panned out only enforced Leclerc’s stardom. A misfire on one of his engine’s six cylinders robbed him of the victory he deserved and dropped him to third by the chequered flag. It was one of those cruel moments in sport, only made bearable by the knowledge that he will get another opportunity to complete the job in the very near future.
The team radio exchange between Leclerc and his engineer made for difficult listening as it played out over the world feed. Remarkably, Leclerc only once raised his voice when he demanded to know what was happening to his engine and spent the rest of the time obeying a series of essential switch changes on his steering wheel, while asking pertinent questions about fuel levels and gaps to rivals. On the slowdown lap it would have been easy to release a torrent of emotion, but remarkably he focused on the upside of a late Safety Car, which froze the order and ensured he secured some consolation with the first podium of his career.
“I think we always need to see the positive,” he said to his engineer, aware that the whole world was listening in. “It’s not much, but we had the pace today. “I probably have some lucky stars from up there because of the Safety Car at the end. We have been pretty lucky in an unlucky situation.”
It was followed up by a genuine question of whether he should go to the grid for the post-race interviews or to the pit lane: “I don’t know what to do now,” he said. “I have never been in this position.”
A nice problem to have
Although Ferrari will be focused on understanding its engine problem in the coming week, Leclerc’s dominance on another weekend when teammate Sebastian Vettel’s talent went missing cannot be ignored. Over the course of one weekend, Leclerc upended the dynamic at the Italian team and set out his stall for a tilt at the title. Based on Ferrari’s pre-season rhetoric, such a scenario was not necessarily part of the plan.
Speaking at the launch of the SF90 in February, Ferrari team principal Mattia Binotto had been clear that if a call had to be made on who to back it would go in favour of Vettel over Leclerc. The logic was simple: Vettel was a four-time world champion and had been at the team for four years while Leclerc was only in his sophomore season in Formula One. Vettel had a tough season in 2018, but this was a way of shifting the blame (arguably fairly) the previous management for not being supportive enough. If anyone was going to hit the ground running, it would be Vettel and by clearly backing the senior driver it would ease the pressure on Leclerc as he adapted to life at a top level team. But for anyone who had followed Leclerc’s career up to that point, it was a dynamic built on shaky ground.
In fairness to Ferrari, at the first round in Australia it looked like the team had made the right call. Leclerc messed up his final qualifying lap, looked ragged in the first stint of the race and arrived on Vettel’s tail in the closing stages thanks to a strategy that allowed him to push harder than the lead Ferrari. He may have had the pace to challenge Vettel for position, but this was exactly the sort of situation Binotto had foreseen ahead of the season, and in order to prevent a bad weekend getting worse, he called off the chase and ordered his drivers to settle for a formation finish in fourth and fifth.
For Leclerc it was a lesson learned; he accepted his fate without question and in Bahrain he simply set his targets higher, nailed his qualifying lap and ensured he started the race ahead of Vettel. His getaway from the line let him down, however, and he dropped to third by the exit of the third corner. But showing superior race pace throughout the first six laps, he passed Valtteri Bottas’ Mercedes, cruised up to the back of his teammate and made a clean and clinical move for the lead. Teammate power dynamic well and truly reversed.
If that wasn’t bad enough for Vettel, he soon came under pressure from Lewis Hamilton for second place. With his teammate streaking ahead and showing the true potential of the SF90 for the first time this year, the de-facto team leader was in danger of throwing away a glorious Ferrari one-two victory. The pressure was high and, like in 2018, Vettel cracked.
For the fourth time in ten races, he lost the rear of his Ferrari and spun while fighting for position. Although the circumstances weren’t identical to Bahrain, he made similar errors in Italy, Japan and the U.S.A. last year, and, remarkably, here he was again facing backwards. This was meant to be the new and improved Vettel, free from the pressure of last year’s oppressive Ferrari management and given a clean slate to extract the most from his talent. So what happened?
“To be honest, I don’t think it has anything to do with pressure,” Vettel said late on Sunday evening after debriefing with his team. “Obviously, 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. Certainly 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 difficult race and there is plenty of homework on my side this weekend not having the feel for the car, especially yesterday and today, so we need to have a good look. From a team’s point of view it was a good step forward from two weeks ago. Plenty of reason to look forward and generally I am looking forward. Certainly, I am not happy today and I won’t be happy tonight, but I am quite happy to get in the car for Wednesday for the test and there is quite a lot of things I would like to try.”
But if Binotto was having any doubts about his driver management strategy on Sunday evening, he wasn’t showing them in public. At least for now, mistakes, no matter how costly, are part of racing.
“As Seb already said, it was a mistake and I don’t think we should discuss about mistakes,” he said. “We are always in the battle and in the fight, that is what we are doing and it is never easy. I think at the end it is something that can always happen. I think we need to encourage our drivers, because it is only by driving to the limit that they achieve the best result and that is what Seb was trying to do.
“As he said, there is some homework on the balance to improve, we are still learning about our car and we have some days of testing next week in Bahrain and that will be useful for the preparation ahead of China. So I think all good in that respect and we will keep focus on that and hope to improve.” As a former engine man, Binotto will be hands-on with the analysis of the problem that cost Leclerc victory, but he must also turn his attention to the build-up of pressure that is inevitable when one side of the garage starts unexpectedly outperforming the other. As the season progresses, it is likely to be his biggest challenge, and how he deals with it could be the defining factor in Ferrari’s 2019 season.
The balance of power
Ferrari’s V6 power unit may have been the source of Leclerc’s disappointment in Bahrain, but it was also one of the key reasons for Ferrari’s remarkable pace all weekend. Continuing on a theme from 2018, Ferrari’s engineers appear to have found another significant step in engine performance — one that was not apparent in Australia but one that was clear to see in Bahrain.
On the straights alone, Mercedes was losing 0.5s in lap time to Ferrari – a massive amount that the W10’s superior cornering speed couldn’t make up for. At first it seemed as though Mercedes may have simply got its drag/downforce trade-off wrong by running higher wing levels for improved cornering performance but at the cost of straight-line speed. Getting the balance right is one of the key elements of success in any grand prix weekend, but it is part of a much wider puzzle that extends beyond just speeds on the straights and in the corners. For example, ramping up downforce can also be used to reduce tyre degradation by limiting the amount the tyres slide across the surface of the tarmac.
Immediately after qualifying, Mercedes felt it may have been running a higher downforce level to Ferrari, costing it straight line speed and ultimate one-lap pace, but giving it a better chance of going the necessary distances on the tyres in the race. However, further analysis on Saturday night and into the race on Sunday confirmed the team’s underlying fears that it was Ferrari’s power unit, not its aerodynamic setup, that was making the difference.
“We expected them to be strong in Melbourne after what we’ve seen in terms of pace in Barcelona testing,” Mercedes boss Toto Wolff said on Sunday evening, “so Melbourne was more the surprise than Bahrain actually.
“Bahrain was very strong [for Ferrari] — straight line performance is unbelievable. The power they have displayed is unmatched by anybody. There was, I think in qualifying five tenths on the straights only. that is really difficult to compete with.
“It’s not the drag. It’s never one silver bullet or one simple action, but the drag levels we have calculated would have been 0.1s maybe in difference. It’s sheer power.
“So we have to get used to this level of performance in my opinion and see Melbourne as the outlier.”
What happens next?
Although Mercedes has taken one-two victories in the opening two races of the 2019 season, F1 heads to China for its 1000th race with Ferrari as the firm favourites. Despite the reliability issues on Leclerc’s car and handling problems for Vettel, the Bahrain weekend backed up pre-season theories that Ferrari has the fastest car and there is no reason to believe that will change in Shanghai.
“I would say if they are able to hold the power on the level in Shanghai, on a power sensitive circuit like Shanghai, they are the favourites, clearly, because the lap time benefit might even be more than in Bahrain,” Wolff said. “In Leclerc, yeah, I think we’re seeing a young champion in the making who was the emotional winner today. Fastest man and fastest machine. He got all the cruel side of motor-racing today and it was our fortune.”
Ferrari meanwhile, will analyse Leclerc’s engine as much as possible before running it again in Friday practice in Shanghai to see if the problem can be resolved. Drivers are only allowed three engines for the duration of the season, and losing one at this stage would be a hit to Leclerc’s burgeoning championship hopes as it would likely result in a grid penalty later in the year. Binotto, however, is confident Ferrari will not have to ease back the performance in China and suspects the problem can be traced to a single component.
“No, I don’t think so. I think what happened, even if we don’t have a clear understanding now and we are looking into it, it is a single problem that will be easily addressed, so it is not related to how we were using the engine or the mapping or whatever. It has to be a single component failure that we will find out.”
For Vettel, this week’s two-day in-season test in Bahrain will be key. Mick Schumacher, the son of seven-time world champion Michael, will generate headlines on Tuesday behind the wheel of the Ferrari, but Vettel’s return on Wednesday could be a key moment in this year’s title fight. Away from the pressure of a race environment, and with a whole day at the wheel, Vettel needs to understand where Leclerc was finding his advantage and, at the very least, learn how to match it. Failure to do so will only ramp up the pressure on the four-time world champion at a time when his teammate’s star is in the ascendancy.