Leclerc’s Bahrain pain and why Mercedes are worried

The racing gods decided that the Bahrain Grand Prix was not the day for Charles Leclerc’s fairytale victory, much to the pain and frustration of Leclerc himself, the Ferrari team and F1 fans alike. Despite this, Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes will still be decidedly unsettled when looking at the young Monegasque.

Leclerc looked brilliant all throughout the desert weekend, taking pole on Saturday with an absolutely sublime performance and, even after a terrible start that saw him drop down to third on the first lap, was dominating the race and looked to be on course for an emotional and emphatic victory – his first for Ferrari.

Then, with less than 20 laps to go, it all fell apart – a hybrid issue made his Prancing Horse painfully slow down the straights, and the two Mercedes of Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas soared by. The silver lining, at the very least, was the safety car that kept Leclerc on the podium following synchronised engine failures for the Renaults of Daniel Ricciardo and Nico Hulkenberg.

Hamilton, who has certainly felt his fair share of the pain having victories cruelly snatched from his grasp, was sympathetic with his Ferrari counterpart, affirming that Leclerc deserved the win after such a brilliant performance all weekend. His team radio was telling: “We need to work hard to keep these guys on our tails,” said the world champion, clearly concerned about the pace Ferrari showed.

Ferrari Media

Interestingly, the tale of Bahrain was of stark contrast to Australia, when Mercedes won comfortably and Ferrari looked average. However, this weekend was different, and Ferrari showed the kind of pace that they displayed so impressively in testing in Spain, and the kind of pace that has pushed Mercedes hard for the title the last two years – this year, on the other hand, might be different.

Hamilton has been up against an error-prone and easily irritable Sebastian Vettel, who has shown cracks under the pressure of the title fights, a surprising difference to the assertive dominance that took him to four consecutive titles with Red Bull. It may be early on in the season, but already there seems to be a calmness and a measured temperament about Vettel’s younger team mate Leclerc that Vettel himself could have done with at certain times last year and in 2017.

These remarkably mature and level-headed qualities, coupled with fantastic ability and pace, mean that Leclerc is keen to impose himself as so much more than what was thought to be his role for this year. It was predicted that Vettel would outshine Leclerc, and that Leclerc would play second fiddle to the German – Ferrari themselves admitted this would probably be the case – but not only is Leclerc establishing himself as being on terms with Vettel, but he is looking like a pretender to the championship title won by Hamilton in four of the last ten years.

As a result, Hamilton and Bottas will be worriedly looking over their shoulder at not just one Ferrari this time, but both of them. With Bottas seemingly performing better this year (maybe because of the beard), this promises to be an exciting title race. What’s more, with Leclerc’s astonishing ability and his even more startling potential in the future, it adds up to a nervous ride for Vettel, Bottas and Hamilton. Mercedes may have won in the desert, but Leclerc and Ferrari are turning up in the heat in the 2019 championship as we head to China for F1’s 1000th race.

 

[Featured image – Ferrari Media]

How to deal with an F1 heartbreak, Leclerc style

Charles Leclerc’s Bahrain hotel room ought to have been marked a no-go zone. It’s a testament to the Monegasque, humble and self-examining in his conduct, that it would be the first place he gives himself chance to vent. He navigated each interview with professionalism betraying his years, out of the car, onto the podium and back down the steps on his way to an apologetic Scuderia.

Never has it been as easy to forget, that this is a day on which a driver achieved their first podium in Formula 1, for the most historic racing team of all time. This should have been cause for celebration. Instead, Leclerc would be forgiven for wanting to slump in the corner of said room and attempt to retcon his most recent memory with force.

Having taken his first pole position, Leclerc was adamant both to his team and the breathtaken media that the job wasn’t over – “I am trying to stay as cool as possible, because there are no points for pole position”. He knew Sunday, his true date with destiny, awaited him. With a red tuxedo immaculate and a metaphorical tie millimetre-aligned, Leclerc spent 47 laps wooing to the utmost only to be stood up at the table in the night’s dying moments.

Ferrari Media

The term ‘bitter blow’ doesn’t do it justice. Leclerc was faultless, a messy first lap aside, on a day where the infectious seeds of inconsistency were sprouting up all across the grid. Mercedes had collapsed pace-wise. Sebastian Vettel relapsed into troubles of the recent past. Pierre Gasly was again cast in the sea of the midfield, and Red Bull were in no position to put up a fight. The only one who had both the machine, and the disposition to utilise it, was him.

But, as we know in F1, the Gods can strike at any time. Again, Leclerc was humble in his approach to the media after the race – “It happens, it’s part of motorsport”. The fabric of not only his successes, but his career and person, is a stoicism that affords clarity, and a rigid confidence in the ripples of outside influence evening themselves out over seasons and careers.

To make it big in racing, all drivers have to learn this the hard way. The biggest surprise is how Leclerc exudes this sense he was born with it. His ability to think long-term is an offshoot of his acceptance that outside variables can’t be changed, and as we’ve seen many a time through his interviews he likes to instead look inwards at every opportunity, and obsessively hold himself to account wherever he can. It’s beyond admirable.

Ferrari Media

It’s a sign of being in control, even when every single thing outside of your mind and body wants to break you down. That losing yourself is improbable, bordering on impossible, because there’s a foundation of introspection that can’t be shaken. Leclerc’s painfully emotional F2 win in Baku is proof of this; his father had passed away mere days ago, the pressure of his ‘next big thing’ tag was weighing down on him, and the race was as chaotic as they come. His focus that day was as though those issues were denied access into the confines of his cockpit.

He’d go on to suffer a troublesome first three races with Sauber, visibly struggling to tame an unpredictable car. Instead of looking to deflect, or simply carry on as normal, Leclerc opted instead to ask himself difficult questions, more so than with his team. He certainly helped Sauber develop the C37 into a midfield mainstay, but the hardest treatment was placed by himself, on himself. No one was willing to do it with a rookie who hadn’t even been driving poorly, but let it be known Leclerc holds himself to world-class standards.

And he does this because each and every time, it’s allowed him to blossom. Even when most other drivers want an arm around the shoulder from their team, and an easy time of it in the press pen, Leclerc doesn’t allow himself the satisfaction of such comforts until he’s improved in a way no one would even have noticed but himself. The mental solidity that takes, when locked in the furnace of Formula One, is unfathomable.

So if anyone can handle the pain of having the most glorious win of any driver’s career – a maiden victory with Scuderia Ferrari – kissed away into the wind, it is Leclerc. As much as we’d all understand if he locked himself away with a whisky bottle until the pain numbed, it is not, never has been and never will be his way of dealing with issues. Leclerc always bounces back, and every ounce of adversity only serves to make him stronger.

 

[Featured image – Ferrari media]

Lewis Hamilton: Mercedes ‘very, very lucky’ at Bahrain Grand Prix

Lewis Hamilton has admitted that Mercedes were ‘very, very lucky’ to claim a 1-2 at the Bahrain Grand Prix, with Charles Leclerc’s power unit issue putting a stop to what was otherwise a very dominant performance by the Monegasque.

Hamilton had started the race in P3 but fought his way past Sebastian Vettel on lap 38 to claim P2. Then, with under fifteen laps to go, the other Ferrari of  Leclerc developed a power issue that cost him roughly 30mph in speed on the straights; in just two laps Hamilton had wiped out Leclerc’s nine-second lead and passed him with ease to take the 74th Grand Prix victory of his career.

“It was very tricky out there today,” Hamilton said, “and I had to give it everything I had. We were very, very lucky to get this 1-2, Ferrari outperformed us all weekend.

“Ultimately you want to have a real fight and want to pass someone because you’re quicker, so it feels a bit weird and you can’t quite believe your luck in these scenarios.”

2019 Bahrain Grand Prix, Sunday – Wolfgang Wilhelm

Hamilton praised Leclerc for his performance nonetheless and offered some words of consolation to him in the post-race cool down room. He is under no illusion about Mercedes’ pace relative to Ferrari, and is bracing himself for some tough races to come.

“I have been in similar situations [to Leclerc] and I know how it feels, but Charles did a great job all weekend long and has a beautiful, bright future ahead of him,” he added.

“We’ve only had two races; one where we were rapid and far ahead, one where Ferrari had the upper hand. It’s hard to say how the next races are going to pan out, but I anticipate that it will be a tough fight and that it will be a back and forth between the two teams.

“We need to keep working hard to see where we went wrong this weekend and to see where we can improve the car. But as we saw today, reliability also plays an important role, so we need to keep working on all areas.

“We’ll take the points we got today and move forward to China.”

 

[Featured image – Steve Etherington]

Bahrain Grand Prix: Ferrari reliability problem ‘unacceptable’

Ferrari Team Principal Mattia Binotto has labelled the reliability issue that cost Charles Leclerc a victory at the Bahrain Grand Prix as ‘unacceptable’ and something that the team are investigating to prevent from happening again.

Leclerc had dominated the Bahrain race weekend, finishing top of the timing sheets in FP1 and FP3 and claiming his first ever pole position in F1 on Saturday by almost three tenths.

He slipped back to third at the start but recovered to retake the lead by lap five and dominated thereafter. That was, until he developed a power unit problem with just fifteen laps to go, one which cost him several seconds per lap. The two Mercedes of Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas caught and passed him, but Leclerc was saved from losing any more positions by the safety car brought out to recover both Renaults. He came home third, his first podium in F1 but one tinged with disappointment.

Speaking of the power unit issue, Mattia Binotto said, “It was a shame for Charles. He was in the lead for much of the race and showed that he was particularly comfortable here in Bahrain, also setting the race fastest lap.

Ferrari Media

“He deserved to win and it was only the reliability problem, which we must now investigate, which prevented him from doing so. That is something unacceptable from us and it shows how important it is to get every last detail right in order to win.”

Leclerc added, “It’s part of motorsport, we know that. Sometimes it’s not your day to win and today wasn’t ours. In the final part of the race we had an issue with the power unit and I had to slow down.

“It’s a shame because the race seemed to me to be under control. The team is disappointed and I am disappointed but there are a lot of positives to take home from this weekend.

“These things happen in motorsport: we took the best out of it anyway. It’s my first podium even if I’m not enjoying it as much as I wanted. It’s life, it happens, we’ll come back stronger”.

 

[Featured image – Ferrari Media]

2019 Bahrain GP Review: Drama in the Dust

The second race of the 2019 season took place under the bright lights of the Bahrain International circuit. Charles Leclerc started from pole position, making him the 99th driver to take pole in the 999th F1 Grand Prix, with Vettel, Hamilton, Bottas and Verstappen started behind him.

The lights went out and both Vettel and Bottas got better starts than Leclerc, demoting the Monagasque to third with Hamilton in fourth after the first lap.

Chaos broke out behind the leaders, with sparks flying around the cars of Stroll and Grosjean. The Frenchman would eventually retire from the race. At the back the Williams drivers had a heated fight, which was more for their honor than the points.

Leclerc managed to pick up the speed after his horrible start and regained second place from Bottas. This overtake cost the Finn momentum, meaning that his teammate Hamilton could overtake him as well.

Verstappen in P5 came under pressure from Sainz in the McLaren, a potential haul of points McLaren could definitely use. What they couldn’t use, however, was a touch with Verstappen which meant Sainz received major damage on his front right tyre. The incident was investigated by the stewards, but no action was taken.

Getty Images / Red Bull Content Pool

Up front, Ferrari told that both drivers were free to fight, and they took advantage of it. Leclerc closed the gap to Vettel quite easily, telling his team “I’m quicker guys!” On lap six he managed to overtake the German using DRS, retaking the lead.

Gasly had to regain his respect after a disappointing qualifying, but struggled in a huge midfield fight with Norris, Magnussen, Albon and Kvyat. To make matters worse, his pit stop went horribly and cost him further precious seconds.

On lap thirteen Kvyat spun due to a slight touch with Giovinazzi at turn eleven, losing places as a result. To add insult to injury, the Russian Toro Rosso driver later got a five-second penalty for speeding in the pitlane. That same lap, Bottas and Hulkenberg came into the pits.

Race leader Leclerc made his pitstop on lap fourteen, opting for the mediums whilst Hamilton went for the soft tyres.

Vettel lost his second place to Hamilton on fresher tyres, but the Brit’s strategy would mean he needed to make another pitstop to fulfill the rules of using two different compounds during a race.

2019 Bahrain Grand Prix, Sunday – Wolfgang Wilhelm

Some small mistakes from Hamilton meant that Vettel closed the gap, even though the German was on the harder tyre. Hamilton complained about oversteer and had to make another stop. On lap 23 Vettel overtook him, leading to some stressful board-radios from Hamilton.

In the midfield a fun fight between Norris and Räikkönen for P7 took place, keeping each other under pressure.

On lap 33, car number 33 came in for his second pitstop. Verstappen couldn’t be happy as his pitstop went awful, not the first pitstop that’d gone wrong at Red Bull today. Hamilton made his second pitstop two laps later, going for the mediums. He came back on track in front of Verstappen.

Vettel then tried to cover the Mercedes, making his second pitstop, going to the mediums for a second time. He came back just in front of his rival. Immediately after that Leclerc made his second pitstop, and emerged with his lead intact.

Last year’s championship rivals came very close to crashing, with Vettel edging Hamilton out by only a small margin. The German smelled blood and overtook Bottas, who then came into the pits with only a small margin to Verstappen.

Ferrari Media

Up front, a fight for second place between Hamilton and Vettel spelled drama: Hamilton overtook Vettel and the German spun round on his own, costing him a lot of time. He then lost his front wing, as the car was shaking a lot on the straight after turn ten. He had to make another pitstop, dropping down to ninth.

On lap forty-six Leclerc caused a scare when he reported to his team that something was wrong with the engine. His pace dropped away very quickly, with Hamilton closing the gap from nine seconds to just five in three laps. With ten laps to go the Ferrari was really struggling, just managing to put 1:40s on the board compared to the 1:36s of Hamilton.

Hamilton therefore easily managed to overtake him. Leclerc turned his attention to managing the gap to Bottas in P3. He still held the fastest lap, earning him an extra point, but that couldn’t make it up for the disappointment of losing out on his first win due to an engine problem. He was losing around 40 kph on the straights. Bottas closed the gap to him by five seconds a lap and later overtook him for P2.

Further drama sparked with just three laps to go, as both the Renault cars cut out in the first sector. This brought out the safety car, saving Leclerc from losing third place to Verstappen. When it rains it pours: Sainz also retired from the race with just three laps to go.

The race ended behind the safety car, meaning Hamilton won the race ahead of Bottas and a very disappointed Leclerc, who still took the extra point for fastest lap.

Ferrari Media

Some great sportsmanship was shown by Hamilton, sounding sorry for Leclerc and also trying to cheer him up after the race. Verstappen, Vettel, Norris, Räikkönen, Gasly, Albon and Perez completed the top ten.

It was certainly a very dramatic race, and the season is just two races old. Next up is China – will Leclerc get his revenge there or will Mercedes take another win?

 

[Featured image – Wolfgang Wilhelm]