In the green room after the Bahrain Grand Prix, Lewis Hamilton turned to Charles Leclerc, from whom the world champion had inherited victory when the Ferrari driver suffered an engine problem in the closing laps.
“You drove great this weekend, man,” Hamilton said. “You really drove fantastic. You’ve got a long old future ahead of you. I know it sucks in this moment but you’ve got a long, long way to go.”
A few minutes earlier, after drawing to a halt in the pit lane, Leclerc had paused in the middle of hauling himself out of the car. He hung on to the halo head-protection device, his head low. He climbed out, despondent, took off his helmet, accepted the commiserations of his team-mate Sebastian Vettel. Leclerc put his hands over his face, composed himself, then, wearing a resigned expression, raised an arm to the cheers of the crowd.
The 21-year-old had just finished third, behind Hamilton and the other Mercedes of Valtteri Bottas. But everyone knew Leclerc was the moral winner. His consolation was two-fold – a late safety car had stopped him falling further down the field in the closing laps; and, just as importantly, he had driven in a manner which suggests the first win that should have come on Sunday will not be very far down the road.
It’s easy to slip into hyperbole at moments such as these, after a weekend in which one driver has so utterly dominated his rivals.
But it is not hyperbole to say that, over three days in Bahrain, Leclerc brushed away any doubts there may still have been that this is a man who will be at the centre of Formula 1 for many years to come.
“In Leclerc,” said Mercedes F1 boss Toto Wolff, “we are seeing a young champion in the making, who was the emotional winner today, fastest man in the fastest machine. He has got the cruel side of motor racing today and it was our fortune.”
A powerful statement of intent
Leclerc was class personified throughout the weekend in Bahrain. On track, he was ‘the man’ all weekend, taking pole from his four-time world champion team-mate by nearly 0.3secs, and then utterly dominating the race until his engine hit trouble with just over 10 laps to go.
His engineer told him the MGU-H – a key part of the engine’s hybrid system – had failed. Team boss Mattia Binotto later said this was not the case and that it was a cylinder problem.
His only real error was the poor start that dropped him to third place on the first lap. But after that he was like a tiger chasing down a deer.
Bottas was dispatched at the start of the second lap, after the Finn was caught out by the wind and braked too late for Turn One.
That left only Vettel ahead. In two laps, Leclerc cut Vettel’s two-second lead in half, then went on the radio to tell his team, as if they hadn’t noticed, “Guys, I’m much faster.”
“I was just letting them know,” Leclerc said after the race. “I had an answer, and they said: ‘Stay like this for two laps.’ But I had an opportunity on the next lap.”
Leclerc passed Vettel around the outside of Turn Four and with that, he was gone. Into a race of his own, that should have led to his maiden grand prix victory, in only his second race for Ferrari, at the start of only his second season in F1, had it not been for that engine.
“Oh, God,” he had said on the radio, as he realised the win was going to slip from his grasp, his engine robbed of enough power to cut his straight-line speeds by 40km/h. But then nothing but steely focus on trying to limit the losses.
“It is a shame to lose the lead in this way,” he said, “but I had a lot of things to do. So I very quickly got back to focus on my race. The win was out of reach but there was still very important points to gain, focus, leave the disappointment on one side.”
Luck, which had deserted him when he was leading, came to Leclerc’s rescue. He had lost second to Hamilton’s team-mate Valtteri Bottas and was about to lose third to Red Bull’s Max Verstappen. But then the two Renaults broke down on the same lap. The safety car was deployed, and the race, neutralised, finished under it.
It was a first podium – scant consolation when what should have been a maiden win had gone begging, but consolation nonetheless.
“From the whole weekend, there are a lot of positives to take,” Leclerc said. “In Australia (at the first race of the season), we were quite a long way off. We found some answers. The team did a great job between the two races and we have shown also we had very strong pace during the race.
“Issues always happen in a season and if any time I have an issue I finish third, I can be quite happy. Today was not our day. It is sad. I was so close to realising a dream. But hopefully this day will come one day in the future.”
Few doubt it.
“Very, very impressive,” Wolff said. “He has a good personality. He is a humble young man and he is very fast. To have the combination of the speed, the personality and being able to tamper your emotions in both directions is a great ingredient.
“I know many other drivers who have the lion in them – as he has – would have reacted in a different way and been angry and would have displayed that. And we didn’t see that with Charles.”
Hamilton added: “Charles did an incredible job this weekend and has a bright future ahead of him. This will only make him stronger.”
What now for Vettel?
Leclerc’s breakthrough weekend could hardly have been worse news for Vettel.
Many suspected that Leclerc would prove a stiff challenge for the German this year – this writer among them – but the manner in which he was overshadowed can not but weigh on Ferrari’s nominal team leader between now and the Chinese Grand Prix in two weeks’ time.
Vettel can hardly have many worse weekends than this. Out-paced by Leclerc, Vettel also committed yet another driving error – of the kind that unravelled his title challenge last season.
He had been battling on and off with Hamilton through the race and, with 20 laps to go, Hamilton was coming back at him, determined to take back second place.
The Mercedes went for the outside at Turn Four, made a clean move, and then on the exit, Vettel simply spun all on his own. He badly damaged his tyres bringing the car to a halt before it hit the wall, the result being vibrations that shattered his front wing as he returned to the pits for fresh rubber.
“Aargh,” Vettel said on the radio, his despair reminiscent of that after he had tossed away victory in his home race last year. This time, what would have been a second place had been turned into a fourth.
“It was very close,” Vettel said of the incident. “I tried to get back on the inside like on the lap before but Turn Four was one of the trickiest corners (because of the gusting wind). My mistake and I lost the rear and then I spun and during the spin I damaged the tyres so much that I had a lot of vibrations that then I think led on to the failure of the front wing.
“I realised after more or less half a lap after the start that it would be very difficult and the car was extremely difficult to drive. I think Charles struggled less and he had no difficulty to follow and pass me.
“Not the race we wanted. Overall just not the pace I wanted to have. Not sure why and then on top I had the mistake with the spin. Not a good evening.”
Before the year started, one of the main discussion points was the internal dynamic at Ferrari and how Vettel would cope with Leclerc’s obvious pace.
Could he eradicate the errors of 2018 while fending off the challenge of a man who many already regarded as a future superstar? There is no definitive answer as yet, but the scale of Vettel’s challenge came into stark focus under the lights of Bahrain.
A word for Hamilton
Hamilton inherited this win, of that there is no doubt. But they say you make your own luck, and he certainly played his part.
Mercedes were struggling against Ferrari in Bahrain, and the team’s decision to put Hamilton on the soft tyre for his second stint left him battling poor grip and rapidly fading tyres.
Sure enough, Vettel, who Hamilton had passed at the pit stops, partly thanks to choosing those soft tyres, came back at him and re-took second. Hamilton was complaining on the radio, but he stuck to his task, and kept the Ferrari in sight when it had initially looked as if he might fall away.
That meant he was in a position to come back quickly at Vettel in the final stint, once back on the medium tyres, and that is what led to the situation in which Vettel’s error was made.
“He fought with a weapon that maybe wasn’t on his opponent’s level,” Wolff said. “If he had not won that battle, it would have had been Sebastian who won the race. These are the differences that can change race results and change championships.”
Where did Ferrari’s pace come from?
Mercedes left Bahrain with serious concerns. The Ferrari was not quicker in the corners – all its advantage was on the straights. The internal combustion engine has much more power than the Mercedes, and it could deploy its hybrid power much longer.
Next comes China, where the Shanghai track has the longest straight in F1.
“I don’t know what on the engine failed,” Wolff said, “but if they are able to maintain those power levels on a power sensitive circuit like Shanghai they are the favourites because the lap-time benefit might even be higher than Bahrain.
“(The win) 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.”