Heartbreak For Ferrari’s Unlucky Leclerc
Graham Read, Formula 1 Correspondent
Just a fortnight after this year’s opening Grand Prix in Australia the travelling Formula 1 circus reconvened at Bahrain’s Sakhir circuit for a night race in the desert, the 999th event since F1 began back in 1950, and it was Lewis Hamilton who fortuitously emerged with the victory spoils after a late mechanical failure robbed Ferrari’s young Monegasque driver Charles Leclerc of a certain first ever win in F1.
After very much underperforming in Melbourne Ferrari’s hopes had been boosted in the opening free practice session on Friday afternoon local time when Leclerc and Sebastian Vettel topped the timesheets. Significantly there was a margin of almost a second over the Mercedes of Valtteri Bottas, who was third fastest ahead of his reigning champion team-mate Hamilton.
Friday’s second free practice period got underway at 6pm and again the red cars from Italy dominated, with Vettel heading Ferrari rookie Leclerc although the German driver was only 0.035 seconds quicker. Hamilton and Bottas narrowed the gap compared to earlier in the day and the Renault team was uplifted by their driver Nico Hülkenberg being fifth fastest, outpacing Red Bull’s Dutch charger Max Verstappen.
The following day Ferrari continued their dominant form in final practice, with Leclerc back ahead of Vettel and the two silver Mercedes cars three quarters of a second adrift. As the sun set the all-important qualifying hour began and Ferrari again proved how they seemed to have solved their relative lack of pace in Australia.
What’s more, they have a star of the future in Leclerc as the 21 year old claimed the first pole position of his short F1 career to date with a new track record, outpacing his quadruple champion team-mate Vettel. Mercedes had to settle for being the best of the rest as Hamilton and Bottas secured the second row on the grid for the following day’s race.
Red Bull’s Verstappen and Haas driver Kevin Magnussen completed the top six and it was very encouraging for the recovering McLaren team to see their drivers, the Spaniard Carlos Sainz and British rookie Lando Norris, feature in the top ten grid positions. The other Haas driver Romain Grosjean qualified eighth, but received a three place grid penalty from the stewards for clearly blocking Norris in the first part of qualifying. The real surprise though was seeing Renault’s Hülkenberg exiting in only the first part of the three stage elimination process due to engine mapping issues.
A gusty wind was blowing as the cars lined up on the grid for the start and Vettel used all his experience to lead into the first corner after making a better start than his team-mate. Bottas also made a better getaway than Hamilton and quickly demoted Leclerc to third position on the frenetic opening lap.
Leclerc fought back though on the second tour and flew past Bottas at Turn 1 before Hamilton also passed the Finn. Soon a charging Leclerc was closing on the leading Vettel and at the start of the sixth lap swept into the lead at the first corner, helped by DRS and a slipstream down the main straight.
At the first round of pit stops Mercedes committed Hamilton to a two-stop strategy by keeping him on another set of soft specification tyres when most were switching to mediums and crucially the undercut gave him track position ahead of Vettel.
A third of the way into the Grand Prix Leclerc was building an increasingly clear lead ahead of Hamilton, Vettel, Bottas and Verstappen and, as Hamilton started to struggle for grip on his worn soft tyres, Vettel reclaimed second position from his arch rival.
Following the second round of pit stops for all the frontrunners Hamilton and Vettel raced wheel to wheel in a brilliant display of hard but fair racing before the former swept ahead round the outside at Turn 4 and the latter spun. A massive dose of wheelspin from the recovering Ferrari driver badly damaged his rear tyres and to compound matters his front wing fell off as he limped back to the pits. Vettel rejoined the race in ninth position and quickly climbed back up to fifth, but that was as good as it was going to get.
Out front Leclerc had a very comfortable lead, followed by Hamilton, Bottas and Verstappen, but on lap 46 of 57 there was high drama which was to impact on the result of the Grand Prix. A worried Leclerc radioed in that he was suffering a partial loss of power, caused by a failure of the car’s MGU-H energy recovery system which was costing him around 160 horsepower. From being a surefire winner cruising to victory the unlucky young driver was instantly a sitting duck as his pace dropped and Hamilton and Bottas closed in and passed him.
The only luck Leclerc did have was that the Renaults of both Hülkenberg and Daniel Ricciardo ground to a halt at the side of the track with two laps remaining and the Safety Car was introduced whilst the stricken cars were recovered. As a result the race ended at reduced pace behind the Safety Car and this enabled Leclerc to at least hang on to the final podium position, whilst he also earned the extra point for the fastest race lap.
British rookie driver Lando Norris ended up a very creditable sixth for McLaren and British/Thai Toro Rosso rookie Alex Albon reached the chequered flag ninth and thus within the points too. In contrast, the beleaguered Williams team had another very difficult race weekend as again their car was still the slowest on the grid and their drivers George Russell (another British rookie) and Robert Kubica failed to score any points.
The highly likeable Red Bull team principal Christian Horner was accompanied throughout the weekend by his lovely wife Geri (of former Spice Girl fame) and at least the points Verstappen and Pierre Gasly added to the outfit’s 2019 tally pleased him.
|Also by Graham Read...|
|Hamilton Dominates In China|
|Northern Motor Racing Legend David Cox|
|Bottas Dominates The F1 Season Opener In Australia|
|Obituary: Charlie Whiting 1952-2019|
|Vettel’s Ferrari Tops The Timesheets In Pre-Season Testing|
After a gripping and totally unpredictable race in the Middle East the truly international nature of the Formula 1 calendar means that next up comes a visit to Shanghai for the Chinese Grand Prix, again in just two weeks’ time and yet another very different challenge for the drivers and teams. It should easily have been Leclerc’s day in Bahrain, but I am sure many victories will follow in the future for one of F1’s brightest young stars.
2019 Formula 1 Bahrain Grand Prix
1 Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) 1hr34m21.295s
2 Valtteri Bottas (Mercedes) +2.980s
3 Charles Leclerc (Ferrari) +6.131s
4 Max Verstappen (Red Bull) +6.408s
5 Sebastian Vettel (Ferrari) +36.068s
6 Lando Norris (McLaren) +45.754s
7 Kimi Räikkönen (Alfa Romeo) +47.470s
8 Pierre Gasly (Red Bull) +58.094s
9 Alexander Albon (Toro Rosso) +1m2.697s
10 Sergio Perez (Racing Point) +1m3.696s
11 Antonio Giovinazzi (Alfa Romeo) +1m4.599s
12 Daniil Kvyat (Toro Rosso) Lapped
13 Kevin Magnussen (Haas) Lapped
14 Lance Stroll (Racing Point) Lapped
15 George Russell (Williams) Lapped
16 Robert Kubica (Williams) Lapped
17 Nico Hülkenberg (Renault) Retired
18 Daniel Ricciardo (Renault) Retired
19 Carlos Sainz (McLaren) Retired
20 Romain Grosjean (Haas) Retired
2019 Formula 1 Drivers Championship (after 2 rounds of 21)
1 Valtteri Bottas 44
2 Lewis Hamilton 43
3 Max Verstappen 27
2019 Formula 1 Constructors Championship (after 2 rounds of 21)
1 Mercedes 87
2 Ferrari 48
3 Red Bull 31
Heartbreak For Ferrari’s Unlucky Leclerc, 31st March 2019, 20:04 PM