Hamilton wins race, Leclerc hearts in Bahrain

Leclerc dominated the entire Bahrain race weekend, but lost the win as well as second place when the 21-year-old’s Ferrrari developed engine trouble 10 laps from the end.

Mercedes’ British driver Lewis Hamilton celebrates after winning the Bahrain Grand Prix.   -  AFP

What a sensational Grand Prix we had here in Bahrain. There was drama, action, surprise and heartbreak all rolled into a brilliant race which summed up just why F1 is a fantastic sport and why we should be in for a titanic championship battle this season.

Charles Leclerc was simply superb during the weekend. Right from the start of free practice he looked hooked up and by the time we got to the final practice session he looked a step ahead of Sebastian Vettel. In qualifying, I thought he was exceptional at delivering the laps with absolutely no errors and even managed to improve his lap time on the final run of qualifying when several others struggled. Sebastian looked like he was a couple of tenths behind all day, while the Mercedes cars weren’t really in the fight for pole position.

I had a chance to speak with Charles after the race and he looked absolutely deflated despite the adrenalin. Not registering your first Grand Prix win when you’ve done everything right will be a bitter pill to swallow, but it will really hit him only after he gets home. On the day of the race, your mind is still buzzing and you’re being dragged into engineering meetings and media commitments, so it’s only when you get home and catch your breath does the pain set in. But he’s a tough cookie and will undoubtedly bounce back.

Ferrari's Charles Leclerc did everything right but was unlucky not to register his first Grand Prix win. He’s a tough cookie and will undoubtedly bounce back, feels the author.   -  Getty Images

 

The results during the weekend underlined the pre-season testing form that I saw in Barcelona, where the Ferraris looked to be about three-tenths ahead of Mercedes and it also showed that Melbourne was a bit of a one-off. The circuit in Bahrain is a more conventional venue, with the bumpy street circuit at Albert Park giving us a slightly odd reading on things. China, next time out, is an unusual circuit which puts a great demand on the front end of the car and the front tyres, more than any other circuit on the calendar.

But back to the present — in the race, Leclerc’s ability to recover from a poor opening lap was very impressive. He lost the start to Sebastian and then Bottas got past him as well, but he did exceptionally well to just keep calm, regroup, allow his tyres to warm up and then just pick those guys off one by one. Once he was back in the lead, he disappeared off into the distance and it was absolutely gutting to hear his call on the radio about the engine problem.

I thought Lewis Hamilton was very magnanimous after the race and paid tribute to the job that Charles had done during the weekend. Lewis knew that this was one of his lucky wins, but he’ll take the 25 points on a weekend where Ferrari should have left him only with 15. After being a long way behind Valtteri in Melbourne, this time round, the five-time world champion made sure that he covered Bottas off, pulling out over 30 seconds before the safety car came out with three laps to go.

The on-track battles between Charles and Sebastian, Lewis and Valtteri and then Lewis and Sebastian were brilliant to watch and unfortunately for Seb, he didn’t come out of those particularly well. His choice of positioning the car to re-attack Leclerc up to turn 4 was strange. He had the use of the DRS but then chose to go down the inside and misjudged the timing of his move over to the left hand side by going so late that he had to come off the throttle and lost the benefit of the DRS. That was decisive in allowing Leclerc to hold the lead, and from that moment, Seb just dropped further and further behind.

Later in the race, he got too greedy in his wheel-to-wheel battle with Lewis and it was one of those moments where Lewis’ decisiveness in wheel-to-wheel battles came to the fore. The Mercedes man committed to the outside, staying on the grippier racing line, and managed to get in front, while Sebastian made another unforced error to add to the ones we saw at the end of last season. He should have just realised that the battle was lost and slotted in behind before having another go later on. The strong winds and three DRS zones created plenty of overtaking opportunities and with the superior straight line speed in the weekend, I’m fairly sure that Seb would have had a chance to come back at Lewis.

It will be really interesting to see if the momentum swings behind Charles within Ferrari and also how Sebastian deals with that. It’s become clear that Leclerc is mature and experienced enough to be a race winner, which, being in a Ferrari, makes him a championship contender this season. I was outside the Ferrari garage in qualifying and the sheer jubilation when Charles took pole showed me just how much they love him in the red camp already. With every error Sebastian makes, the winds of support are blowing just a little bit more towards the other side of that Ferrari garage.

The drivers under pressure after the opening couple of races have got to be Pierre Gasly and Daniel Ricciardo. The Frenchman has openly admitted that he hasn’t yet got a good understanding of how to get the best out of the Red Bull car and this means that he’s been quite a chunk behind Max Verstappen. Unless he gets on top of it in the next couple of race weekends, I imagine Helmut Markko and Christian Horner are going to start ramping up the pressure. On the whole, Red Bull aren’t yet happy with where they are with the car. They’ve gone for a very different concept in terms of front wing angle on the flaps to everyone else and haven’t yet fully unlocked the potential of it, but you would be a brave — or silly — person to question the aerodynamic philosophy coming from Adrian Newey, Rob Marshall and their design team.

Ferrari driver Sebastian Vettel of Germany in the pit lane after losing his front wing.   -  AP

 

The Renault team, on the whole, had a miserable weekend with Nico Hulkenberg dropping out in Q1 after engine mapping issues cost him and then both cars dropping out in the race. Daniel Ricciardo did make it into Q2, but all weekend he looked a few tenths behind his German teammate and in the race, they chose to do a one-stop for some reason, which really wasn’t working out. In fact, Hulkenberg had driven a blinding race, going up from 17th on the grid to sixth place before retiring. Daniel is staying back in Bahrain to do the test in an effort to get more of an understanding of how to get the best out of the Renault. It can’t be easy taking a step back from a top team with arguably the best chassis on the grid last year to one in the midfield where he won’t be able to attack the corner entries and rely on the downforce that he used to have. But, it was a choice he made and he’s now got to make the most of it.

In contrast, McLaren had a good weekend with both cars in the top 10 of qualifying and points for Lando Norris despite losing out on the opening lap of the race. Their recovery from where the team ended last season has been very impressive and I sense a tone of humility this season which we didn’t see during the Honda years. They’re keeping their heads down, working hard and making steps forward and I really hope that for all the fans out there, they carry on this upward trend.

On to China next and a very different circuit to what we had here in Bahrain. The World Championship battle has been blown wide open with the pace that Ferrari and Leclerc showed during the weekend and I really can’t wait to see what Shanghai has in store for us!

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