The Formula One in 2021 got a huge boost because of the intense competition between Red Bull and Mercedes with their respective drivers, Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton, fighting it out till the last race.
Competition always helps a sport thrive and increase the viewership but in Formula One, the fortunes of the sport are also intrinsically linked to how well Ferrari does on the track.
The Italian team is more popular than the rest of the nine teams put together and a Ferrari that is fighting for wins and titles is always great for the sport.
Its passionate fans — the Tifosi — have had to suffer through some extremely tough times in the last two years especially as Ferrari was building back its Power Unit that was the slowest on the grid in 2020.
This year offered the chance for the Scuderia to be amongst the top teams and the Italian team has delivered so far.
Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc produced the finest race of his career in the Australian GP, pocketing the maximum of 26 points (25 for the win + one for the fastest lap) to extend his lead in the drivers’ standings to 34 even as Red Bull’s Verstappen suffered his second retirement of the season due to mechanical trouble. Since pre-season testing, Ferrari has been very quick and unsurprisingly Leclerc took pole position and the victory in the season-opener in Bahrain ahead of his teammate Carlos Sainz.
The young Leclerc is widely considered a generational talent and completely shadowed former champion Sebastian Vettel in the two years they were teammates in Ferrari in 2019 and 2020. This prompted Ferrari to drop Vettel and make the 24-year-old Leclerc the de-facto number one driver in the team.
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In the second race in Saudi Arabia, Leclerc battled Verstappen for more than half the race before the latter managed to get past and take the chequered flag.
In Melbourne, on the revised Albert Park street circuit, the Ferraris were quick all through the practice session.
After slowly building up speed through the weekend, when he was a bit behind Sainz, Leclerc delivered a stunning lap on his last run in qualifying to take pole position by nearly three tenths of a second ahead of Verstappen.
In the race, the Monegasque driver controlled it from the start and was never really bothered by the pursuing pack.
The only point at which he was in some sort of trouble was on the restart after a Safety Car period on lap 27 when Verstappen had a good run on him at the start of the lap but the Ferrari’s inherent strength to quickly build up speed out of the corners allowed Leclerc to stave off that potential challenge. After that, Leclerc had the race in his pocket and even managed to go for the fastest lap on the last lap of the race to pocket maximum points.
Even as Ferrari and Leclerc are enjoying a sensational start to the season, the reigning world champion Verstappen had more misery on race day in Melbourne.
After being forced to retire from the first race from second place, the Dutchman suffered more issues when he had to pull over on lap 39 due to a fuel leak issue, again when running second, losing huge points to his rival. He has now lost a minimum of 36 points from the first three races.
The Red Bull is a quick car, maybe not as quick as Ferrari, but has suffered a lot of reliability issues in the three races so far with Verstappen now 46 points behind Leclerc in the standings after scoring just once — a win in Jeddah.
Fortunately, in the other Red Bull, Sergio Perez managed to finish second and pocket some useful points for the team.
Like Verstappen, Spaniards Sainz and Fernando Alonso had miserable weekends of their own despite showing much promise.
Sainz was on course for a good lap in the final part of qualifying on Saturday but just as he was about to complete his timed lap, which could have put him in the top four, Alonso crashed because of a gearbox issue that brought out the red flag. This meant Sainz’s lap time did not count while Alonso, who was also quick all weekend, had to start tenth. On Sainz’s second run, the team could not start his car on time, which meant his run was compromised and could only qualify ninth.
On Sunday, more misfortune struck Sainz as he faced steering wheel issues and could not get a good start. Battling to come back through the field, Sainz erred and retired. Alonso, who had the third-fastest car on the grid, started on hard tyres to run longer but the timing of the Safety Car meant his strategy backfired and eventually finished out of the points.
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The misfortunes of the Spaniards allowed Mercedes drivers George Russell and Lewis Hamilton to finish third and fourth respectively. Russell is now second in the driver’s standings.
Leclerc’s domination was such that he achieved a rare feat called the Grand Slam or Grand Chelem, where a driver clinched the pole position, fastest lap and led every lap of the race on his way to victory.
With more than one race win worth of lead in his pocket, Leclerc has now laid down the marker and a lot depends on how the Red Bull gets on top of its reliability woes to maintain a title fight with Ferrari.
Sunday’s win was the perfect appetiser for the Tifosi who are set to throng the circuit in Imola for one of the two home races of Ferrari this year at the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix on April 24.