Victory would have embroidered a stunning weekend in Bahrain yet, in having the prize snatched from him through no fault of his own, Charles Leclerc left arguably a deeper imprint on Formula One and on us. He has our sympathy as well as our respect and that is a priceless commodity since it places him in our hearts. Now we care if he wins or loses.
Leclerc’s impressive debut at Ferrari is a surprise only to the neutral. As a graduate of Ferrari’s driver academy, the Maranello machine has long been familiar with the generational ability of the Monegasque. His promotion to the F1 team was simply part of a process that began with his signing to the junior programme three years ago. That year he won the GP3 series with Lewis Hamilton’s former team Art Grand Prix, and followed that with the 2017 F2 title for Prema before his F1 debut last year with Ferrari feeder team Sauber.
Leclerc was quicker than Sebastian Vettel in Australia only to be ordered to hold course in fifth behind the four-time world champion to maintain a sense of order at the end of a troubled weekend for the Scuderia. In Bahrain, he out-qualified his team-mate by three tenths of a second to take a first career pole and, though he lost the lead, he regained it easily enough and was coasting to victory before a failing cylinder robbed him of 40bhp.
We can only imagine how Vettel feels as he processes what looks to be a changing of the guard at Ferrari. Having jumped his team-mate off the line in Bahrain, hegemony lasted only five laps, by which time Leclerc was on his tail and asking the pit wall for guidance. “I’m quicker guys,” he said, inviting the leadership to sanction the coming purge. He ignored the advice to hold for two laps, sweeping around the outside of Vettel through turn one at the start of lap six.
It was a move born of confidence, audacity and, ultimately, the authority of talent. Vettel had no complaints and later spun himself out of contention while trying to defend against Lewis Hamilton. Vettel could not extract from the car the level of performance that came effortlessly to Leclerc. Worse than that, he looked clumsy in his wake, serving up the latest in a corpus of errors that have come to define his duels with Hamilton
After inheriting his first win of the season, Hamilton was grace itself in the praise he heaped on the 21-year-old, reminding Leclerc that he has a long career ahead of him.
Twelve years ago, Hamilton was the exceptional youth disrupting the equilibrium of the established No 1. Were it possible, Hamilton might have offered his 22-year-old self the same sage advice he gave Leclerc. Too much unrestrained ambition blew through McLaren in 2007 like a wrecking ball destroying all in its path, including his own prospects in that debut season.
The visceral press conference in Monaco after he had been ordered not to contest victory with race leader and team-mate Fernando Alonso laid bare the failure of the McLaren high command to contain Hamilton’s raw edge. “I am not here to be No 2”, he said. How Ferrari manage the rise of Leclerc in relation to the obligation they have to No 1 Vettel is already one of the great tensions of this season.
A penny for the thoughts, too, of Max Verstappen, who must be suffering untold anguish watching a kid the same age as him signalling his intent to run off with the future we had identified for the Dutch super tyro. Verstappen spent another unfulfilling weekend wrestling with an overmatched Red Bull. The riches that come with the patronage of Austria’s wealthiest man and the 37th richest billionaire on earth, Dietrich Mateschitz, will not sustain Verstappen for much longer if he is unable to challenge for honours.
Should Vettel’s struggles endure it may be that Verstappen is racing with not against Leclerc a year hence, no matter what it says in contracts that both expire at the end of next season.
With two races gone Mercedes are celebrating a pair of lockout victories. So why the subdued faces at Brackley?
Bahrain was as much a shock to them as Australia for entirely different reasons. The pace that Ferrari showed in testing was finally unlocked on the straights of Bahrain.
Next up is China, which boasts the longest straight on the calendar. And in Leclerc it seems Ferrari have unearthed a driver minded to make best use of the quickest motor.
“He was so much faster than his team-mate all weekend so he has so many positives to take from it,” Hamilton said. “We have a lot of work to do to try to keep up with him.”