An inevitable ‘changing of the guard’ has been prophesied in Formula 1 for many years, but an enthralling Bahrain Grand Prix finally announced the arrival of an all-new cast of A-list young talent in the most dramatic manner possible. All three rookies would produce excellent performances, and whilst a stunning heartbreak would rob an incoming superstar of his maiden victory, his experienced team-mate suffered something of a dark night of the soul…
Top of the class
Charles Leclerc – Scuderia Ferrari Mission Winnow
Qualifying margin to team-mate: -0.294s
Race margin to team-mate: -29.937s (safety car)
Whilst a disappointing weekend in Melbourne for Ferrari perhaps didn’t live up to the expectations heaped on Leclerc’s shoulders, everything would change in Bahrain. Leclerc has spent his first twelve months as an F1 driver as one of the most hotly tipped young hopefuls in the sport, fuelling all sorts of speculation about how he might compare to Ferrari incumbent Sebastian Vettel. But nobody truly knew whether his immense promise would translate into winning potential. We know now.
Leclerc’s first pole was no Q3 one-lap wonder, but the result of a meticulous process of cumulative improvements across every session, having spent the entire weekend as the faster Ferrari driver. A messy opening lap where the Monegasque fell to third would have dented the confidence of most young drivers. Not Leclerc. He dive-bombed Bottas on the second lap, before proceeding to catch and pass his illustrious team-mate. Extraordinary. He was ten seconds clear of the pack when heartbreak struck. His astonishing eloquence and grace after stepping out of the car was just another sign of a remarkable young man. On a positive note, on the evidence of Bahrain, Leclerc may only have to wait a fortnight to get his first taste of the top step.
Lando Norris – McLaren F1 Team
Qualifying margin to team-mate: +0.230s
Race margin to team-mate: N/A
The 19-year-old’s stellar debut qualifying performance in Melbourne was tainted somewhat by his failure to translate it into points after getting caught behind the wayward Alfa of Giovinazzi. Two weeks later, on a circuit more conducive to overtaking, Norris would maintain his 100% record of Q3 appearances before producing a beautifully measured, combative drive to a superb sixth place. Lando’s recovery after being forced across the run-off on the opening lap was particularly impressive: passing both Toro Rossos in short order before overtaking Gasly around the outside with an opportunistic manoeuvre on the white line.
Albeit the beneficiary of retirements from Nico Hulkenberg and team-mate Carlos Sainz Jr, McLaren’s highest finish since last year’s Australian Grand Prix came on the back of an unexpectedly competitive weekend for the team. Having already caught the paddock’s attention, the potent mix of a quality team-mate and a potentially pacey MCL34 could be the perfect springboard for Norris’ fledgeling F1 career.
Lewis Hamilton – Mercedes AMG Petronas Motorsport
Qualifying margin to team-mate: -0.66s
Race margin to team-mate: -2.980s (safety car)
A messy trio of practice sessions arguably left Hamilton marginally on the back foot going into qualifying, although he managed to get his nose ahead of his team-mate come Q3. It was only Hamilton’s utter race day mastery that kept him in range of an undercut in the opening stint, but even after getting ahead of Vettel, he simply couldn’t restrain the blisteringly quick Ferrari. Another attempt at the undercut was enough to goad Vettel into another of his close combat spins, and once Hamilton was clear in P2 he only had to wait for Leclerc’s cylinder failure. A fine race from Hamilton but not his most deserved win.
Homework to do
Sebastian Vettel – Scuderia Ferrari Mission Winnow
Qualifying margin to team-mate: +0.294s
Race margin to team-mate: +29.937s (safety car)
Role reversal was very much the theme of Vettel’s weekend. At times it was difficult to remember that the slower Ferrari was the one driven by the quadruple champion. Vettel had his excuses in qualifying: some poor track position in Q2 forced an extra run on fresh tyres, leaving the German with one understandably circumspect lap in Q3.
But there was no exonerating Vettel from such a disappointing race. Historically, the German’s ability to maximise clear air to effortlessly pull away from the field has been among his greatest assets. Instead, Vettel allowed himself to be caught and passed by his young team-mate after just six laps. With Leclerc sailing clear in the lead, Vettel found himself mired in a race-long tussle with Hamilton, eventually resulting in Sebastian’s fourth close combat spin in ten races. Faced with a win drought stretching back to August, with his reputation under question and struggling to keep a lid on his new team-mate, Vettel now urgently needs to reverse the trend with a win in China.
Pierre Gasly – Aston Martin Red Bull Racing
Qualifying margin to team-mate: +0.774s
Race margin to team-mate: +51.686s (safety car)
Following some bad luck in qualifying and the difficulty with overtaking around the Albert Park circuit, there were extenuating circumstances behind Gasly’s disappointing Red Bull debut. There were no excuses on offer in Bahrain. Albeit in a Red Bull that struggled for pace throughout the weekend, having scarcely grazed the top ten during practice, Gasly qualified 13th – producing a lap almost eight tenths slower than Max Verstappen’s best from Q3.
The Frenchman’s total lack of pace continued into the race. Before the Renault meltdown caused the late-race safety car Gasly looked on course to finish down in 10th – more than forty seconds behind Verstappen. Unfortunately, Pierre is quickly running out of ‘joker’ weekends. He can expect one or two more weekends of grace before Helmut Marko’s relentless cycle of negative reinforcement starts questioning his future with the team. That said, it’s not as if there are legions of proven Red Bull juniors lining-up to replace the Frenchman.
Antonio Giovinazzi – Alfa Romeo Racing
Qualifying margin to team-mate: +1.004s
Race margin to team-mate: +17.129s (safety car)
Another disappointing weekend for Giovinazzi unravelled early on, as water leaks on both cars severely disrupted Alfa’s Friday programme. A poor lap in Q1 – almost exactly a second slower than Raikkonen’s best in Q3 – left the Italian down in sixteenth on the grid. Giovinazzi would finish eleventh in the race via a tangle with Kvyat, having not been a factor in the race for points. Having endeared himself to Ferrari with some invaluable simulator outings and impressive test performances, there is definitely room for improvement after the first two races of his full-time career.
Both Daniel Ricciardo and Nico Hulkenberg were making a decent fist of recovering their respective weekends when both Renaults spontaneously expired with two laps to go. Mechanical mysteries aside, a disappointing qualifying for Hulkenberg and a more general lack of pace for Ricciardo belied the car’s obvious speed. Speed was not something Kevin Magnussen was short of in qualifying – eclipsing his team-mate by three tenths and coming within a whisker of deposing Verstappen. Haas would suffer a disastrous race, with Romain Grosjean clobbered by Lance Stroll on the opening lap and with Magnussen falling to thirteenth with an alarming lack of race pace.
McLaren’s midfield-leading race pace was probably the pleasant surprise of the weekend. Having out-qualified his young team-mate and showing immense pace in the opening salvos of the race, Sainz’s failure to leave Verstappen enough room on the apex of Turn 4 probably cost him a very fine result indeed. By contrast, a more sluggish showing from Racing Point re-established Sergio Perez as the team’s figurehead, with the Mexican decisively eclipsing Stroll in qualifying before inheriting a point in the closing stages. A messy weekend for Stroll saw him spin in practice before ruining his race by misjudging Grosjean’s trajectory in the opening corners.
Albeit another beneficiary of the double Renault retirement, the maiden points of Alexander Albon’s F1 career followed a measured race in which he lost out to the Red Bull of Gasly in the closing stages. The Thai driver scored a three tenth advantage in qualifying over Daniil Kvyat after a problem on the Russian’s car prevented a second run in Q2.
Robert Kubica fared much more favourably in his private backmarker duel with George Russell – having missed out on out-qualifying the Brit by just four hundredths. Alarmingly, the Pole conceded his apparent gains in qualifying weren’t representative given the aero discrepancies between the cars. Kubica finished more than a minute behind Russell after an early wheel-to-wheel tussle.