Lewis Hamilton wins in Bahrain but Charles Leclerc's star shines bright
Sky F1's Martin Brundle reflects on a brilliant Bahrain GP as Lewis Hamilton capitalises on Charles Leclerc's misfortune, while Sebastian Vettel struggles and McLaren flourish...
Last Updated: 02/04/19 7:41am
I've rarely witnessed so many F1 fans and paddock folk willing on one driver to win, regardless of their normal partisan support and associations. I sensed even Lewis Hamilton would have been satisfied to finish second to young Charles Leclerc in his rapid matte red Ferrari.
OK, that might be stretching it a bit far but we all know who was the moral victor of the 2019 Bahrain Grand Prix, which was an altogether enjoyable and dramatic race.
From the get-go Ferrari had a clear single lap pace advantage, and it soon became apparent that Leclerc had a touch more speed again than his illustrious team-mate Sebastian Vettel. Despite asking many people and listening to any number of theories, I'm still not clear in my head why Ferrari were so fast in Barcelona testing and Bahrain, and yet so slow in the Melbourne race.
My gut feeling is that they were protecting an issue they don't want to disclose, and Leclerc's power unit problem in the race might just have been it.
It was the 15th Bahrain GP and in the early years, this was often regarded as a boring race. The night lights have brought it alive and the development of the cars, and particularly DRS drag reduction zones, have made it an annual thriller. The hybrid-era cars work well here too. It's very much one of my favourite races.
That was a great Formula One race. Had everything - skill, daring, drama, surprises. Wall to wall action. It’s going to be a fine season. Bahrain is one of my favourite races, put it on your to-do list.— Martin Brundle (@MBrundleF1) March 31, 2019
Leclerc didn't put enough heat in his tyres on the formation lap - he was pacing it all a touch slowly from his maiden F1 pole position and the Mercedes were hanging back slightly. This gave him too much wheelspin away from the start, and poor grip for the first lap. But tellingly, Charles didn't panic as he dropped to third. It would have been easy to rock up into turn one with the front tyres locked up.
He cleanly re-passed Valtteri Bottas with a nice dummy to distract the Finn, and then scythed past his team-mate Vettel who put up some resistance but not too much. Leclerc then paced the race from the front like a veteran.
The second most pivotal moment of the race, after Leclerc's technical problem, was the fierce battle between Hamilton and Vettel, particularly into Turn Four. Their commitment and precision were breathtaking, but in wheel-to-wheel combat, Lewis is the king and Vettel can be eventually clumsy, and that's how it transpired as the Ferrari looped around with a combination of too much throttle and a nasty aero scenario of crosswind and being in the wake of Hamilton's Merc.
In his urgency to get back to the pits, he was taking it too fast, even opening the DRS rear wing as the flat-spotted tyres literally shook his front wing to pieces, meaning Vettel needed a longish pit stop for replacements. Despite this and the spin, such was the pace of the Ferrari he was able to recover to fifth.
Given Bottas, still just the championship leader, was having a day more reminiscent of 2018 than angry new 2019 spec, through his spectacular racecraft and dogged pace Lewis was the man best-placed to benefit when Leclerc's Ferrari began to slow 15 laps from home.
It's the first time we've heard Charles on the radio sounding ragged and animated, but he soon calmed that down and managed his problems to the end of the race. Michael Schumacher was the master of maximising the pace of an ailing car, and Charles needs to investigate that.
But nonetheless, he was able to bring it home on the podium with the help of the Safety Car deployed to recover the stricken Renaults. He was most magnanimous and charming post-race, serving only to make us even more sorry for him.
The dynamics of the Ferrari pairing will be fascinating this year, just as we expected. And the open calmness of the whole team is a breath of fresh air which is paying dividends. Team boss Mattia Binotto impresses me greatly in his authority and maturity.
Such is the frenzied proximity of the midfield that much of the race looked like motorised mixed martial arts, with plenty of contact. Carlos Sainz spoiled a hitherto great performance by squeezing Max Verstappen too hard against the kerb into Turn Four. There's history between those two as Toro Rosso team-mates, but everyone knows Max is to be approached with extra caution.
Aston Martin Red Bull are having a relatively challenging start to their season, and it seems it's a knife-edge car setup rather than the Honda engine which is holding them back. It was rather tense in their team zone after both qualy and the race. Expect copious upgrades. Pierre Gasly is under pressure after his testing crashes and a couple of ordinary races, and Red Bull is not a comforting environment in those circumstances, to say the least.
Lando Norris has had two outstanding races to begin his McLaren career, and was rewarded with sixth place. Another wise calm head on young shoulders, like Leclerc. I can see Lando, Alex Albon and George Russell around for a good while. And great to see McLaren turning the corner too.
Renault had a doomed one-stop strategy for Daniel Ricciardo, who is having a nightmare start to his new career phase sadly, and Hulkenberg has not been much luckier. There's a team that needs a result in China next time out.
Kimi Raikkonen is just in a happy place with the combo of F1 car, wife, child and pushchair in the paddock. He's driving nicely, doing a very solid job for Alfa Romeo, and a fascinating contrast to the new kids in town.
There's a renewed initiative to apply less penalties from the Steward's office and I prefer it. 'If in doubt, don't' seems to be the mantra, and it's creating more feisty racing. Let the drivers sort it out on track, that's what we all tune in for. There have to be some ground rules of course, otherwise it would turn into anarchy.
With a third DRS zone added and the extra slot gap of 2cm powering up the effect of opening the rear wing, I felt it was a little bit too much through the race, too easy to pass. DRS is, of course, an effective sticking plaster over the downside of decades of aero development, but it's essential that the extra speed generated when being within one second of the car in front, only puts cars alongside each other such that the driver has to finish the job off in the braking zone and turn-in.
Despite all the dramas of the first two races, Mercedes have scored a double one-two, their two drivers are first and second in the championship, and they comfortably lead the constructors' table.
Nonetheless, this is shaping up to be a classic F1 season, which should be fitting for the 1000th championship round in Shanghai.
Sky Sports F1 is the home of live and exclusive F1. Find out more here to watch the 2019 season live