This past weekend, Ferrari had the opportunity to flex their muscles and lay claim to being alpha with the ability to match and best the reigning rulers of the paddock, Mercedes. Things looked to be going as good as they possibly could.
To start, Charles Leclerc, the second-year driver who is in his first season with the Prancing Horse, looked to be everything a team could hope for in practice in qualifying. He finished at the top of the timing results in both the first and third practices – meaning that he was besting Sebastian Vettel, the four-time champion.
In fact, if anything, it was Leclerc who looked comfortable in the Ferrari red while Vettel looked like the uneasy newcomer. This aspect of the team dynamic is worth more analysis, and we’ll get there, but it’s best to continue with looking at Leclerc’s wonderful opening.
When it came time to qualify, Leclerc kept up his pace and put not only Vettel but the two Mercedes drivers in arrears. The phrase ‘on it’ seems all too apt to describe how Leclerc was doing, which seems a bit striking after the Australian GP had slipped away from Ferrari in such a meek fashion.
So when lights out started the race, things were sure to fall apart for the young driver, one who couldn’t possibly be able to should the promise of the Maranello organization. For a moment, the moment looked too big for Leclerc. But only for a moment.
After a lackluster start, when Leclerc fell to third place, he powered by both Lewis Hamilton and then Vettel to claim P1 by the time he hit the stripe to signal the end of the first lap. From there, the Ferraris settled into a comfortable one-two position and sure seemed ready to live up the promise that the speed in their cars has been offering.
Ferrari, however, wouldn’t be Ferrari without falling apart. Such a comment seems ridiculous like they are a team driving with albatrosses around their necks like they haven’t won in eight years, like they don’t even know where the top of the grid is.
Take, for example, Renault, who has been trying to re-establish themselves for the past three years. They’ve dumped money into their program only to discover that they’re constantly battling for fourth-best team with the likes of Haas-F1 and Point Force. That Renault were on their way to taking sixth and seventh and Bahrain felt like a mild victory – and then both cars faltered on sequential laps. So, no, Ferrari isn’t in the same woebegone situation as Renault.
Ferrari, are, though, the organization that has looked to provide the best challenge to Mercedes but continues to screw up actually challenging the Silver Arrows. Vettel has epitomized the continued disappointment, with back-to-back years of implosion in the second half of the season. It’s easy to blame Vettel as he’s a big name with four titles and has shown to have some mental lapses.
To be fair, the team has been even more of a letdown. They have seldom won in their strategic moves. The cars have been unreliable. They’ve made questionable decisions in their weekend trim. They’ve handled their drivers in peculiar ways – especially as it relates to on-track positioning. From an overall perspective, there have been times when the team has just seemed clueless.
Remember, these faux pas are coming from a mighty team, not some upstart who is still finding its footing. That’s the reason that Bahrain looks like the exemplar for everything that Ferrari can do wrong.
Leclerc could have easily won … had it not been for a failure in his MGU-K unit. Without that element, causing him to suffer a loss of power that made him easy prey for Hamilton and then Valtteri Bottas, Leclerc fell to third at the checkered flag. It looked like another race full of Ferrari futility.
For it wasn’t just Leclerc, but it was the team choosing a bad time to pit Vettel to try and cover Hamilton that also proved to be problematic. In doing so, Vettel became victim to Mercedes, at a track where the team had shown little of the top end speed to match Ferrari. That Vettel spun while battling Hamilton just made things look even worse than they were – because again, Vettel looked like a driver who shrunk from a big moment and continued to show that he doesn’t have the mettle that is expected of him.
Is this where we are with Ferrari now? Are they a comic foil to the steady, merciless domination of Mercedes? Are they the rich kids that throw money around hoping to make things better than lose focus when something doesn’t go their way?
It’s hard to know. For the past two years, Ferrari have shown they have all the speed to rip off wins, and yet they keep getting in their own way. The one reason for hope is Leclerc.
If there’s anything to be learned from the Frenchman’s two starts (with a nod to the notable small sample size), it is that he looks like the proverbial ‘real deal’. Everything about the way he has performed encourages the notion that he will be, if he isn’t already, the number one driver at Ferrari and that he has championships in store for him.
Leclerc can be the optimism and the reason to believe.
Odds & Sods (quickly)
– Teams are testing in Bahrain this week, shaking their cars down and testing for next year. One of the big stories is that Mick Schumacher, the son of legendary driver Michael Schumacher, tested with Ferrari. Schumacher, while certainly benefitting from his surname, has built a career of his own and has shown promise.
The 20-year-old driver asserted this notion by placing second on the day’s scoring behind Max Verstappen. It would be easy to hype the result and purport that Schumacher is on his way to be fitted to driver along Leclerc, and that very well may be the case, but testing times can be a seriously bad judge of things as it is unknown how the teams are setting up the cars and what they are looking for while doing the test
That being noted, there is reason for encouragement and it would be no surprise should Schumacher ever find his way to a Ferrari seat.
– The other notable testee in Bahrain was Fernando Alonso who ‘retired’ from the sport at the conclusion of last season. While he stands by the claim that he is unlikely to return, the fact that he was trimming out the McLaren ride shows not only his continued commitment to the team but that there still may be an opportunity left for the 37-year-old driver whom many consider to be at the top of the grid.