Lewis Hamilton took a surprise win in the 2019 Bahrain Grand Prix after new Ferrari star, Charles Leclerc, suffered a catastrophic power unit failure on the way to his dominant first F1 victory.
On Lap 6 in Bahrain, Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc decided to demonstrate his future “star-power.” In only his second race for Ferrari, and just his 23rd Grand Prix overall, Leclerc methodically fought back from his fumbled start, and the first lap fall from pole position to third place – re-passing 4-time World Champion and teammate Sebastian Vettel to immediately dominate the Bahrain Grand Prix. He comfortably maintained a ten second lead over either Vettel or 5-time Champion Hamilton for 41 laps.
Then, incredibly, with just ten laps remaining of 57, Leclerc’s engine suffered an undefined combustion failure in one cylinder that had run-on effects. On Bahrain’s three long straights, losing his Ferrari’s power advantage was catastrophic – costing roughly four seconds of per lap.
While Leclerc remained cool, making cockpit adjustments per Ferrari’s engineers, the stricken PU made him a sitting duck. Hamilton flashed past into the lead on Lap 48 – Bottas was next, finishing in second place. Leclerc narrowly avoided losing third place to Max Verstappen’s Red Bull-Honda when both works Renault cars experienced simultaneous PU failures three laps from the finish.
With the race falling immediately under Safety Car rules, cars had to hold their positions – enabling Leclerc to salvage both a bitterly painful third place podium finish and his bonus point for setting fastest race lap.
Adding to the Scuderia’s pain, Sebastian Vettel had earlier lost second-place with a spin followed by a broken front wing as he battled Hamilton with less than 20 laps remaining.
Ferrari locked out the front row of the grid, with Charles Leclerc setting the fastest qualifying lap ever recorded in Bahrain. With Sebastian Vettel just a few ticks slower, the Scuderia looked in contention for a one-two victory.
By Lap 6, it was time for Leclerc to make his move – passing Vettel and immediately pulling away. Mercedes pitted Hamilton earlier than Vettel at the first round of stops. He rejoined the race ahead of Vettel, but the Brit’s new soft tyres couldn’t cope with the track conditions. As Hamilton struggled to stay on the track, Vettel caught and then passed Hamilton at Turn 4 to regain second on Lap 23 of 57.
The top four remained in that order until Lap 38 when Hamilton, on fresh tyres mounted his counterattack on Vettel. His first attempt failed as did his second run using DRS on the main straight. He then went around the outside at Turn 4, and this time it appeared Hamilton’s front wing momentarily washed away downforce on Vettel’s front wing. The result – Vettel’s Ferrari rotated into a spin.
Bad enough, but the Scuderia’s pain was about to multiply. Vettel’s spin had ruined his tyres. As he picked up speed, the tyre vibrations caused a spectacular front wing failure at speed. By the time Vettel returned to the track, he ultimately couldn’t finish better than a disappointing fifth.
With both Renault drivers losing probable points finishes when their cars broke down approaching Turn 1, 19-year old British rookie Lando Norris rounded out the top six for McLaren. Teammate Carlos Sainz Jr made contact with Verstappen while trying to pass the Red Bull around the outside at Turn 4 early on and retired. Nevertheless, the two had both put McLaren into Q3 for the first time since Malaysia 2017.
Kimi Raikkonen’s Alfa Romeo was a battling seventh, ahead of Pierre Gasly’s second Red Bull, while Toro Rosso rookie Alexander Albon captured his first F1 points finish with ninth. Sergio Perez’s Racing Point completed the top 10.
Vettel’s clash with Hamilton was similar to his series of spins while going wheel-to-wheel with rivals during the 2018 season. As every point counts in the extreme, the lost points from his mistakes opened the door to Hamilton’s fifth championship title.
Charles Leclerc is quickly adding proof to the idea he’s a World Champion in the waiting, much the same as Red Bull views Max Verstappen. That creates a dilemma for Ferrari: Just two weeks ago, Leclerc was told to hold station behind Vettel in Melbourne. This week he out qualified Vettel in Bahrain. After losing the lead to Vettel at the start, Leclerc confidently made up ground. He then told his engineers, “I’m faster, guys”. To prove it, Leclerc then out-braked Vettel on Lap 6 and was gone. As Sebastian Vettel found when new teammate Daniel Ricciardo pushed him at Red Bull and then when Verstappen pushed Ricciardo, so will an ascendent Leclerc create constant pressure on Vettel as a new teammate. How will he react this time?
Testing in Barcelona established Ferrari’s 0.324s advantage over Mercedes as the expected starting point of the season. Then, along came Albert Park, and Ferrari was nowhere. With Ferrari’s gap reappearing at Bahrain, it’s time to see Albert Park as an anomaly, and to expect the time differential we saw in Spain testing to remain until the first of the European rounds. By then, the data will be precise, and the updates from Red Bull, Ferrari and Mercedes ready for Barcelona will reflect competition numbers. Finally, expect the power advantage the Ferrari seems to have in its qualifying engine mode made usable for an entire Grand Prix by Spain. That’s when the true 2019 F1season will start.