OPINIONS
Wednesday, Apr 3 03:50pm
AUTHOR: Richard Gee

Column: The king is dead, long live the king

Even though they didn't actually win – once again somehow contriving to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory – the Bahrain Grand Prix was still all about the boys and girls in red.

 

But here's the thing. Sure, Ferrari had found again the advantage over Mercedes and the rest they had shown in pre-season testing in Barcelona prior to the humiliation at the hands of their German rivals in Australia. And yes, they dominated every session prior to the Bahrain race, looked strong in the long runs as well as the short runs and seemed to be able to find consistency and performance out of a softer compound tyre than Mercedes. But neither of those were as significant a story or an eye catcher as the performance of young gun Charles Leclerc. So no, it wasn’t the startling speed of the Ferraris that is the lasting thought from the weekend.

 

Bahrain for me signalled the arrival of a new star in Formula 1 and the beginning of the end for another.

 

In the fullness of time, the euphoria in the Ferrari garage when Leclerc bagged not one, but two laps good enough for pole position will I think prove to be one of the most significant moments of the season.

 

You could have been forgiven amongst all of the back patting and swaggering going on at Team Red that it had been Vettel that had gone out and put the rest of the field to the sword in terms of outright pace, but it wasn't, it was the young kid.

 

And when I sat and thought about it, I was struggling to remember a time – any time – in recent Formula 1 history when a Ferrari no.2, let alone one in only his second event with the Scuderia, had not only been permitted to race his team mate but actively encouraged and supported in the process of doing so.

 

I couldn't remember it with Schumacher, I couldn't remember it with Alonso and until the weekend, I couldn't recall it happening during Vettel's time at Ferrari. Until the weekend. The last time I could recall, was probably back in the late seventies – 1979 in fact – when Gilles Villeneuve raced hard every weekend against his team leading colleague Jody Scheckter. But Villeneuve had been there a year or two already, so even that wasn't really the same.

 

No, this was a significant moment in Ferrari history, and indeed I believe in the career of Sebastian Vettel. This was old school, a subconscious moment when they might not admit it, but they were publicly heralding the start of a new era at Ferrari.

 

“He's a good lad,” said team principal Mattia Binotto after qualifying, and it was very obvious the team already has a huge soft spot for their young charger.

 

Leclerc admits to keeping two very special people in his mind when he races. One is his father Hervé who passed away last year and other, his godfather, friend, and mentor, Jules Bianchi.

 

Before his dreadful and ultimately fatal accident in 2014, Bianchi had been touted for a Ferrari race seat following plenty of successful testing mileage. You can accuse Ferrari of many things, but one thing the team has always had is passion and emotion and Leclerc will provide them with plenty of that. It’s a special bond, in fact. Something Vettel has, frankly, never had with the team and now almost certainly never will.

 

Talking of special bonds, it may have been a weekend to forget for the Scuderia in Bahrain, but the days that followed have very much constituted a week to remember. The names Schumacher and Ferrari became synonymous with winning and with domination in Formula 1 for the first few years of this century. Record after record was broken by the great Michael Schumacher and he took the team from dark places to multiple titles. He was, and will always remain, a figure of god-like stature at Ferrari. His tragic accident at the end of 2013 has left us – whichever way you cut it – without Michael and most petroheads will have noted the steady rise of his son Mick through the junior ranks. All of a sudden, it seems, Mick has arrived.

 

Currently racing in Formula 2, Mick stepped aboard the Ferrari for the post-Grand Prix test under the glare of world media. Seeing his mum Corinna on the pit wall watching him lap was as poignant a moment as you can get in sport, but also one of great hope. And Mick had plenty of speed too, impressing the team by going second quickest for the test behind Max Verstappen and drawing many plaudits from the team and its engineers. That moment too, won’t have been lost on Ferrari management or indeed, Sebastian Vettel. Another special bond he doesn’t have.

 

A Ferrari team led by Leclerc in 2020 or 2021, with young Schumacher stepping into the number two seat as heir to the throne of King Charles and pretender to a crown worn for a decade and more by his great father? Don't write it off.

 

On track it couldn't have really gone worse for the Scuderia. Despite a bad start, Leclerc dominated but had a late problem that left his Ferrari V6 turbo one cylinder short and when he should have been there to pick up the pieces, Vettel blew his cool.

 

Having been ousted of the lead fair and square by his teammate, he ultimately lost a spot on the podium – and arguably a relatively easy win – by spinning away any chance in his battle with Lewis Hamilton, who of course went on to win. This was not only a deja vu of some failures on the part of Vettel last season, but also executed whilst his teammate was controlling the race in clinical and dominant fashion. The new management at Maranello would not have been happy.

 

Thankfully for them, the shining light that was Leclerc's performance will provide enough of a warm glow to insulate them from too much disappointment. They'll live to fight another day, and Leclerc's first win, I reckon, will be the priority now the team know they do, genuinely, have a car and a driver capable of putting Mercedes to the sword on a regular basis.

 

These are exciting times if you are an Formula 1 fan. With Valtteri Bottas stepping up in Australia and Leclerc showing his true pace in Bahrain, the championship for this season it seems to me, is very much alive. Four drivers rather than two will be eyeing the title and that's a very good thing for the sport.

 

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