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Formula 1

The stolen F1 win that gave Leclerc far more than he lost

by Scott Mitchell-Malm
5 min read

Charles Leclerc returns to Bahrain with no chance of matching the heights of 2019, when he should have won on just his second start for Ferrari in Formula 1.

Ferrari’s fortunes have changed quite dramatically in the 18 months that separate the two Sakhir races. The solace for Leclerc is that in that time he has quickly developed into the driver that weekend in early 2019 promised he would become.

In the mists of time that race will likely be remembered as one fate stole from Leclerc, who had become the second-youngest poleman in F1 history and was set to win until a late electronics issue robbed him of a cylinder and meant he fell to third at the finish.

That race was so much more than a lost victory within a first pole and podium though.

It set the tone for the year that followed, marked the beginning of the shift in dynamic between Leclerc and Sebastian Vettel, and proved to Leclerc and the rest of the world what he was capable of.

“It helped me a lot,” says Leclerc ahead of F1’s 2020 Bahrain race. “It gave me the confidence that I could fight for top positions, which was the first time for me I was fighting for win.

Charles Leclerc, Ferrari, Bahrain GP 2020, F1

“So, it was a great moment. I was struggling a little bit in Australia, which is a track I am always struggling quite a bit on. And so I didn’t really know what to expect in Bahrain.

“But it went very well until the technical issues. Mentally I was surely in a better place after the race.”

What should not be forgotten are the circumstances around the opening couple of laps that put Leclerc in a position to win. This was a race will be remembered for the lost win but it was defined by Leclerc’s mental resilience, his ruthlessness and his sheer speed over a matter of five or six laps.

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He had a decent start but a small amount of wheelspin allowed Vettel to jump him into the first corner. Valtteri Bottas got past him around the outside of Turn 3 and Leclerc’s attempt to wrest the place back as they dived into the esses cost momentum and put Lewis Hamilton on the attack too.

Leclerc survived a pretty big lock-up into the hairpin to keep third ahead of Hamilton, and that saved his race. Having limited the damage and got away without a flat spot, Leclerc very quickly recentred and flipped defence into attack. He spooked Bottas into an error at Turn 1 with an aggressive half-look on the brakes, which put Leclerc back into second less than a lap after losing the place.

Charles Leclerc, Ferrari, Bahrain GP 2019, F1

Vettel was already two seconds clear by this point, but three laps later Leclerc was on his tail and challenging him the same way he did Bottas into Turn 1. Vettel held the lead but only for one more lap. “I’m quicker guys,” Leclerc said after being initially rebuffed. “Stay there for two laps,” he was told. Less than a minute later he’d taken the lead.

This race was therefore significant for three reasons.

First, that he quickly beat Vettel in a straight fight – though Vettel would go on to make a mistake in battle, this was originally a race in which Vettel found himself in his favourite position. Normally with track position he can control things from the front. Leclerc was too quick for Vettel to do that.

Second, Ferrari had started the season with Vettel as the number one but Bahrain showed Leclerc was not going to let that situation go untested. In Australia Leclerc had ceded a team order to hold position late on rather than challenge Vettel for fourth. In Bahrain, with the race lead and a win up for grabs, he showed he understood that necessity sometimes breeds defiance.

Sebastian Vettel and Charles Leclerc, Ferrari, Bahrain GP 2019, F1

Thirdly, it was clear he was capable of handling the immense pressure of that lead fight at the first attempt. Though the first half a lap was scruffy, Leclerc stopped things from spiralling out of control. And he very quickly flicked the switch and transformed his fortunes for the better.

Once in the lead he never looked like being challenged. For a driver competing in his second race at the front in F1, there was no better advocacy of his considerable abilities.

Leclerc went on to reiterate all three of these points over the course of the season. It’s what won him two grands prix, including Ferrari’s home race at Monza, it’s what won him a new multi-year contract, and it’s what shifted the balance of power emphatically towards him and away from Vettel.

Would Leclerc have achieved all that anyway, regardless of how good he was in Bahrain? Probably. Almost certainly. But it would have taken longer. His Bahrain heroics were followed by a trio of fifth-place finishes and a retirement in Monaco. That run included a costly mistake in Azerbaijan qualifying and a crash in his home race rooted in impatience.

Charles Leclerc, Ferrari, Monaco 2019, F1

So, if we remove Bahrain from that opening cluster of races, Leclerc looks… well, not ordinary. No driver of his potential ever could. But he’d have remained a ‘star of the future’ a little while longer, rather than immediately elevating himself to a driver who looked like he could be a ‘star of the now’.

That’s what Bahrain 2019 did for Leclerc. Missing the victory was painful and he had to wait a while to put it right. But he gained more of substance from that defeat than he lost. And that is a big part of why he returns to the track as Ferrari’s team leader, now and for the foreseeable future.

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