Bahrain GP: Leclerc heads Ferrari 1-2 as Red Bull implode
Rhonan Colquhoun reviews the opening race of the 2022 Formula One season, with Ferrari and Charles Leclerc getting off to the best possible start, while the likes of Red Bull and McLaren went home empty-handed.
Charles Leclerc ended Ferrari’s winless drought of 45 races as the Monegasque headed home ahead of teammate Carlos Sainz Jr. after an enthralling Bahrain GP to secure a sensational one-two finish for the Scuderia.
After claiming pole position by just over a tenth of a second, Leclerc managed the race to near perfection, picking his battles wisely on the road to his third win in the sport.
The Monegasque’s closest challenger, reigning champion Max Verstappen, spectacularly duelled with Leclerc for several laps during the pit-stop phase, as the young phenoms fought for the race lead.
Entering the weekend as pre-race favourite, Verstappen was unable to make a move on the Ferrari driver stick and became frustrated as several opportunities to undercut his rival failed.
The Dutchman’s race was dealt with a devastating blow as numerous issues thwarted the Red Bull driver’s chance of victory within the final three laps, eventually forcing him into retirement.
Red Bull’s race then imploded completely when on the final tour of the 57-lap race, Sergio Pérez’s engine failed, leaving the Mexican stuck in the middle of the first corner.
This gifted the final step on the podium to Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton, who inherited two positions in the final three laps.
Having found the sweet-spot with the balance of his SF-75, Leclerc romped to pole position – exactly what the Monegasque hoped to be fighting for after the Friday Practice sessions.
The Ferrari driver then controlled the race from the get-go and built nearly a five-second gap to Verstappen ahead of the first round of pit-stops. The Scuderia reacted quickly as Red Bull staged the undercut which left Leclerc and Verstappen to give the crowd an almighty duel.
The blockbuster battle rumbled on for the best part of three laps as Verstappen lunged down the inside into Turn One. Leclerc fought back and swept across the front of the Dutchman into Turn Four. Another attempt by Verstappen was made again into Turn One but Leclerc waited patiently before re-taking the lead back into Turn Four. Verstappen’s last attempt saw the Dutchman head into the first corner too hot, flat-spotting his front-right tyre. With overheating brakes and tyre temperatures that were sky-rocketing, Verstappen admitted defeat.
Leclerc managed the gap and continuously posted quicker lap times until Red Bull pulled Verstappen in for another undercut attempt. However, Ferrari responded with an electrifying pit-stop – half a second quicker than their rival’s effort – to keep their driver ahead.
Getting even more frustrated, Verstappen bemoaned over team radio at how he went about his out lap, as Red Bull urged the Dutchman to initially protect his fresh tyres. A final roll of the dice by Red Bull looked desperate and everything was pinned on whether or not Ferrari chose to pit Leclerc, who was now nearly half a minute up the road.
The race was given another kick as Pierre Gasly leapt out of his flaming AlphaTauri, with the Frenchman pulling up on the exit of Turn Three. The Safety Car was deployed and with Ferrari not wanting to risk putting the win in jeopardy, Leclerc pitted and re-joined in the lead.
Verstappen’s issues then became clear, with the Red Bull driver reporting that the steering on his RB18 felt heavy in what he felt was a power unit glitch.
Leclerc judged the restart to perfection and was unchallenged down the start/finish straight as Verstappen used all the track to defend from a fast-charging Sainz.
The Spaniard had run a lonely race – unable to keep-up with the top two but not having the overall superior pace to pull comfortably clear of Pérez behind. Sainz saw an opportunity as an ailing Verstappen was considerably slower during the middle sector of the lap. In a clean move, Sainz moved himself into second as a powerless Verstappen lost drive. The Dutchman slowed with another apparent issue forcing him to retire at the end of Lap 54.
Red Bull’s hopes were now pinned on Pérez, who had been elevated to third as a result of his teammate’s demise. As the Mexican kept the Mercedes duo of Hamilton and George Russell behind him, he too reported an issue. As the field entered the final lap, all hope was lost as Pérez’s engine gave way through the middle of the first corner, leaving the Mexican stranded and Red Bull speechless.
Picking his way round the stranded Red Bull, Hamilton moved into third with Russell running close behind in fourth. It too had been a lonely race for the Silver Arrows. Russell made up for a lowly qualifying which left him ninth with nice overtakes to get him within seven seconds of Hamilton before the Safety Car. A hard-tyre stint for both drivers was the wrong strategy call, as tyre wear was higher than expected.
With only a handful of corners to navigate, Leclerc came over team radio and jokingly distressed about an issue with his engine. The Monegasque was robbed of victory under the floodlights of Bahrain in 2019 as he lost maximum output within the last 10 laps. This time around, there were no issues to halt the Ferrari driver to take an emphatic victory for the Scuderia.
On his victory, Leclerc said “[I’m] So happy. We knew this was a big opportunity for the team and the guys have done an incredible job building an amazing car. One-two today with Carlos, we couldn’t hope for better. It’s incredible to be back at the top.”
Despite the victory, Leclerc will be cautious in his approach for the rest of the year, as the winner of the opening race has finished as Championship runner-up in every season since 2017.
Sainz, who joined the Scuderia last season, called this his “worst weekend at the team”, even with his second-place finish. The Spaniard put across his hope to find the pace to be able to compete more closely with Leclerc in the next race, before happily proclaiming “Ferrari is back!”
Even Hamilton, the man who claimed a podium place out of nowhere, expressed his happiness at Ferrari’s result. After the race, he said: “A big, big congratulations to Ferrari, so good to see them doing well again.”
Mercedes Team Principal, Toto Wolff, admitted that his team were “punching above their weight”, while Russell thought that to come away with a third and fourth place finish was “extraordinary.”
On his return to the sport, Haas’s Kevin Magnussen converted his seventh in qualifying to fifth at the chequered flag. The Dane, who returns after losing his seat with the team ahead of the 2021 season, secured the Haas’ best finish since 2019. Teammate Mick Schumacher delivered his best race to date, finishing just outside the points in 11th, despite being tagged into a spin on the opening lap of the race by Alpine’s Esteban Ocon.
It was a double points finish for Alfa Romeo’s new driver pairing, with Valterri Bottas recovering from a poor start to finish where he started in sixth, while Chinese driver Zhou Guanyu claimed tenth on his debut.
Yuki Tsunoda put in a great drive to salvage AlphaTauri’s race while the Alpine duo of Ocon and Fernando Alonso also scored points.
Down the field, it was a horrible day for McLaren who could not shake off their poor performance from qualifying. After missing pre-season testing due to coronavirus, Daniel Ricciardo was knocked out in Q1 while Lando Norris only managed 13th. Opting to start on the Medium tyres hindered both drivers, who spent the race battling with the Williams and Aston Martin duos.
Super-sub Nico Hülkenberg, standing in for four-time World Champion Sebastian Vettel who tested positive for COVID-19, out-qualified Lance Stroll in a remarkable effort. However, the AMR22 did not have the pace and both drivers languished near the rear of the field.
The teams and drivers have less than a week to analyse data and bring forward updates as Formula One returns to Saudi Arabia for the second round of the 2022 Season.