Bahrain GP: Charles Leclerc quickly delivers on promise - and gives Ferrari much to ponder
Charles Leclerc's first Formula 1 pole position came in only his second race for Ferrari and at what was effectively his first chance of taking one, but it says a lot for his potential that it was not a surprise at all.
The 21-year-old Monegasque has seemed destined for success for years now. When he came to F1 last year, it was only a matter of time before he was in a top team. And when he joined it, the question was not if he would make a success of it, but when.
Not yet 23 races into Leclerc's career, it is far too early to know how far he can go, but that he has already delivered on the potential that was so clearly there is a promising sign.
Ferrari were out-paced at the season-opening race in Australia a fortnight ago - which came as something of a surprise after a strong showing in pre-season testing.
But in Bahrain, as Mercedes said after qualifying, the performance was back to expectations, and Leclerc was clearly a strong contender for pole from the beginning of the weekend.
- Ferrari's Leclerc takes maiden pole
- Relive the qualifying hour in Bahrain
- Bottas and Mercedes hoping for a desert double
Fastest in first practice, pipped by team-mate Sebastian Vettel in the second, fastest again in final practice, and in all three parts of qualifying. Leclerc was the man to beat.
Vettel was put on the back foot with a mistake on his first run in second qualifying, provoked by being in too much traffic, which left the four-time champion with only one run in final qualifying.
But the likelihood was that Leclerc was going to take some beating anyway.
How big an achievement is it?
For all Leclerc's talent, though, it is important to mark the magnitude of his achievement. Vettel is not just any driver, and to already be showing so strongly against him is highly impressive.
It often takes time for drivers to settle into new teams - as Daniel Ricciardo is proving at Renault. And Vettel is not only one of the most successful drivers in history, but he has been at Ferrari for four years already.
Toro Rosso driver Alexander Albon has raced against Leclerc for much of his career, and was his team-mate when Leclerc became GP3 champion in 2016. Albon finished runner-up.
"I get on really well with Charles," Albon said. "We had our GP3 experience, and to be honest, already back then, it was, 'This guy is seriously, seriously quick'.
"I was really happy for him - it's really cool. From what I know of him, he could always do these laps - sort of, 'Where did that come from?' Today was maybe one of those laps."
But even Albon has been surprised by Leclerc's quick progress.
"Seeing Charles fighting with Seb so early in the season," he said. "I thought it would take longer for him to be able to get there."
The internal Ferrari battle
Leclerc's pole, with Vettel alongside him on the front row, raises some intriguing questions about how Ferrari will approach the race.
Before the season, new team boss Mattia Binotto effectively indicated that Vettel would be the team leader, at least at the start of the year, by saying he would be given "priority" in certain situations, pointing to his greater experience.
In Australia, Leclerc caught Vettel in the final stint, thanks to offset strategies, and was ordered to hold position behind.
That has inevitably led to questions as to how Ferrari will approach this race. Would Leclerc be allowed to stay in front if he found himself there, Binotto was asked on Friday?
"No doubt, Charles is allowed to go as fast as he can, he is allowed to try to go for pole, he is allowed to try to stay ahead and we are not stopping him doing that," Binotto said.
"What is important is our two drivers are not fighting and taking any risk when battling together. But there is no doubt that if Charles is ahead on the first lap, he will stay, and if at the end of the race he is ahead, he will stay ahead."
Did that mean if they were running in consecutive positions, they were not allowed to battle during the race?
"Let's wait the next races and let's see if there is any incidences and how we react."
The drivers were giving nothing away after qualifying.
"We haven't done the pre-race meeting yet," Leclerc said, "so at the moment I don't know. I will do everything to keep my place but we are a team so we have to work together."
"We have the front row and we need to work hard to make sure we finish one-two," Vettel said. "Charles starts ahead so he has the advantage of pole and we see how we go."
The temptation, if the mindset is that they see Vettel as their likely main title contender given Leclerc's inexperience, might be to find a way to get the German ahead during the race - for example on strategy at the pit stops.
But the way Leclerc is developing, there is a chance that may not, by the end of the season, turn out to be a wise decision. Binotto has some thinking to do.
Why did Ferrari improve so much?
It was quite a turnaround from Ferrari, from being 0.7secs a lap slower than Mercedes in qualifying in Melbourne, to Leclerc taking pole 0.3secs ahead of Lewis Hamilton in the fastest Mercedes in Bahrain.
Ferrari were lacking in lots of areas in Melbourne. This weekend, they have sorted out their chassis set-up so they were no longer losing much in the corners - but their advantage all came on the straights, where Mercedes boss Toto Wolff said his cars were losing "nearly 0.5secs".
This level of power was not evident on the Ferrari in Australia. But the word is that they were having problems with the engine there, which forced them to run it at a lower performance level, which also had a knock-on effect on fuel consumption.
Binotto denied that Ferrari had a cooling problem - the main theory for the cause of the problem. But clearly something had changed.
"We have been out-performed on every single straight line," Wolff said. "Massively out-performed. But we need to look at ourselves and say, 'Have we miscalculated the downforce and drag levels?'"
Hamilton's team-mate Valtteri Bottas said: "It is more like a picture we saw in winter testing. We thought we were behind and today we were. We know we need to improve if we are to fight for pole."
But qualifying is not the race - and on the race runs on Friday evening Mercedes looked much more a match for Ferrari.
"The question is how much power can they run in the race and for how many laps in a row," Bottas said. "Our race pace looked good. We are going into tomorrow thinking we have a car that can fight for the race win."
Strategy is unknown. The teams will try to stretch out the first stint for a one-stop, but a two-stop is also a good choice, and Wolff says there is the option of "a multitude of strategies. It will be a learning on the job and seeing how far you can stretch the initial stint".
The first real straight fight between Mercedes and Ferrari of the season. It could be something special. Rather like the man who starts the race from pole.