Charles Leclerc took pole on Saturday. On Sunday he won the season opener in Bahrain. Ferrari has hit the mark with its new car. Scuderia is the team to beat this season. The F1-75 is fast - and it's bulletproof. Carlos Sainz is close to a contract extension.
That's what you call a dream start: pole position, one-two, fastest race lap, maximum points of 44 points. Ferrari did a great job over the winter. The F1-75 is currently the most mature package. The car shines with downforce, good-natured handling, gentle handling of the tyres, the most powerful engine in the field and its reliability. Red Bull struggled at times for victory, on course for a podium, but the challenger stumbled on steadfastness.
Ferrari, on the other hand, seems to be bulletproof. The Scuderia did not have to struggle with technical problems either during the six-day test drives or on the first race weekend of the season. Maranello celebrated himself with a double victory. "This victory is the reward for two years of hard work," explained winner Charles Leclerc, who also held on. "We're in. We can fight with this car." Teammate Carlos Sainz summarizes: "Ferrari is back in the fight. Ferrari is where it belongs."
The team boss is of course happy, but at the same time curbs the euphoria. "We couldn't even dream of a one-two, so it's a great start for us. Our base is good, but I think we'll have to wait four to five races before we have a meaningful pecking order in the field." Incidentally, for Ferrari it was the first double success since Singapore 2019.
Ferrari protects tires
The early development stop with the old car paid off for Ferrari. The engineers have done a great job – both in the chassis and in the engine department. The six-cylinder turbo from Maranello is considered the benchmark in the field. One hears that Ferrari mobilizes even more power than last year. Despite the switch to E10 petrol. Mercedes and Honda, on the other hand, had to give up. Renault has apparently also increased, but comes from far behind.
Leclerc converted his pole position into the lead at the start. The Monegasse raced ahead of his pursuer, Max Verstappen in the Red Bull, in every stint. Red Bull's engineers calculated that they were three tenths slower than the red car on average. Ferrari drove with more downforce. You can afford it with your engine. Red Bull paid for smaller wings with more tire degradation.
The contenders came together at the pit stops. Red Bull always made the first move, Ferrari reacted one lap later. A lead of 3.7 seconds before the first tire change was not enough for Leclerc to stay in the lead.The undercut with fresh tires was a powerful strategy tool in Bahrain.
Duel Leclerc vs. Verstappen
Leclerc made it exciting himself. "In the inlap I made a small mistake. The tire change wasn't quick. There was a problem in the front right. In the outlap I was too careful with the tires. I didn't know how much grip they would give me." A duel broke out in rounds 17, 18 and 19, which already has its place in the highlights of the season. Verstappen and Leclerc overtook each other three times. The Dutchman passed in the first corner, the Ferrari driver always successfully countered before corner four.
The 24-year-old tricked his rival. Leclerc knew he would have a hard time holding the onrushing Red Bull with DRS down the home stretch. That's why he concentrated on driving cleanly and braking earlier than necessary to be at the measuring point for the DRS for the following straight behind Verstappen. "Otherwise he would have overtaken me with DRS in turn four." That gave him the advantage to fold down the rear wing after the first three corners and overtake with an excess. The duel could be a foretaste of a World Cup duel. "It was hard and at the same time fair racing, the way I like it. We both gave ourselves the necessary space," says Leclerc.
It was the only time that things got really dicey for Leclerc at the top. For the second tire change he had more air with a lead of 4.1 seconds. "The tires were in better shape then." The longer the stints lasted, the more Ferrari benefited from the careful handling of the Pirellis.
Ferrari wanted to drive through
Red Bull wanted to lure the Scuderia out of their reserve with a third tire swap. This time there was no direct counterattack. Ferrari kept Leclerc on track. You wanted to drive to the finish on the medium tires. "My tires felt good. Nevertheless, I questioned the decision. But the command post has a better overview, the team has more data. They made it clear to me that it was the right way."
The team boss explains the ulterior motives. "The tires were in good condition. We had enough juice and an advantage. We felt on the safe side. An additional pit stop felt like more risk." Leclerc's lead over Verstappen was over 27 seconds. The world champion should have caught up in 13 laps. And overtake Leclerc too. Red Bull's sporting director Helmut Marko believes: "We would be open to him with two or three laps to go."
A late safety car forced Ferrari to put on another set of soft tires after all. "When the signal for VSC first came, I was very relieved," says Leclerc. That would have given him a free stop with little loss of time. "When it was converted into a real safety car, all my advantage was gone."
Sainz and Ferrari agreed
The three-time GP winner also mastered this situation. When Verstappen's Red Bull failed, he was rid of his pursuer. And the way was clear for the double victory. Leclerc was even able to kid his team. "I still have joked that there is a problem with the engine. The engineers probably had a heart attack there." In 2019, an engine problem cost him a certain victory in Bahrain. At that time, the engine was only running on five cylinders.
His teammate couldn't keep up with the pace. Carlos Sainz summed it up self-critically." I only had a good pace in Q2 and Q3. Otherwise I wasn't able to realize the car's potential. The fresh tires have masked my deficits. Otherwise I was always three tenths short of Charles. He drives better. I fight with the rear and put more strain on the tires."
The Spaniard admits without hesitation: "That was my worst weekend for Ferrari. I was never that far away in 2021. But if every bad weekend ends with a second place, I accept that." He was not only pleased with the good result. But also with the forthcoming contract extension. The driver and the team have reached an agreement. "We just have to put it on paper", reported team boss Binotto.