Charles Leclerc was forced to retire from the Formula 1 curtain-raiser in Bahrain with a technical issue, but Ferrari come away from the Gulf state with more positives than negatives.
The Monegasque driver won under the night lights of the Sakhir circuit last season to get his title challenge off to the best possible start. However, it wasn’t to be this time around.
Despite a lightning reaction time at lights out, Leclerc was reeled in by Sergio Perez midway through the race. The Monegasque was still on course for a comfortable podium but for a technical failure, which put pay to his chances of scoring points. But there is reason to be optimistic for Ferrari and Leclerc fans.
Intelligent and pragmatic decision-making
Poorly conceived strategic calls were one of the main factors behind Ferrari’s and Leclerc’s mid-season capitulation in 2022. The man responsible for those calls, Mattia Binotto, was replaced in the off-season by Frédéric Vasseur.
The early signs of his reign as Ferrari team principal were very encouraging. He made a difficult, but ultimately beneficial call to only send Leclerc out for one flying lap in Q3 on Saturday, allowing the prancing horse brand to conserve a set of unused soft tyres for the race.
That call optimised Ferrari’s chances of a result in the race, and it was a strategy that would have paid dividends if not for Leclerc’s loss of power. As Leclerc said post-retirement, third place was the best that Ferrari could have hoped for, and they would have achieved it.
Vasseur and Leclerc first met when the latter was karting back in 2012. They have since worked together at Sauber back in 2018, and have a healthy working relationship. Having a positive dynamic between the team principal and the lead driver will be critical in facilitating the in-season development of the car and optimising performance.
Leclerc’s teammate, Carlos Sainz, may have surrendered thrid-place to Aston Martin’s Fernando Alonso during Sunday’s race in Bahrain, but Ferrari looked like the only team capable of getting anywhere near Red Bull.
Leclerc was unchallenged for large parts of the race, and Sainz was only reeled in when he started suffering problems in his Ferrari and began complaining of “bouncing.”
The overall outlook is, therefore, positive for Ferrari. They aren’t as quick as Red Bull, as predicted, but they seem faster than the Aston Martin and the Mercedes. Should Red Bull make strategic errors or suffer from technical issues, Ferrari are best placed to profit from their misfortune and score race wins.
The season is yet young
Last season, Ferrari were considerably faster than their rivals, notably the Red Bull in Bahrain. By mid-season that had changed. Max Verstappen and Red Bull had the quicker car and were reaping the rewards. By the end of the season, Ferrari were out of the picture and Mercedes, who were scrapping in the midfield at the start of the campaign, were challenging for wins, with George Russell clinching victory in Brazil.
Performance differs over the course of the season, teams can jump up the grid, or fall down it. Those rises and falls will be exacerbated in what is the longest-ever season of Formula One racing. There are 23 races in 2023, including the inaugural Las Vegas Grand Prix later in the year. That gives Ferrari plenty of time to catch up and challenge for wins.
Should Ferrari’s in-season car development outmatch Red Bull’s, and there is no reason for this not to be the case, the Italian manufacturer could have closed the gap by the time the European season arrives.
Red Bull were imperious in Bahrain, and that will likely remain the case in the upcoming races. However, the season is yet young, and the title isn’t decided in one race. In this most elongated of seasons, Leclerc has plenty of time to put himself in contention for the title.
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Photo from Scuderia Ferrari press centre