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Leclerc puts Ferrari back on top as Verstappen’s title defence starts badly · RaceFans

Just as Formula 1’s most radical regulations revolution in a generation had required thousands of hours of research, planning, testing and refinement, the seeds of Ferrari’s first grand prix victory in over two years were planted long before the team arrived in the Bahrain paddock for 2022’s first grand prix.

In the midst of their weakest season for forty years in 2020, team principal Mattia Binotto turned his team’s focus to the wealth of opportunity offered by the major rules changes for the 2022 season to try and bring his team back to where he felt they belonged.

“If I look at the 2022 car and the 2022 power units, believe me, there is a lot of innovation in it,” he boldly claimed in December, Binotto said. “The team is stronger than the past.”

And when Charles Leclerc secured the first pole position of Formula 1’s new era around the Bahrain International Circuit, it appeared Ferrari were backing Binotto’s words up with actions.

All they had to do on Sunday was hold off world champion Max Verstappen.

When the five red lights went out to signal the start of the most keenly anticipated world championship in recent memory, Leclerc aced his first mission of the evening by beating the Red Bull driver on the run to the first corner as team mate Carlos Sainz Jnr held third. Sergio Perez surrendered two positions to first Lewis Hamilton, then Kevin Magnussen’s Haas.

Start, Bahrain International Circuit, 2022
Leclerc converted pole into the early lead

Breaking ground as China’s first ever F1 race driver, Zhou Guanyu almost saw his grand prix debut end at the very first corner when his Alfa Romeo fell into anti-stall. Luckily, he was able to continue after dropping to the rear, just as Mick Schumacher was fortunate to continue as Esteban Ocon pitched the Haas into a perfect pirouette at turn six, earning himself a five-second penalty.

Magnussen, parachuted into the Haas only 11 days prior, relinquished fifth place to Perez. Within a handful of laps the Red Bull driver caught and passed Hamilton, whose Mercedes is not the force it was last year, to reclaim his original fourth position.

Verstappen kept in touch with Leclerc out front as the pair gently pulled away from Sainz in third. But it didn’t take long for the champion to report the first of a myriad of car problems that would ultimately render his afternoon fruitless. “Engine braking is doing funny things mid-corner,” he radioed.

Despite the Red Bull’s handling being less than ideal, Verstappen managed to maintain the gap to around 3.5s before Red Bull opted to pit him for a second set of softs at the end of lap 14. Ferrari immediately responded, bringing Sainz from third and calling in leader Leclerc at the end of his next lap.

“Do not hit these tyres hard, Max,” Verstappen’s race director Gianpiero Lambiase instructed his driver. Remarkably, even with the relatively easy out-lap, Verstappen’s fresh rubber allowed him to gain three full seconds over the Ferrari on a single lap and was close enough to apply intense pressure to Leclerc as soon as he merged back onto the circuit.

With Verstappen sitting in DRS range as they rounded the final corner, Leclerc made the smart decision to blend out of the throttle on the straight and allow the Red Bull to pass him, so he could exploit the second DRS zone to retake the lead.

Max Verstappen, Charles Leclerc, Bahrain International Circuit, 2022
Verstappen passed the Ferrari, but not for long

“I was trying to be as clever as possible using the DRS as much as possible,” he later explained. “I was trying to brake early into turn one just to be behind him at the DRS detection and twice it worked out, so I took back my first position and just incredibly happy that we made it work.”

For three laps, the pair traded places in an exhilarating exhibition of racing – Leclerc ultimately retaining his hard-fought lead. It was an encouraging first sign that 2022’s new regulations had achieved their goal of making it easier for cars to fight on-track, and gave cause for optimism similar duels will play out over the 22 races to follow.

Eventually, Verstappen snatched a brake at turn one after accepting another invitation to pass Leclerc, and the Ferrari driver used his much better exit from the corner to first pull clear of DRS, then away from the Red Bull entirely. Pirelli had predicted a two-stop strategy would be the best path to take prior to the race, but with tyre wear higher than expected, it was not overly shocking to see Red Bull switch Verstappen onto the mediums around the halfway mark of the race.

“You have to bring these tyres in gently this stint, please Max,” Lambiase urged again.

As they had done 16 laps earlier, Ferrari covered Verstappen by pitting Leclerc and, again, he rejoined the track with the Red Bull considerably closer than he had been. This time, however, Leclerc was able to get up to speed before Verstappen found the opportunity to attack – leaving the world champion lamenting his team’s insistence on caution.

“Okay, this is now two times that I take it easy on the out-lap when I could have easily been in front,” he argued. “I’m never, ever doing it again.”

On the mediums, Verstappen struggled more to maintain the pace of the race leader, gradually losing time with every lap to Leclerc. Ferrari advised their driver on the radio that Verstappen appeared to being hit with heavier tyre wear, as it appeared Red Bull’s challenge for victory had been broken.

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But long before his medium tyres were due to expire, Verstappen was suddenly in the pit lane at the start of lap 44 for a third time to take his third set of soft tyres for the evening. But while everything appeared to be in good order, Verstappen had barely rounded turn two before alerting his team to a newly-emerged impediment.

“Oh mate, my steering wheel is feeling very heavy,” he reported. “Oh my God, it’s almost locked – I almost can’t steer.”

Max Verstappen, Red Bull, Bahrain International Circuit, 2022
No points for Verstappen – or his team

While Verstappen was coming to terms with this unexpected change, Pierre Gasly was forced to pull his AlphaTauri off the road after it developed a sudden fire at the rear of the car. For the second time in under two years, the marshals at turn three had firefighting to do, while the Safety Car was deployed for the first time this season.

Holding a comfortable margin behind him, Leclerc was brought in to move onto his first set of used softs that afternoon, leaving both he and Verstappen effectively on an equal footing for what was now shaping up to be a seven-lap sprint for the chequered flag. With the lapped runners – all of them – removed, the race was restarted on lap 51.

But rather than the Red Bull challenging Leclerc at the green flag, it was instead defending from Sainz behind.

“Mate, what’s going on with the battery?,” Verstappen enquired about the latest issue to have developed on his car.

“Battery fine,” Lambiase assured.

“No, it’s not,” Verstappen insisted. “What the fuck is this? It’s just shitting itself.”

A terminal problem linked to the power unit’s fuel system was manifesting itself. Within a lap, Sainz was able to breeze past the ailing Red Bull into second. By the end of the 54th tour, it was all over for Verstappen.

“It looked like there was no fuel coming to the engine and then basically everything just turned off,” he later explained. “So I rolled back into the pit lane.

“It’s not what you want, especially after having really positive test days and actually also a positive weekend, it looked like. With all the little issues we had, to be a second place, that would have been still a very good result.”

The Ferraris were now running first and second. Behind them attention turned to Perez, now sitting in the final podium spot with Hamilton’s Mercedes large in his mirrors. But the second RB18 was also ailing: Perez reported he was “losing power.”

Entering the final lap, it seemed as though Perez might actually pull off his second vital defence against Hamilton in consecutive races, until he turned in for the turn one hairpin and the car looped around 180 degrees and came to rest awkwardly at the apex.

“I lost the fucking engine,” Perez lamented. “Unbelievable.”

As the preliminary investigations began at Red Bull, celebrations were beginning at Ferrari. After a pre-season of tantalising promise, Ferrari’s return to the front was of little surprise, but the swiftness with which they had converted their potential into victory was one few in the team would have dared to predict.

Leclerc crossed the line to take his third career victory, two and a half years from his last. For Ferrari – and especially Leclerc – the podium rosewater washed away the bitter aftertaste that had lingered since their dire 2020 campaign.

“It feels amazing,” Leclerc beamed. “Obviously, after yesterday, it already felt great. But we had to finish the business today and we did a one-two. So it’s the perfect start to the season.”

(L to R), Carlos Sainz Jr, Charles Leclerc, Ferrari, Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes, Bahrain International Circuit, 2022
Hamilton described third as a “huge” result for Mercedes

While Sainz made no effort to hide his disappointment at not being able to emulate the pace of his team mate and Verstappen, he could recognise the bigger picture of what an opening race win means for his season ahead.

“Before the race, Charles and I were working together and the first thing that we said to each other is how good it feels just to be starting first and third and to finally be fighting for something bigger, and together,” he said.

“We kind of had that moment of just realising that we are in the fight this year. it was… a good moment to reflect and to realise that we are a lot luckier in that sense than last year, and we have a good fight in our hands.”

After spending the pre-season and the early part of the race weekend playing down Mercedes’ chances, Hamilton said third and fourth for him and new team mate George Russell amounted to a “huge” result for the team.

“I think it’s incredibly motivating probably for the whole team,” he said. “Whilst we don’t have the performance of these other guys in terms of our processes, in terms of squeezing absolutely everything out of the car, I think that’s what we did today and for both drivers, and I think that’s a true showing of strength within.”

Magnussen, returning to Formula 1 out of the blue, could hardly fathom his Haas team, who had gone point-less last year, had taken best-of-the-rest honours in the first race of 2022.

“It’s so good to be back in this position,” he said. “Just got to say a massive well done to the team, getting this car into this position. We were the strongest car in the midfield.”

Having dreamed of racing in Formula 1 from the day he watched China’s first ever grand prix from the stands, Zhou Guanyu said he was “speechless” after scoring a point for tenth on debut. Sixth for Alfa Romeo team mate Valtteri Bottas capped off an excellent start to the year for the team after a shaky start to testing. The pair were separated by the Alpines – Ocon seventh, Fernando Alonso ninth – and Yuki Tsunoda.

The AlphaTauri driver was the only one of the Red Bull-powered quartet to reach the flag. If reliability is their biggest worry following round one, performance appears to be a concern for Mercedes. While the factory cars inherited third and fourth places, the six customers were the last to cross the line.

But after their pre-season had looked so strong, Ferrari had announced themselves as true contenders for the biggest prize in the sport once again after two turbulent years. And Leclerc is confident that both he and Sainz are ready to battle for the title all the way in 2022.

“I think we are both very, very happy to have a car that is capable of winning. And yeah, we’ll fight for it, for sure.”

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