It was all going so perfectly for Charles Leclerc at the Bahrain Grand Prix. The Monégasque racing driver was ten seconds clear of Lewis Hamilton and had him comfortably in his pocket. He had dominated the race after recovering from a race-start wobble, and was fully deserving of his first career victory in Formula One.
Instead, his engine gave out and he was forced to limp home in third, with Hamilton riding his luck again to notch up another victory. It was heartbreaking to see Leclerc’s fate slip from his fingers.
He had dominated the weekend after seeing off bigger names, an unbelievable amount of pressure for a 21-year-old to take on. He had barely put a foot wrong for the entire of the weekend, the kind of strong recovery he needed after disappointing himself two weeks earlier in Australia.
You felt like it was written in the stars that he should taste the winner’s champagne for the first time, and yet it was taken away from him. It is unfortunately part of performing at the top level of Formula One. It is a team sport, no matter how individualised and centred on the drivers it may seem.
For success to become a reality, more than driving ability is needed. Hundreds and hundreds of people need to do their jobs as good as they possibly can, from the team bosses to the mechanics.
When this does not happen, and when combined with a helping of bad luck, things like this happen. There is one more sullen Formula One driver in the paddock.
Leclerc can bounce back, and he has reason to be optimistic. The past couple of seasons have all been about the titanic battle between Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel, a fight that, we are told, will be the battle of a generation and settle which of the two is truly the best.
As part of this, their teammates have been living in the shadows, but no longer. Hamilton’s teammate Valtteri Bottas took the most dominant win of his career at the Australian Grand Prix, and Leclerc should have matched that last Sunday in Bahrain.
The understudies are finally showing what they are capable of – especially impressive in Leclerc’s case given that Bottas has been in the sport for five more seasons than him.
There is real emotional poignancy behind Leclerc’s rise to fame as well. He is the godson of Jules Bianchi, the last driver to be killed in Formula One (five years ago). Bianchi had been one of the most highly rated drivers in the paddock at the time of his fatal crash at the Japanese Grand Prix, and was destined for the Ferrari drive at some point in the future – a position now held by Leclerc.
Leclerc has talked in the past about how much Bianchi remains a role model to him and a victory for the Monégasque would feel like a victory for Bianchi also, and for the sport’s capacity to remember its fallen heroes.
Leclerc will have other chances. His stellar drive in Bahrain proves that, along with Bottas, Hamilton and his own teammate Sebastian Vettel, he is a championship contender. The agony of a victory falling away from him will be hard to take, but he will come back stronger and prove his metal in one of the world’s toughest sports.
Image: Habeed Hameed via Wikimedia Commons