MANAMA (Reuters) - Charles Leclerc’s near-flawless performance at Sunday’s Bahrain Grand Prix marked out the Monegasque as Formula One’s newest force to be reckoned with.
The 21-year-old Ferrari driver was fastest in all but one session of track action, seized pole by a comfortable margin and was cruising to an easy victory when engine trouble struck 10 laps from the end, leaving him third.
If Lewis Hamilton was the one celebrating an unexpected victory, the five-times world champion and his Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff were left in no doubt that Leclerc had made a statement.
“I think we’re seeing a young champion-in-the-making who was the emotional winner today,” said Wolff. “Fastest man and fastest machine.”
Leclerc replaced Ferrari’s 2007 world champion Kimi Raikkonen at the end of last season in a gamble for a team generally known for picking experienced drivers over talented newcomers.
But the youngest Ferrari race driver since 1961 proved he has what it takes to handle the weight of expectation that comes with driving for the sport’s most successful and glamorous team.
He even excelled more than four-time champion team mate Sebastian Vettel, with the German enduring a scrappy evening that left him fifth after a spin and a lost front wing.
As impressive was the youngster’s calm in the face of disappointment, having a first win ripped from his grasp, but he has displayed similar mental fortitude before in far more testing and emotional circumstances.
The godson of late Ferrari protege Jules Bianchi, Leclerc lost his father in 2017 — on the eve of a Formula Two race in Baku that he nonetheless went on to win from pole position.
“Very, very impressive,” said Wolff of Sunday’s performance.
“I know that many other drivers who have the lion in them, like he certainly has, would have reacted in a much more controversial way about the third place and would have been angry and would have displayed that.
“None of that you see with Charles.”
Even Hamilton acknowledged he now had a new challenger to worry about.
“He did an incredible job this weekend and he’s got a beautiful, bright future ahead of him,” said the Briton.
But Leclerc, the same age as Red Bull’s similarly precocious talent Max Verstappen, was keeping his feet firmly on the ground.
“I’m happy overall about this weekend,” he said.
“I always tend to focus on the negatives of the weekend on my side and there’s definitely things that I can still improve, so I’ll try to work for that.”
Editing by Alan Baldwin/Christian Radnedge