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Leclerc emerges as Ferrari's 'champion' to leave Vettel on borrowed time

Leclerc emerges as Ferrari's 'champion' to leave Vettel on borrowed time



Leclerc emerges as Ferrari's 'champion' to leave Vettel on borrowed time

Leclerc emerges as Ferrari's 'champion' to leave Vettel on borrowed time

The record books and history will not display just how deserving a winner Charles Leclerc was at the Bahrain Grand Prix on Sunday, and it is a similar travesty that memory will also fade of the Monegasque's mastery in the desert.

Even Lewis Hamilton seemed unable to celebrate the 74th race win of his career, having apologised to Leclerc as he cruised past the stricken Ferrari with nine laps to go.

Hamilton is a true racer and he knew he wasn't the best in Sakhir this weekend.

That could only have been Leclerc.

Ferrari's youngest pole-sitter after driving three perfect sessions on the Saturday, his the only car that appeared to be under any semblance of control while balancing on the edge of performance.

And then in the race, a poor start had Sebastian Vettel ahead, but Leclerc roared back – a first genuine chance to show what he thinks of Vettel's "priority" over him this year was emphatically taken in style at Turn 1 of lap seven.

From there, it was Leclerc's race. Chaotic scenes unfurled behind him as he slowly eked out a bigger and bigger lead.

And then a turbo failure left him helpless, flailing against a silver tide which soon swept him onto the bottom step of the podium, a position he would have surely lost too if not for the late safety car which extended to the chequered flag, denying a self-admittedly undeserving Max Verstappen.

Had the Renaults not bizarrely gone pop at the same corner of the same lap, Leclerc might have even fell into the clutches of his team-mate, and finishing behind Vettel after his performance might have been the ultimate injustice.

It seems immediately clear that Leclerc, not Vettel, should be Ferrari's "champion" – Mattia Binotto's words – with the Scuderia in need of moving on from another high-profile failure.

Fernando Alonso's near-misses were the fault largely of the team. That those issues are now improved and Vettel is even further away speaks volumes of how he has failed in his mission.

Vettel's aims to match his idol Michael Schumacher in Scuderia scarlet were always fanciful of course, but the savaging that his reputation is taking could never have been foreseen.

The German never looked comfortable after out-launching Leclerc, this was no trip over the horizon that characterised his title-winning years so much.

Instead, he drove the fastest car on the circuit almost backwards, dropping a place at the pitstops as a result of his struggles and mighty out-lap pace from Hamilton.

The Brit soon struggled on soft tyres and Vettel breezed past him, but a switch to the medium compound ignited the reigning champion again and the wheel-to-wheel battle we so often crave between the modern era's most successful drivers was on.

Only, Vettel in wheel-to-wheel action is swiftly becoming a difficult watch. The boxer postponing retirement one fight too many, the old town crumbling to the ground, the grandmother dropping her groceries in the street.

As Hamilton pulled up to the outside of Vettel at Turn 4, the prospect of another duel in the desert raised the pulse – only for Vettel to spin out, as he did so many times last year.

It's clear now that this is a Vettel-specific issue.

There are drivers experienced and youthful on this grid and none of them spin while side by side with rivals to the clockwork regularity of Vettel.

Working for Sky, Nico Rosberg – Hamilton's foe in that feted 2014 race here – summed it up well.

"I can't believe that we've seen exactly the same Sebastian Vettel today as we've seen throughout the past year," he said.

"First of all the team messes up the strategy and he gets angry, then come the race day, one wheel-to-wheel battle and he spins it away completely on his own and loses the full weekend."

These are weekend-wrecking errors for now. Last year they were championship-wrecking errors. Too many more and they will be legacy-wrecking ones.

Statistically, Vettel stands slightly above Alain Prost among F1's all-time greats. That is an insult to one of the most technically precise drivers of all time at this moment.

Vettel raised eyebrows coming into the weekend as he hinted at an uncertainty over his long-term future in F1.

"I'm certain I really want to drive this year and next year, then I don't know what happens to the regulations," he told The Times.

Keep this up and the decision might not be his to make.


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