In the green room after the Bahrain Grand Prix, Lewis Hamilton turned to Charles Leclerc, of whom the world champion inherited the victory when the Ferrari driver suffered an engine problem in the last few laps.
"You drove really well this weekend, man," Hamilton said. "You really have a fantastic future, you have a long, old future ahead of you." "I know it sucks right now, but you have a long, long way to go."
A few minutes earlier, after stopping at the pit lane, Leclerc stopped halfway out of the car. He held the head protection halo, his head lowered. He came down, discouraged, took off his helmet, accepted the commissions of his teammate Sebastian Vettel. Leclerc put his hands on his face, composed himself, and then, with resigned expression, raised an arm to the applause of the crowd.
The 21-year-old had just finished third, behind Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas' other Mercedes. But everyone knew that Leclerc was the moral winner. His consolation was twofold – a late security car kept him from falling further down the field in the last few laps; and just as importantly, he had conducted in a way that suggests that the first victory that should have taken place on Sunday would not be far off.
It's easy to get into hyperbole at times like this, after a weekend where a rider totally dominated his rivals.
But it is not a hyperbole to say that for three days in Bahrain, Leclerc has ruled out any doubts that there may still be a man who will be at the heart of Formula One for many years.
"In Leclerc," said Mercedes F1 boss Toto Wolff, "we are seeing a young defending champion, who was the emotional winner today, the fastest man on the fastest machine. He has the cruel side of racing today and it was our fortune. "
A powerful statement of intent
Leclerc was class personified throughout the weekend in Bahrain. On the track, he was the & # 39; man & # 39; throughout the weekend, clinching his team-mate's pole for almost 0.3 seconds, then dominating the race until his engine crashed into trouble just over 10 laps from the end.
His engineer told him that the MGU-H – a key part of the hybrid engine system – had failed. Team boss Mattia Binotto later said that was not the case and that it was a problem in the cylinder.
His only real mistake was the bad start that took him to third place on the first lap. But after that he was like a tiger chasing a deer.
Bottas was dispatched at the start of the second lap after the Finn was caught in the wind and braked too late for the first round.
That left only Vettel ahead. In two laps, Leclerc cut the two-second advantage of Vettel in the middle, then went to the radio to tell his team, as if he had not noticed: "Guys, I'm much faster."
"I was just letting them know," Leclerc said after the race. "I had an answer and they said," Stay like this for two laps. "But I had a chance on the next lap."
Leclerc passed Vettel on the outside of turn four and with that, he was gone. In a race of his own, that should have led to his inaugural Grand Prix victory in just his second Ferrari race at the start of only his second season in F1 if it were not for the engine.
"Oh God," he said on the radio, when he realized that the victory was slipping from his reach, his engine stole enough energy to cut its speeds at 40 km / h. But then nothing but steel focus on trying to limit the losses.
"It's a shame to lose the lead in this way," he said, "but I had a lot of things to do, so I quickly went back to focusing on my race, victory was out of reach, but there were still important points to win, let yourself be disappointed on one side. "
Luck, who had abandoned him when he led, came to Leclerc's aid. He lost second to Hamilton's team-mate Valtteri Bottas and was about to lose third place to Red Bull's Max Verstappen. But then the two Renault broke on the same lap. The safety car was unfolded and the race, neutralized, ended underneath.
It was a first podium – scant consolation when what should have been an inaugural victory was begging, but nonetheless consoling.
"Throughout the weekend, there are many positive aspects to be met," Leclerc said. "In Australia (in the first race of the season), we were very far away, we found some answers, the team did a great job between the two races and we showed that we also had a very strong pace during the race.
"Questions always happen in one season and if I ever have a problem I end up in third, I can be very happy." Today was not our day. arrive a day in the future ".
Few doubt that.
"Very, very impressive," Wolff said. "He has a good personality, he is a humble young man and he is very fast. Having the combination of speed, personality and being able to move his emotions in both directions is a great ingredient.
"I know that many other pilots who have the lion in them – as he has – have reacted in a different way and were angry and would have shown it, and we did not see that with Charles."
Hamilton added: "Charles did an incredible job this weekend and has a bright future ahead of him. That will only make him stronger."
What now for Vettel?
The decisive weekend of Leclerc could hardly have been worse news for Vettel.
Many suspected that Leclerc would be a tough challenge for German this year – among them this writer – but the way he was overshadowed can not but weigh on the nominal leader of Ferrari between now and the Chinese GP in two weeks.
Vettel can hardly have many weekends worse than that. In addition to Leclerc, Vettel also made one more mistake – the kind that unveiled his title last season.
He was fighting in and out with Hamilton during the race and, with 20 laps remaining, Hamilton was coming back for him, determined to regain second place.
Mercedes went overseas on turn four, made a clean move and then, on the way out, Vettel simply turned everything on his own. He badly damaged his tires, stopping the car before it hit the wall, resulting in vibrations that shook his front wing when he returned to the pits to get new rubber.
"Aargh," Vettel said on the radio, his desperation recalled that having thrown away the victory in his home race last year. This time, what would have been a second place was turned into a room.
"It was very close," Vettel said of the incident. "I tried to get back inside like I was in the lap before, but Turn Four was one of the more complicated corners (because of the strong wind). I had many vibrations which, then, I think led to the failure of the front wing.
"I noticed that after about half a lap after the start it would be very difficult and the car was extremely difficult to drive. I think Charles struggled less and had no difficulty following me and passing.
"It was not the race I wanted, it was not the pace I wanted, I do not know why, and then I made the mistake of turning it in. It was not a good night."
Before the start of the year, one of the main points of discussion was the internal dynamics of Ferrari and how Vettel would deal with the obvious pace of Leclerc.
Could he eradicate the mistakes of 2018 while defending himself from the challenge of a man whom many already considered a future superstar? There is still no definitive answer, but the scale of Vettel's challenge has surfaced under the lights of Bahrain.
One word for Hamilton
Hamilton inherited this victory, of that there is no doubt. But they say you make your own luck, and he certainly did your part.
Mercedes was battling against Ferrari in Bahrain, and the team's decision to put Hamilton on the soft tire for his second pass left him struggling with the lack of grip and tires quickly faded.
Certainly, Vettel, which Hamilton had pitted, partly thanks to the choice of those soft tires, came back to him and came back second. Hamilton was complaining on the radio, but he kept his task and kept Ferrari in sight when it looked like he might fall.
This meant that he was in a position to quickly return to Vettel at the end, once back to the middle tires, and this was what led to the situation in which Vettel's error was committed.
"He fought a weapon that might not be at opponent's level," Wolff said. "If he had not won that battle, it would have been Sebastian who won the race. Those are the differences that can change the results of the race and change the championships."
Where did the rhythm of Ferrari come from?
Mercedes left Bahrain with serious concerns. The Ferrari was no faster in the corners – all its advantage was in the straight. The internal combustion engine has much more power than the Mercedes, and could deploy its hybrid power for much longer.
Next comes China, where the Shanghai track has the longest straight of F1.
"I do not know what in the engine failed," Wolff said, "but if they are able to maintain these power levels in an energy-sensitive circuit like Shanghai, they are favorites because the time lap benefit may be higher than than Bahrain.
"(The victory) is a bit weak because we are all drivers and the emotional winner is Charles, but in motoring you end up in both situations. Sometimes you are lucky and sometimes you are unhappy, but everything ends in the end.
"You have to take the double with humility and knowledge that there is work to be done and not to think that this was Sunday's performance rating." It was not. "