Declan Quigley: Leclerc had the pace required to mount a championship challenge & the strength to fend off a world champion
There was a time when Michael Schumacher was in his pomp and news of a Ferrari one-two finish would be greeted with yawns and rolling of the eyes. Not anymore.
What’s seldom is wonderful and the new ground effect era of F1 arrives with the novelty of the team principal’s cool-down lap tribute to the winning driver being delivered in lilting Italian.
Mattia Binotto commands a company that has a car which, currently at any rate, combines the elusive alchemy of pace and reliability. At the outset of a new technical rule book, that’s especially tough to achieve.
In securing just his third F1 race victory in 81 races, Charles Leclerc demonstrated not just the pace required to mount a championship challenge but the strength of character to fend off the challenge of a world champion.
The early scrap with Max Verstappen when the two traded the lead no fewer than four times was not just a thrill for the fans, and early vindication for the new rules package, but a signal that 24-year-old Leclerc has accumulated the experience and confidence to go toe to toe with one of the most feared racers of recent times.
The early signs are that when the teams are closely matched on performance the combination of ground effect and DRS have the potential to deliver exciting wheel-to-wheel action.
Drivers may well have to plan an overtaking strategy with a bit more care rather than just pouncing on any opportunity which presents itself as the overtaken driver will have the chance to respond more often than we have been used to. A return to races like old-style Monza slipstreamers? Who knows, but the prospect is mouthwatering…
While it was a maximum haul in the drivers and constructors series for Ferrari, for Verstappen there was a zero points return and nothing but frustration. His frantic radio demands for assistance with his steering and power loss woes came across as a bit of a tantrum and not the cool queries of a reigning world champion. Who would want that constant moaning and whining from any team-mate?
Mind you, at least Max has a quick car. Maybe not as quick as it looked like it might be during practice and qualifying but definitely a championship challenger. If mechanical reliability can be added to the mix then a championship defence will surely be on the cards.
By contrast, his most recent title rival Lewis Hamilton finished the opening weekend with a hard-won podium and a big headache about how he and his team will repeat it. Hamilton kept his bucking bronco of a Mercedes on track and was in prime position to profit from the demise of Verstappen and then Sergio Perez.
There are plenty of teams on the grid who would like the difficulties that the Silver Arrows have at the moment but from their perspective, this is their nadir and they’re going to find it tough to get in the championship fight. They’ll be burning the midnight oil in Brackley for a while yet…
Hamilton’s ability to fend off George Russell in their first weekend together was one ray of sunshine for the seven-time champion. If Russell thought his youth, brio and talent would allow him to sweep aside the 36-year-old – and, in fairness he probably didn’t– then he will have been considerably chastened by the experience.
A lock-up in qualifying followed by a strong run in the race showed impressive powers of recovery and the internecine battle between the Englishmen will be fascinating to watch.
There were smiles for Valtteri Bottas who has a car almost as good as the Mercedes and maybe nicer to drive, and for Kevin Magnussen who converted a late call up to the Haas team into a stunning fifth place for the squad who spent all of last year developing this year’s car.
It looks like a wise investment but the manner in which Magnussen could jump back into F1 after a three-year absence and comprehensively outperform the faster of the two Haas ’21 drivers suggests that these trickier new cars could be putting a bit more back in the hands of the person behind the steering wheel. Which can only be a good thing.