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A NEW DUEL

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FORMULA 1 |

Following much speculation around the interpretation of rules for the brand new and completely redesigned 2022 Formula 1 cars, all conjecture ceased when the flag dropped under an Arabian night sky in the desert in Bahrain. With a resurgent Ferrari team taking the fight to Red Bull, the duel between Charles Leclerc and reigning world champion Max Verstappen provided some of the most riveting and scintillating racing ever seen in Formula 1.

After a strong showing in the pre-season testing sessions at Barcelona and Sakhir, Bahrain, the Scuderia drivers Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz were quietly confident of their F1-75 steeds, with the RB18 car from Red Bull looking handy. Surprisingly, the Mercedes W13 in the hands of seven-time Formula 1 world champion Lewis Hamilton and new teammate George Russell did not impress. Of course, most pundits assumed that Mercedes, with its W13 sporting an innovative but controversial slim-line sidepod design, was sandbagging… again.

A Ferrari Feast in Bahrain

Following the practice sessions for the Bahrain season opener, it was clear that Ferrari and Red Bull were the teams to watch, with the Mercedes drivers in their porpoising cars languishing in the mid-field, swamped by Haas, Alfa Romeo and Alpine.

Ferrari secured pole through a Leclerc flyer, the Monegasque driver sharing the front row with Verstappen. Ferrari teammate Sainz was on row two with Red Bull’s Sergio Pérez, and Hamilton in P5 alongside former teammate Bottas.

With new cars, new tyres, new drivers, and new regulations, a new era for Formula 1 dawned when the lights went out to signal the start of the 2022 Bahrain Grand Prix. At the start, Leclerc covered off Verstappen, with Sainz in third, Hamilton up to fourth and Magnussen up into fifth, while Pérez lost two places.

Hamilton was first to pit, emerging behind the Alfa Romeos in 12th, and on lap 15, Verstappen pitted in an effort to undercut race leader Leclerc, 3.5 seconds up the road. It nearly worked as the Ferrari driver emerged from his own pitstop a lap later, only 0.3 seconds ahead of the reigning champ. A spirited fight for the lead followed, providing real edge-of-the-seat stuff as Verstappen got past the pole-sitter with DRS on lap 17, but Leclerc fought back, regaining the lead by Turn 4. Verstappen got past again on the straight, but the Ferrari driver again retook the position.

Again, the Dutch driver got past with DRS on Lap 19 but then locked up into Turn 1, gifting Leclerc the lead and the opportunity to break the Red Bull’s tow. Behind the duelling pair, both Sainz and Perez led the way until their first stops, and the status quo remained until Lap 31 when Verstappen pitted again. Leclerc reacted on the next lap, pitting to switch to medium tyres, and he pulled away slightly from Verstappen, until the Dutchman pitted again on lap 44. Sainz and Hamilton followed suit, and Leclerc benefited from the AlphaTauri of Pierre Gasly that came to a fiery halt on Lap 46, prompting the Safety Car. After all pitting, the top five were now all on soft tyres, and all seemed set for a scintillating six-lap sprint to the end.

Verstappen, complaining of a steering problem, was slow on the restart and battled to stay with Leclerc, who made a perfect getaway. Then disaster struck for Red Bull. First, Verstappen’s RB18 started coasting, and then the engine in Perez’s car cut out, putting the Mexican into a half-spin and out of the race.

The rest of the field swept by the stricken Red Bulls, leaving Leclerc to take an easy win, 5.0 seconds clear of Sainz, followed by Hamilton in a very lucky final podium position. After nearly 50 races without a Ferrari victory, it was Forza Ferrari with an emphatic one-two, making up for the 2019 race where Leclerc missed out on a sure win.

Sensational Saudi contest 

There were further upsets in qualifying on the fast street circuit in Saudi Arabia, but none bigger than Lewis Hamilton’s inability to progress past Q1 – the first time since 2017 that he did not make Q2 on pace alone.

It looked like Leclerc would be fastest again, but then Pérez put in a blinder of a final lap – taking his first-ever pole in Formula 1, and also the first for a Mexican driver – and relegating the championship leader to P2 with Sainz third alongside a slightly off-song Verstappen. 

On race day, pole-sitter Pérez made a perfect start under the Arabian night sky, and Verstappen got past Sainz in Turn 2. On Lap 16, Ferrari bamboozled Red Bull with a “pit to pass” call to Leclerc. Wary of an undercut, Red Bull responded by bringing Pérez in – a regrettable decision that destroyed the Mexican’s race because immediately after Pérez had pitted, Nicholas Latifi put his Williams into the wall, triggering a VSC and then the Safety Car.

Leclerc, Verstappen and Sainz capitalised by pitting under Safety Car conditions, relegating Pérez to fourth. 

Following yet another VSC and the hard compound tyres on the Red Bull “switching on” quicker than those on the Ferrari, Verstappen caught Leclerc and took the lead on the back straight. Leclerc responded on the main straight and retook the lead going deep into the first corner. It was Bahrain all over again, and it was sensational to watch.

The Dutch driver attempted another overtake a lap later but both drivers locked up going into the final hairpin, and Leclerc streaked ahead. Both were driving their cars to the absolute limit. With just two laps to go, Leclerc lost some rear traction exiting the hairpin, and Verstappen pounced with a good run into Turn 1, from which the Ferrari pilot could not defend, and the Red Bull pulled ahead. Even a fastest lap from Leclerc, which got him within striking distance on the final lap, came to nothing as a double yellow flag restricted overtaking in Turn 1. 

Verstappen took the chequered flag,separated by a margin of only 0.549 seconds from Leclerc in second place. It was good, challenging, but fair racing between the two, captivating to watch and crowned by Leclerc, even while beaten, congratulating Verstappen on his win. Sainz took the final podium place with Pérez just 2.7 seconds back and Russell in fifth.

The Australian Grand Prix, returning for the first time since 2019, is up next at a new-look Albert Park in Melbourne. It is a very different type of circuit to Sakhir or Jeddah, but the scintillating duel between points leader Leclerc and world champion Verstappen is set to continue. However, do not write off Mercedes just yet. With more time to develop their car, Mercedes should be back with a vengeance in Oz.

Report by Ferdi de Vos | Images © Ferrari F1/Red Bull F1/Getty Images

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