Leclerc proves capable of mixing it with F1's elite despite Bahrain heartbreak
"There is something strange with the engine," came the agonised cry over team radio as Charles Leclerc realised what looked set to be a convincing Bahrain Grand Prix victory – and his first win in Formula One – was in danger of unravelling.
Leclerc and his Ferrari team-mate Sebastian Vettel had dominated at Sakhir all weekend, topping the timesheets in all three free practice sessions and in qualifying to lock out the front row, but everything came undone on Sunday.
The 21-year-old started from pole for the first time in his career and had established a nine-second lead at the head of the race with 11 laps remaining when a cylinder failure turned him into a sitting duck.
Mercedes duo Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas soon overtook Leclerc and only a safety car deployed following Renault's bizarre tandem race-ending issues staved off Max Verstappen and granted him a consolatory spot on the podium.
Still, Leclerc did enough to prove he is capable of mixing it with the best. In just the second race of his second season in F1, he has seemingly transitioned from prospect to contender.
While Ferrari principal Mattia Binotto was keen to stress the importance of both drivers after Leclerc out-qualified his team-mate on Saturday, questions about team orders quickly arose with the inexperienced newcomer starting ahead of four-time world champion Vettel.
A sluggish start from the Monegasque enabled Vettel to edge ahead into the first corner but as he closed back in on the race leader, Leclerc made clear his expectations of what was to come. Over team radio, he said: "I'm quicker, guys."
Leclerc completed the overtake on lap six and was rewarded with pit-lane priority, a decision that ended up costing Vettel track position to Hamilton. The move made it clear Vettel will not have everything his own way at Ferrari this season.
The German did himself no favours when a battle with Hamilton at a blustery turn four resulted in him losing control and spinning out, his desperation clear for all to see. The damage sustained to his front wing led to it failing spectacularly, sparks flying as it dropped off and he drove over it, and he could only recover to fifth.
Vettel rightly shouldered the blame for the incident, but had it not been for an engine issue Leclerc would have completed his maiden F1 victory in astounding fashion.
Ferrari made improvements after a failing to live up to the pre-season hype in Australia and they had looked unstoppable in Bahrain, a track that undoubtedly favoured them with Toto Wolff acknowledging Mercedes lacked straight-line speed.
The Chinese Grand Prix should present them with another opportunity to shine given Vettel was the pole sitter there last year and another strong display from Leclerc would mean he has to be taken seriously as a title challenger.
If he does so, the dynamic at Ferrari could become one of the most enthralling stories this season.