Charles Leclerc was robbed of a maiden grand prix victory by a power unit problem as Lewis Hamilton inherited the win in a remarkable Bahrain Grand Prix.
A poor start from pole position didn’t deter Leclerc, who fought back from third place to overtake teammate Sebastian Vettel and comfortably lead. The 21-year-old looked set for a dominant win when he started losing power, with his team telling him he had lost recovery from the MGU-H, leaving him massively down on straight line speed to the tune of 40kph/25mph.
Five seconds per lap off the pace meant Leclerc was powerless to defend as Hamilton breezed past with 10 laps remaining — raising his hand in apology as he did — and Valtteri Bottas soon erased a half-minute deficit to move into second place.
Leclerc was set to lose third place to Max Verstappen but at least got one slice of fortune as the two Renaults unbelievably stopped at the same corner on the same lap with two laps remaining. The Safety Car was deployed and Leclerc was able to limp home for a debut podium, but will take little solace after seeing a race he fully deserved to win get away from him.
It was a nightmare race for Ferrari, which should have finished with at least both cars on the podium if not one-two, but Vettel struggled compared to his teammate and then showed just why Leclerc has been promoted by making an error in wheel-to-wheel battle. Trying to hold off Hamilton, Vettel did excellently to repel an attack at Turn 4 on Lap 37, but one lap later the Mercedes got the move done around the outside and Vettel inexplicably spun as he tried to stay close on the exit.
Vettel then got close to running into the back of Lance Stroll’s Racing Point at Turn 9 as he was returning to the pits for new tires, but put a front wing failure on the next straight down to the vibrations his flat-spotted tires were giving him. Demoted to eighth at the time, Vettel recovered to finish fifth but it was the sort of mistake that you’d expect from the inexperienced newcomer to the team rather than a four-time world champion.
Vettel had actually led into Turn 1 as Leclerc got a poor start, with Bottas going around the outside of the polesitter at Turn 4 to take second place. But Leclerc fought back to pass the Mercedes quickly and then after one lap attacking Vettel, he was able to regain the lead on lap six around the outside of Turn 1.
From there it was Leclerc’s race to lose as he pulled out a comfortable eight-second advantage over the squabbling Vettel and Hamilton behind, before the late drama.
But the incidents in the closing stages were just a continuation of a thrilling race, that saw action from lap one. Romain Grosjean was hit from behind by Stroll at Turn 2 and had to retire after picking up significant damage, before contact further forward involving Verstappen and Carlos Sainz.
The McLaren looked quick from the start and was putting pressure on Verstappen, attempting to overtake around the outside of Turn 4. Sainz didn’t leave enough room at the apex, however, and the pair banged wheels, with a right-front puncture demoting the Spaniard to the back of the field and eventually a late retirement.
While Sainz was taken out of contention, Lando Norris was recovering from an off on the opening lap and rose from 14th to fight with Kimi Raikkonen and Nico Hulkenberg — who had an excellent first lap from 17th on the grid — for sixth place.
Different strategies were playing out, despite all bar Robert Kubica starting on the soft compound of tire. That necessitated a two-stop strategy for everyone except Daniel Ricciardo, who ran long and even spent a few corners in the lead before switching to the mediums.
Hamilton opted for a second stint on soft tires while Bottas, the Ferraris and Verstappen all went for mediums, and the defending champion duly jumped Vettel as Leclerc got priority as race leader and so was able to stop earlier. Vettel fought back, however, as Hamilton’s pace dropped off later in the stint, pulling a good move into Turn 4 but not opening up enough of a gap to repel the Mercedes later on.
The misfortune for Leclerc should not overshadow the impressiveness of Hamilton’s display, who was comfortably clear of Bottas and was set to beat Vettel on merit regardless of the German’s spin.
Bottas had to deal with Verstappen early in the race, but the Red Bull faded toward the end of its second stint and couldn’t put pressure on in the latter stages, though he would have finished third but for the late Safety Car.
The stewards opted to take no further action when Verstappen and Sainz collided, and took a similar approach when Antonio Giovinazzi tapped Daniil Kvyat into a spin at Turn 11. The latter two faded from points contention but finished just outside the top 10 due to the remarkable Renault failures.
Nico Hulkenberg had risen to sixth place with a hugely impressive drive and seemed to have the pace to keep Norris and Raikkonen at bay when he suddenly lost power as he approached Turn 1 and had to park his car on the outside of the track. Only a few seconds behind on the road, Ricciardo — who had earlier tapped his teammate as Hulkenberg overtook him for sixth — then suffered a similar loss of power, saying his car cut out and parking it less than 100 meters from the other Renault.
That promoted Norris to an impressive sixth place and his maiden points in F1, although there will be a tinge of frustration for McLaren given where Sainz had been running early on. Norris had pulled some excellent overtaking moves to recover from his poor first lap, including on Raikkonen who he then expertly held off in the closing stages.
Raikkonen ended up seventh ahead of Pierre Gasly, who scored his first points for Red Bull after another tough race, struggling to make his way through the field but producing a highlight as he overtook Sergio Perez out of Turn 4 and into Turn 5 mid-way through the race.
Alexander Albon added his first points in just his second race in F1 as he finished ninth, essentially keeping out of trouble with a strong drive, and the same could be said of Perez who came home tenth.
Leclerc picked up a point for the fastest lap so it’s Bottas who leads the championship with 44 points to Hamilton’s 43, ahead of Verstappen in third on 37 and Leclerc driver fourth with 26.