SAKHIR, Bahrain -- Charles Leclerc turned Ferrari's dominant pace into the first pole position of his Formula One career on Saturday. But as we explain below, that will leave his team with something of a headache as soon as the lights go out on Sunday evening.
Leclerc poses dilemma to Ferrari: Just two weeks after being told he was not allowed to race Sebastian Vettel for position in Australia, Leclerc found his own solution to Ferrari's team orders dilemma by qualifying ahead of his teammate. On a track where Ferrari looked dominant, the 0.294-second gap to teammate Vettel was significant and highlighted the talent many believe will give the four-time world champion an increasing headache this year.
On Friday Ferrari insisted it would not order Leclerc to move aside should he out-qualify Vettel, but team principal Mattia Binotto also made clear that the pair should not be taking unnecessary risks while going wheel-to-wheel. Sunday could be very interesting and the first major test of Binotto's team leadership.
Poooooole Position 😘— Charles Leclerc (@Charles_Leclerc) March 30, 2019
Special day and a day I will always remember but tomorrow is the day where points are scored, let's focus on that. 👊 pic.twitter.com/lRU64zt33B
What happened to Vettel? Ferrari's lead driver looked a little out of sorts throughout practice, but the gap to Leclerc was still a shock. Although Ferrari appears to have solved the issue that kept both cars off the pace in Australia, Leclerc has given Vettel no room to relax and an uncharacteristic spin in FP2 ruined a planned long run on the soft tires for the German.
He then locked up his brakes on his second quick lap attempt in the first session of qualifying before a scrappy lap, largely due to traffic, meant he had to use two sets of soft tires in Q2. That left him with just one set for Q3, putting him at a disadvantage to Leclerc, who had two fresh for two separate runs. Arguably that accounts for some of the gap to Leclerc, but not all of it.
Ferrari turns table on Mercedes: Ferrari's 0.324s advantage over Mercedes was more or less the gap we expected to see on the basis of preseason testing. It goes to show how misleading a circuit like Albert Park can be, and, based on the characteristics of this track, highlights the power advantage the Ferrari seems to have in its qualifying engine mode.
The majority of Ferrari's advantage came in the first sector, which is all about engine power, and in the second sector, which is more about cornering speed, fourth-place Valtteri Bottas actually had a very small edge. The race promises to be closer based on the long-run times we saw in Friday practice, but there was no indication Mercedes had a big enough advantage to overhaul Ferrari in a straight fight.
McLaren looks strong: The only difference between the top ten in Bahrain and Australia was the addition of Carlos Sainz and the absence of Sergio Perez. But the fact that McLaren featured so far up the grid for the second weekend in a row is something of a surprise, based on preseason predictions.
After Australia, there was a belief that Haas was clearly best of the rest, so Sainz did well to split Kevin Magnussen and Romain Grosjean to take seventh on the grid. And after so much posturing from Red Bull over the performance of the Honda engine compared to the Renault used by McLaren, there will also be a degree of satisfaction from being just 0.161s shy of Max Verstappen in fifth place.
Hero to zero: After spending the first three practice sessions knocking on the door of the top three teams, Nico Hulkenberg found himself 0.075s shy of a place in Q2 and 0.175s off teammate Daniel Ricciardo in qualifying. Most concerning for Renault is that Hulkenberg didn't have an obvious problem and simply appeared to be caught out by the tight midfield battle is at this stage of the season.
Pressure building on Gasly: If there's one team where you don't want to underperform at, it's Red Bull. The pressure is notoriously high from driver manager Helmut Marko and you have two drivers in a well-organized B-team who are under contracts that allow them to replace you at any moment. Pierre Gasly is therefore facing a lot of pressure and his complaint that he couldn't get the throttle down out of corners is unlikely to hold much sway. Finishing behind rookie Alexander Albon in the Toro Rosso, albeit by just 0.013s, simply isn't good enough.
Williams' race of their own: It was no surprise to see the two Williams at the back of the pack, but it will be encouraging for Robert Kubica fans that the gap between the two cars was just 0.040s. Kubica has been complaining about his car suffering from a lack of downforce relative to Russell's all weekend and reported a bit of bodywork flying off his car from the front during his hot lap.
If that was the case, then he managed to make up for almost all of his car's deficiencies to close the gap to Russell he has faced in almost every session this year. However, the 1.5s gap to Lance Stroll in 18th was a stark reminder of the massive challenge still facing the team.
First-lap prediction: Leclerc claims he doesn't feel pressure, but if there is a time in his career when he needs to be millimetre perfect it will be with the release of the clutch at the start of Sunday's Bahrain Grand Prix. To avoid an awkward situation later in the race, Vettel will be keen to find a way past Leclerc early on and will prey on any weakness in the cockpit of car 16.
For that reason, we are backing Vettel to lead at the end of lap one, but it will be fascinating to see if that running order is then reversed later in the race. Further back, keep an eye out for the two Renaults that showed promising pace throughout practice and will be able to make progress on a track that is always easy to pass on.