Few pundits thought Leclerc could outpace Vettel so early in just his second F1 season and first for Ferrari
This Sunday’s Chinese Grand Prix is the 1000th Formula One race and Sebastian Vettel hopes the carnival atmosphere can spur him on after a turgid start to the season.
The German was fourth in the season opener in Australia before slumping to fifth two weeks ago in Bahrain, after Ferrari teammate and newcomer Charles Leclerc took pole and only missed out on the race win because of an engine problem.
Vettel is remaining optimistic though. Ferrari are the oldest F1 team, having started racing in 1950, so the special nature of the Shanghai showpiece would make a Ferrari win extra poignant.
“In the past I’ve had some good races here with Ferrari, coming very close to winning. Maybe this time we’ll get that little bit of luck, so that we can really celebrate the thousandth Formula One race,” he said in a team statement.
He trails standings leader Valtteri Bottas, who won for Mercedes in Melbourne, by 22 points already. Mercedes defending champion Lewis Hamilton, winner in Bahrain, is 21 points ahead of Vettel.
Pre-season testing suggested Vettel could finally win his first title for the Italian glamour team this season at the fifth attempt after four championships with Red Bull.
But few pundits thought Leclerc could outpace Vettel so early in just his second F1 season and first for Ferrari.
Not only is the German having to cross his fingers and hope his Ferrari is more reliable than in the past, he must also battle wily five-time champion Hamilton, a resurgent Bottas and his own flying colleague.
“I hope the car will be as good as it was in Bahrain, so that I can continue to go for the results we deserve,” confident Monegasque Leclerc (21) said. “Usually, the Chinese race is good fun, because the weather can be unpredictable and rain can arrive when you least expect it.”
Despite their success so far this season, defending champions Mercedes are not taking anything for granted. They know Leclerc deserved to win in Bahrain.
“Two races into the 2019 season, it may seem like we’re in a strong position,” Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff said.
“We have 87 points, just one below the maximum score. But the constructors’ standings do not tell the full story. The truth is that we weren’t as quick as our direct competitors throughout qualifying and the race in Bahrain.
“The Ferrari was considerably faster on the straights and this added up to several tenths around one lap.”
How the Silver Arrows look to close the perceived gap could be the big talking point in Shanghai. Their reliability and solid pit-wall decisions can only take them so far if Leclerc continues to impress.
Vettel, meanwhile, has to again summon the fighting spirit that was sometimes too apparent during his spell with Red Bull, where he sporadically clashed with teammate Mark Webber.