The simple mistake by Charles Leclerc during qualifying at Baku had a more profound effect than forcing the young Monegasque to beat himself up for the next 24 hours.
In the nanosecond of judgement that led to the erroneous belief he could get through the corner despite locking up on the way in, Leclerc changed the dynamic of the entire race weekend.
Until that moment, the evidence of free practice suggested he could claim his second pole position. Had that happened, it not only would have laid the foundation for the Ferrari win we had all been hoping for (in the interests of the championship) but it would also have put down a marker in support of Leclerc’s quiet but firm claim for equal rights on strategic decisions that had favoured his more experienced teammate.
The collision with the barrier not only wrecked his personal agenda but the subsequent delay also allowed late afternoon track temperatures to drop into a zone that did Ferrari no favours in their continual struggle to find the narrow – and, dare it be said, absurd – working window required by the tyres demanded of Pirelli.
From potential winners, Ferrari immediately became also-rans when faced with a relentless Mercedes machine that allows no room for small errors the reigning champions have long since filed in the ‘Don’t do that again’ folder. With yet another front row lock out, Mercedes’s concern would switch from worrying about the red cars to holding their collective breath as the silver ones ran side-by-side through the first two corners. The only positive was that Nico Rosberg wasn’t in one of them.
Had that been the case, the chance of a Ferrari win might have been on the cards as at least one Mercedes driver either went into the wall or returned to the pits with ego and collision damage. The relationship between Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas has not been predicated on the sort of intensely competitive context that grew and matured – if that’s the right word – between Hamilton and Rosberg as two highly motivated young racers battled their way through the junior ranks.
Going into Turn 1 on Sunday, Hamilton clearly had no previous grievance on which to justify a risky decision to hang his team-mate out to dry. And vice-versa. It was text book stuff; a fine example of sportsmanship and clean driving.
Lewis would later say he was ‘too nice’ and that this had been ‘an average weekend’. The subtext was probably a concealed frustration at not having got the final lap of Q3 together, mixed with no reasonable excuse to put one on Valtteri thanks to the presence of the concrete walls.
The good news (for the rest of us, if not Mercedes) is that sense of decency will be tested if, as now looks likely, the championship is a fight between these two and Bottas continues to grow in confidence and deliver more faultless performances such as this one. Come, say, the US GP in November, either Mercedes driver can expect to be unceremoniously acquainted with the run-off at the exit of COTA’s first corner.
But what we really need is for it to be a Ferrari driver showing the wide elbows. Despite what happened last Saturday afternoon, the signs are that could be Leclerc. The problem right now is that time is rapidly running out for it to have any significance in terms of the championship.