Charles Leclerc was the target for the rest of the grid as they arrived to glorious sunshine at the Circuit de Catalunya-Barcelona, coming into Round 2 as the championship leader after a strong performance in Bahrain.
If the pressure got to him he didn’t show it, beginning as he meant to continue by topping Friday morning’s free practice, a relatively quiet session given the number of miles everyone has put in there, with Alexander Albon and Sergio Sette Camara following close behind the Ferrari Academy driver.
Very little changed in the few hours before qualifying, which had the same result: Leclerc had to work for the result, with Luca Ghiotto looking like he’d done enough to secure the top spot just before a red flag with 5 minutes remaining, but the Monegasque pushed hard and secured pole against the odds in the last minute of the session, just ahead of the disappointed Italian and Nyck De Vries.
“I didn’t quite get it right in sector one,” Leclerc admitted about his best lap, “but we caught up in sector two and three. I’m really happy to be on pole for the second time because there was a red flag, and then a yellow flag in the last sector, but we arrived just as it turned green so we had a little bit of luck, did the lap when we had to, and I’m really happy to take the points and to start from the front row tomorrow.”
And then came the feature race. If those of us watching were unsure which strategy would work best, then the teams were equally confused: a quick walk along the grid showed that the cars were split about 50/50 between prime and option, with the front row among those opting to dispose of their options as quickly as possible. Ghiotto was swallowed up by a fast charging Albon on primes, with Leclerc pitting just before the Thai driver and his colleagues could pass him on track.
If it now seemed clear that those starting on the harder compound had an advantage, as long as there were no delays: cue a safety car period to remove Sergio Canamasas’ car on lap 10 and those who had already pitted now had a small advantage, but they would have to work to take advantage of it. After the race Ghiotto admitted that he couldn’t stay with Leclerc’s pace after the restart, worried as he was about tyre life, and the Monegasque driver was slicing through the field as he waited for the reverse stops to come.
With Oliver Rowland disposing of Albon he was now the new target for Leclerc, and when the Briton pitted he emerged well behind the PREMA man (and Ghiotto), forcing him to fight his way back up for a well-earned podium behind the pair. “To be honest without the radio it was really hard to know what the others were doing!” Leclerc laughed after the race, “Where we were, if we were losing time to the people in front: I first thought Oliver was going to win easily, and when he made the pitstop he was in the back! It was a really hard race with the safety car, trying to overtake and make my way up without losing time, and most of all without losing the tyres. Towards the end of the race we were obviously slower than Oli, but I have to thank the team for the great car they gave me.”
If Leclerc was fortunate that the safety car turned a wrong call into one he could (just) recover, Nobuharu Matsushita’s sprint win owes even more to good fortune, albeit once again by using the work he had already done to take advantage. When the lights went out Nicholas Latifi got off the line like a scalded cat, easily leading his rivals into turn one and escaping into the distance. Behind the likeable Canadian the rest of the field were doing what they could to salvage a result, with the Japanese man leading them from P2 after a rocket start from 5th on the grid.
Matsushita also took off, building a solid cushion behind him while concentrating hard on saving his tyres for the end of the race, while behind him Rowland was once again fighting his way through the field in search of another podium. But with 5 laps to go Latifi’s mirror detached, bouncing off his helmet and slightly distracting him into the tricky turn 5, causing him to run deep into the gravel and handing a path through for his two pursuers.
“It’s an amazing feeling,” a surprised Matsushita noted later, “my last win was last year in Monaco, so it was quite nice to come back to the podium, and to win! My pace and Nicholas’ was quite similar, so it would not be so easy to overtake I think, but that was quite lucky and I was very happy to be there, and to take this win.
Perhaps we should give the last word to Latifi, whose misfortune turned the whole race; sanguine (and very disappointed), he nevertheless knew that he had to keep an eye on the bigger picture: “I’m just very disappointed, I know it was my race to win. There’s a lot of frustration but I can’t do anything about it, it’s done and I can’t take it back, but there are also positives I can take away from it: it was the first reverse grid I got into since the start of last year, it was the first race I could get out in front and lead, and I was managing it fine. It was my race but I got distracted, that’s all: when you’re cruising out the front there’s a lot to think about and I just made a mistake, as simple as that.”