Leclerc column: From 14th to first for maiden F2 win

In his first column for Motorsport.com, Ferrari junior Charles Leclerc recounts an electrifying FIA F2 debut weekend that featured a famous charge from 14th place to a maiden victory.

Leclerc column: From 14th to first for maiden F2 win
Charles Leclerc, PREMA Racing
Charles Leclerc, PREMA Racing
Charles Leclerc, PREMA Racing
Charles Leclerc, PREMA Racing
Charles Leclerc, PREMA Racing
Charles Leclerc, PREMA Racing
Polesitter Charles Leclerc, PREMA Racing
Start: Charles Leclerc, PREMA Racing leads
Charles Leclerc, PREMA Racing
Race winner Artem Markelov, RUSSIAN TIME, third place Charles Leclerc, PREMA Racing
Charles Leclerc, PREMA Racing
Charles Leclerc, PREMA Racing
Charles Leclerc, PREMA Racing takes the win
Charles Leclerc, PREMA Racing takes the win
Race winner Charles Leclerc, PREMA Racing
Race winner Charles Leclerc, PREMA Racing
Charles Leclerc, PREMA Racing
Charles Leclerc, PREMA Powerteam

Going into my first race weekend in the Formula 2 series in Bahrain, the team and I were, of course, hoping that we could win. But the main goal was to score as many points as possible, and to not lose too much ground to the lead.

I knew the Prema Racing car was good – last year's result proved that – but three days of pre-season testing in Sakhir suggested it would be not be an easy weekend.

We looked quite competitive over one lap, but we were struggling a little bit on race runs. The degradation was really high – tyres are, of course, a key factor in the championship, and Bahrain is the most difficult track on the schedule in that regard.

I had to adapt my driving style. In GP3, where I raced last year, you could push a little more on the tyres and they had less of a 'memory'. Here, any errors you make at the beginning of a stint you end up paying for.

From the test to the race weekend, we worked hard on this aspect. Still, it was definitely a nice surprise how it all turned out.

Pole by seven tenths

After the first run in qualifying, we were already first, but I wasn't really happy about my lap. So for the second run, we decided to go out in the middle of the session, run free of traffic, with no trouble.

I knew the second 'push' lap was good before I crossed the line, but when I saw the laptime, I was surprised by how fast it was. But the car was absolutely amazing. My engineer honestly gave me a perfect car – I don't think I've ever driven a car as perfect as that, it was just unbelievable on one lap.

The rest of the session was going to be a bit stressful, but we weren't that worried. You never know in racing, but we felt the lap was really good. And then the others were compromised a bit because of the yellow flags from the crash between Gustav Malja and Nabil Jeffri.

So I lined up in first for my debut F2 race the day after, and I got quite a good start – which I wasn't confident about in the beginning. Starts with the GP2/11 are quite hard; you need to manage the throttle a lot. I wasn't really experienced with that – in GP3, you just go flat out.

After two laps, Norman Nato took the lead, but I was able to stay behind without using the tyres too much. At one point, I felt confident in the tyres and I overtook him, and I started to pull a small gap.

But at the end of the first stint we were in a difficult position. There were two problems – Artem Markelov was coming to us, and Norman was trying to undercut.

We had to react – in the moment, I just decided to pit because I felt the tyres were going, but that was a bad call, which I will learn from. Even pitting on the lap we wanted to, we were overtaken by Norman anyway.

In the end, we finished third, and we were quite happy with it.

The charge

After the first race, we looked at possible strategies for the sprint and we realised a one-stop was possible. On paper, it actually looked the better option. But for the first five laps I was still going to drive like I was going to the end on one set.

Myself and my engineer agreed that, if we got a good start, a one-stop would be worth it – because I could get into clean air and pull a gap. If I didn't have a good getaway, it wouldn't make much sense to push hard in traffic.

But I went sixth to third at the start and, after an early safety car, I could pass Alex Albon and Luca Ghiotto. And we decided to push.

When I came out of the pits after stopping, the gap to the lead was huge, something like 26 seconds. There were nine laps to go and I had to pass 13 cars. I honestly thought then that we'd made the wrong choice.

But then I decided that I need to concentrate, do the best I can and not worry about what position we're in.

It was really fun but I was a little bit fortunate - I think the drivers knew I was coming with a different strategy so they didn't really try to fight. Still, it was definitely a challenge to navigate traffic while maintaining good laptimes – it looks quite easy on TV, but it's not that easy.

I didn't really believe I would be winning the race until three laps to the end. And on the last lap, after passing Oliver Rowland for second, I was actually confusing race leader Ghiotto with his teammate Markelov – the only other driver to go for a one-stop in this race.

I thought he was ahead, on new tyres, and I was preparing to finish second. But I caught up really fast and I got past in Turn 4 – which is when I realised that it was actually Ghiotto and that his tyres were completely done.

Optimistic for Barcelona

We really didn't expect to have this a good weekend in Bahrain – leading the championship, two podiums, one win, it was a really nice surprise.

Next up is Barcelona, the other track where we had a pre-season test, which I was very happy with.

We were quite okay on the qualifying side, and we looked quite strong this weekend in Bahrain, so I don't see any reason why we should drop off.

And the race runs were a lot more positive in Barcelona, with the degradation looking a lot easier to manage.

We never know what to expect regarding the conditions, and it'll surely be a lot different to testing. But all that said, I do feel more confident going into Barcelona than I had been heading into Bahrain.

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