By Abhishek Takle
MANAMA (Reuters) – Charles Leclerc celebrated the first Formula One pole position of his career in Bahrain on Saturday, and with it made Ferrari history.
The Italian team’s youngest driver since Mexican teenager Ricardo Rodriguez in 1961, the 21-year-old Monegasque replaced Belgian Jacky Ickx (23 in 1968), as Ferrari’s youngest pole-sitter.
With the second youngest pole of all time, behind current team mate Sebastian Vettel who set the record with Toro Rosso in 2008 aged 21 and 73 days, Leclerc will on Sunday become the 99th different driver to start a Formula One race from the front.
Vettel is a four-times world champion and Leclerc now sits between the German and double champion Fernando Alonso in the list of youngest poles — good company for the precocious talent.
“I think we are all happy,” said Ferrari team principal Mattia Binotto. “He’s a good kid and being a good kid I think we will all love him as we love Sebastian. This is great for the team, great for him.
“It will not be his last one.”
The Bahrain Grand Prix is only the second race for Leclerc with Ferrari, after a debut season at Sauber (now Alfa Romeo) last year.
The 2017 Formula Two champion is rated as a future F1 champion, good enough for the team to push aside 2007 title-holder Kimi Raikkonen to make way for him, and Saturday proved his potential.
“The first pole is a dream that you set for yourself when you’re young. It only comes once, so he truly deserves it,” commented five times world champion Lewis Hamilton, who holds the Formula One record of 84 career poles.
Having made a mistake in qualifying two weeks ago at the season-opener in Australia, Leclerc topped every practice session but one at Sakhir, including each of the three phases of qualifying.
Unflappable on track, he was just as composed after he stepped out of the car.
“In the last race I was not very happy with my qualifying,” he said. “I really worked hard to try and not do the same mistakes here, seems that we did quite a good job with a front row lockout.”
In contrast, Vettel, who has started from the front in Bahrain a record three times and won the last two races there, looked out of sorts.
The German was even investigated by the stewards for driving unnecessarily slowly at one stage in qualifying.
“It’s his day,” acknowledged the 31-year-old, who was limited to putting in just one flying lap in the pole-position shoot-out after traffic forced him to do an extra lap in the second phase of qualifying.
“Certainly, my day wasn’t ideal but even with an ideal day it would have been very difficult to beat him today.”
(Editing by Alan Baldwin and Ed Osmond)