Ferrari's biggest problem: The wrong driver keeps winning


On the streets of Melbourne, Carlos Sainz led Ferrari to victory — a feat Scuderia favourite Charles Leclerc has been unable to accomplish in almost two years. Could the Spaniard's continued success ruffle Ferrari's future plans?

Carlos Sainz wins the 2024 Australian grand prix

Carlos Sainz wins in Melbourne

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Waking up at 4am on a Sunday is rarely worth it, especially when Max Verstappen looks poised to take another lights out to chequered flag victory — as he did at the 2024 Australian Grand Prix. So it’s no surprise that many race fans declared that they would stay in bed — but then the social posts began to roll in.

Bzzz. Sainz takes the lead with a nice move on the outside of Verstappen! Bzzz. Verstappen has a problem. Bzzz. VERSTAPPEN IS OUT!

Sky probably couldn’t believe its luck as hordes of tifosi and other non-Red Bull enthusiasts suddenly sprung out of bed and hurried to their TVs to catch up with the action. For the first time in over 700 days, the flying Dutchman was incapable of winning an F1 race.

After passing the Dutchman on lap two, Sainz remained in the race lead for 56 surprisingly stress-free laps, despite remaining fragile after his recent appendectomy. He rightfully met the chequered flag first, while Leclerc finished just 2.3sec behind in second. A brilliant result for Ferrari. Too bad it wasn’t the other way around though.

Leclerc Sainz podium 2024 Australian grand prix

Leclerc finishes second to Sainz…again

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It’s been clear ever since he joined the Scuderia that Leclerc is central to its world title-winning plans. Seven pole positions and two race wins in his first season with the team prompted a five-year contract extension — the largest deal in Ferrari’s F1 history — which was due to expire at the end of the current 2024 campaign.

In that time, he has secured a further 16 pole positions — a showcase of his incredible one-lap pace — but has only won another three grands prix, mainly due to a mix of misfortune, bad strategy and a number of self-inflicted errors.

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2022 was arguably Leclerc’s best and worst season to date, as he finished an impressive second in the drivers’ standings but critically missed winning chances in Spain (engine failure), Monaco (strategy error), Azerbaijan (engine failure), France (crashed out) and Hungary (strategy error). In a season where he could have become Ferrari’s first world champion since 2007, he ended up finishing 246 points behind the eventual title winner.

Ever since, Red Bull‘s dominance has presented fewer opportunities for Leclerc to stand on the top step, but he’s had his moments. In 2023, he qualified on pole for three out of the final five races of the season but his best chance at a race victory arguably came in Las Vegas. He had the pace and the power to take the fight to Verstappen, but had to settle for second after the team, once again, bungled a safety car strategy call.

It’s not been all his fault, but it could be said that Leclerc has underdelivered on his title-winning potential.

Fred Vasseur (Ferrari’s team principal), John Elkann (Ferrari’s chief executive) doubled down on their Leclerc-themed faith at the beginning of the year, awarding him a new contract that should keep him in Maranello until 2029 — potentially beyond the stint of his future team-mate, Lewis Hamilton.

However, this physical and psychological investment is being undermined by the Spaniard sat in the seat beside him.

Carlos Sainz Aus 2024 win

Sainz is proving his worth, even without a confirmed seat for next year


When Sainz joined Ferrari from McLaren in 2021, he came with a reputation: a solid, reliable and dependable driver who could operate alongside a younger star. He’d done it with Max Verstappen at Toro Rosso; with Lando Norris in Woking, and he was expected to do it alongside Leclerc in Maranello.

Few lost El Matador Jr alongside the likes of Norris and Leclerc as a potential F1 world champion — despite the fact he’s scored the same number of race victories as Leclerc and stood on only two fewer podiums in their time as team-mates.

But Leclerc has outshone Sainz in other areas. Since 2021, he has scored 720 championship points to the Spaniard’s 650.5, and has also qualified more strongly, starting higher on the grid than Sainz in 45, compared with the 23 races that Sainz has outqualified Leclerc.

Perhaps that’s why that life in Maranello has been tougher than it should have been for the Spaniard. Despite his positive on-track results and comparable performance to Leclerc, Sainz has had to negotiate his way toward short-term contract extensions and will soon be cast adrift ahead of the arrival of Lewis Hamilton in 2025.

Despite this, Sainz is still the only Ferrari driver to have won a grand prix since the 2022 Austrian GP — a fact which is surely not a part of the Scuderia’s script.

Charles Leclerc 2024 Australian Grand Prix

A future world champion? Not in current form…


Should the team continue on this Freaky Friday trajectory — in which Sainz succeeds while Leclerc picks up the pieces instead of the other way around — it will cast increasing doubt over Leclerc’s true potential to challenge for a F1 world title, particularly with Hamilton arriving next season.

While talking to Guenther Steiner — the former Haas boss turned TV presenter — in Australia’s post-race interviews, Leclerc barely managed a smile despite securing the team’s first 1-2 finish since the 2022 Bahrain GP. He was a little more positive in the podium press conference which followed, but his answers still did little to inspire hope in his ability to deliver a world championship later down the line.

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“I haven’t been good enough,” he said. “In the second stint today, I had quite a bit of graining on the front left [tyre]. The last stint was really good, but it wasn’t enough.

“Carlos has just been better this weekend. But it’s been that in the last three years, where we basically will arrive at one race and Carlos will be better and then I’ll push and then I’ll be better at the next race and then we’ll improve like that. And that’s very exciting as a driver to have such a fast team-mate. And he’s really been on it since the beginning of the weekend. So congratulations to Carlos.”

You only need to look at his next team-mate to find an example of a driver who reacts very differently to being beaten. Not for Hamilton an apparent acceptance that he’ll be outclassed in half of that season’s races. He notoriously clashed with Fernando Alonso during his rookie campaign at McLaren and fumed when Jenson Button succeeded while they were team-mates from 2010-2012. That was followed by his fiery and decomposing relationship with Nico Rosberg — a driver he once considered a close friend — which remains one of the most toxic and destructive partnerships F1 has ever seen.

He’s even showed his cold side towards George Russell at a press conference ahead of the Bahrain Grand Prix, when he gave minimal backing to his team-mate’s ability to lead Mercedes after his own departure.

“I don’t know [if he can lead the team],” said Hamilton, after an awkwardly long pause. “I’m sure he can. He’s very technical, massively engaging and he’s incredibly close with Toto, so no doubt that will be his position.”

Nico Rosberg celebrates winning his 2016 F1 championship while Lewis Hamilton looks away

Will Hamilton and Leclerc share a Hamilton and Rosberg resemblance?

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That fire has propelled Hamilton to seven world championships, and all recent champions have shown similar traits. Witness Verstappen refusing to help Sergio Perez in his bid to finish second in the 2022 championship, as a result of a grudge formed at that year’s Monaco Grand Prix, when Perez crashed in qualifying to deny his team-mate the chance of pole.

Or take Sebastian Vettel‘s refusal to back down in duels with Mark Webber, and complete disregard of team orders when he ignore the ‘Multi 21’ instruction to hold station behind his team-mate. Rosberg took up psychological warfare to beat Hamilton.

Leclerc has shown a ruthless edge, while fighting his first Ferrari team-mate Vettel, and in battles with Hamilton and Verstappen. He has been unlucky in winning situations. But, as a driver plainly at the centre of the team’s world championship ambitions, he has also submitted to team orders that have placed him at a disadvantage and doesn’t frequently display the naked ambition that has characterised most recent champions.

Maybe Leclerc can do it his way, but after five seasons of faltering world championship ambitions, is it time for him to follow the Rosberg playbook and take the selfish approach?