“But that’s why we keep saying that Red Bull and Mercedes are the favourites because we haven’t been in a title fight in the last few years. In previous years these teams have out-developed Ferrari so we are still super cautious.
“We know we have a great car but these two teams know how much you need to improve. They know exactly what they need to do. And we maybe are lacking that bit of experience. I think we have great people. And we are prepared but we don’t know.”
In Bahrain, Leclerc outqualified Max Verstappen by just over a tenth of a second and in Saudi Arabia, Perez claimed pole by less than three-hundredths of a second over Leclerc.
These tight margins look set to continue until one team can develop a decisive advantage, says Sainz.
“I think it’s very likely that until any of us go into a big upgrade, it’s going to stay like that, because the two tracks are certainly not exactly the same in terms of characteristics and still we were within a tenth of each other.
“I think until any of us brings something major, it’s going to stay like that. We are focusing as a team to try and improve a bit the top speed to try and be able to fight them a bit more face to face in the race because they definitely look very, very strong in Jeddah.”
The title battle is the first test for a rejuvenated Ferrari, which last won a drivers’ championship with Kimi Räikkönen in 2007. Then came the 2019 fuel flow scandal. The team agreed a secret deal with motor racing’s governing body, and the performance of its car suddenly dropped.
“It’s been a few tough years for Ferrari and we’ve used them to rebuild the team and turn [to recruit] outside of it to try and make ourselves stronger,” said Sainz. “We’ve used the regulation change of having to start from from zero to use this improvement in the way we work, to put it into practice and suddenly be back up the top.
“We needed a blank sheet of paper because Red Bull and Mercedes, with the previous regulations, had a very big advantage on the rest of the field and we felt like that gap was very difficult to cut back without a reset. Now it’s our job to keep ourselves up there.”
Ferrari is benefitting from last year’s lack of pace, which has given it more windtunnel and CFD testing time than Mercedes or Red Bull: the allowance is set on a sliding scale, with fewer hours the higher up the championship a team is.
But this will be reset at the start of July when, on current form, Ferrari’s allowance would reduce while that of Red Bull and Mercedes would increase.
By then, Leclerc hopes that Ferrari will have taken the initiative with its own upgrades. “We have a few things that are quite interesting that will come in the next few races,” said the current championship leader. “So hopefully this will help us to get the upper hand again. But it’s very, very close. Every little update that we bring to the car can make the difference so we’ll push 100%.”