If Ferrari has a rocketship, will Leclerc and Sainz partnership turn sour in F1 title fight? — MPH


It's still early days, but Ferrari looked strong in testing at Barcelona; what happens to the harmonious Leclerc and Sainz partnership if both find themselves fighting for the F1 championship, asks Mark Hughes

Charles Leclerc in Ferrari F1-75

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If the Ferrari really is as good as it looked in the Barcelona running last week – when it appeared to be nip and tuck as quick as Mercedes and Red Bull – then we have a very interesting dynamic to observe between the team’s two drivers.

There was surprise in some quarters when Carlos Sainz was able to walk into Ferrari and in his first season out-score (albeit by a scant half-point) Charles Leclerc. But probably there shouldn’t have been. He’s been super-fast ever since arriving in F1 and even when he found a car – the Renault – in which his favoured driving style didn’t work, he still managed to pull together classy performances, frequently leading or ‘winning’ the ‘best of the rest’ class there in 2018. Before that, he was comparably quick to Max Verstappen at Toro Rosso. Subsequently he edged a narrow advantage at McLaren over Lando Norris, a driver whose huge potential is now much more widely acknowledged than when Sainz was alongside him.

What Sainz brings aside from his basic speed is a deep-thinking obsession with how to maximise it. He’s articulate, intelligent and intensely competitive. Talk to him about how a session has just gone or what the car feels like and he’s insightful and deeply engaged. It’s easy to imagine how much the engineers are getting from him and how they might take a direction from his comments.

Leclerc has a devastating turn of speed and melds that incredible gift into a flat-out attacking spirit that sometimes pulls off outrageous feats of qualifying performance. In sessions where a valid comparison could be made, he outqualified Sainz 12 times to 5 last year but the average time difference between them was only around 0.1sec. From that platform, Sainz was able to compete head-to-head in the races. There was no number one and number two.

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Leclerc seems sometimes less specific about car limitations, perhaps because he finds it easy to adapt to whatever the car is doing. But often, when Sainz finds a direction, Leclerc goes with it and benefits too. In that way Sainz is pulling Leclerc along just as surely as Leclerc’s natural speed pulls Sainz along.

Last year, with Ferrari still in recovery phase from the limitations placed upon it in 2020 after its interpretation of the fuel flow regs of 2019 was called out, that dynamic worked wonderfully well. There were a few little niggles when one of them felt he could make more progress if the other was moved aside, but generally they were a wonderful pairing, perhaps the best of any team last year in terms of how much was being extracted from both cars. Also, Mattia Binotto keeps repeating how incredibly hard they each worked between races too in leaving no stone unturned.

But will this dynamic stay intact if Ferrari really has delivered a rocketship for 2022? If suddenly, both drivers are in contention for the world title? It’s early days of course, but the F1-75 was fast straight out of the box (unlike the Mercedes and Red Bull) and the confidence both drivers had in its balance and grip was visible in how they were attacking the corners. Like pretty much every team, there was some porpoising to tame, but tame it they did. In addition, the car’s performance as measured on GPS had Mercedes’ Toto Wolff suggesting that Ferrari’s new power unit seemed the best out there.

Back in 2019 the team dominated pre-season testing only for the hotter circuits to reveal a fundamental front end limitation, but let’s just assume history doesn’t repeat itself there and the car is genuinely a contender. How does that driver dynamic work out? Is it just inevitable that a camp forms around each of them? Where trying to get them both forward in beating the rest takes a back seat, because they are already beating the rest and it’s become about just them?

It would be a fantastic problem for Ferrari to have.

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