Data by Ekagra Gupta, words by Jake Williams-Smith
Ferrari has two of Formula 1’s biggest talents under one roof in Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz. The former is a grand prix winner with the Prancing Horse already while the latter’s arrival at Maranello has been mightily impressive.
Heading into the 2021 season, many had expected Leclerc to lead the team as Sainz got to grips with his new surroundings yet it appears the Spaniard was more than a fair match for his team-mate by year’s end.
In fact, the data even suggests that Ferrari is better off positioning Sainz as its lead driver over the ‘home-grown’ Ferrari Driver Academy product Leclerc despite the pre-season predictions.
Sainz ended the 2021 season as best of the rest in fifth position in the drivers’ championship, clear of Leclerc despite the latter’s impressive speed.
The latter was denied a likely victory at Monaco following his qualifying crash while Sainz’s consistency on Sunday was the better of the two.
Both made appearances on the podium but by the ’21 campaign’s end, Sainz was 5.5 points better off than Leclerc.
So is Ferrari right to give one driver preference over the other? And is Sainz more likely a championship contender than his highly-rated team-mate?
Here is what the data says.
The above charts detail the pace of the Ferrari team-mates in both qualifying and race trim. Direct pace comparisons between Sainz and Leclerc at each round (excluding the Belgian and Russian Grands Prix due to weather) provide insights into which of the duo held the advantage at any point in the year.
As many had predicted, it was Leclerc that was the faster-starting of the duo in the early phase of the year as Sainz got acquianted with a car that was new to him.
It was a pattern reflected up and down the grid with the likes of Fernando Alonso and Daniel Ricciardo struggling to replicate the early performances of their respective team-mates as they also got up to speed in a new car.
Leclerc’s qualifying advantage over over Sainz persisted for the majority of the year though the Spaniard was able to reduce the gap in the final leg of the 2021 season as he grew more comfortable at Ferrari.
Likewise, it was a close battle in race pace that the Monégasque just about edged but the duo were even more inseparable on race day. The Spaniard was able to get up to speed a little quicker in the races and further closed the gap to his team-mate during the final third of the season.
Sainz was particularly good at making his points-paying races count versus Leclerc. While the latter secured strong and consistent points finishes, Sainz capitalised most when his rivals were experiencing ill fortune or suffering from mistakes.
Analysing their qualifying pace further, we can identify where Sainz was able to close the gap to Leclerc more and more throughout the 2021 campaign.
The cumulative density graphs on this page compare both against one another over the course of their fastest qualifying laps at each event during the 2021 season. The darker the red colour, the quicker Leclerc was while the darker yellow indicates where Sainz gained the most advantage.
Leclerc clearly hit the ground running and had the stronger start to the season, finishing sixth and fourth twice in the opening four rounds while Sainz missed out on points at the Portuguese Grand Prix.
Leclerc secured pole position with a superb lap around the Principality but his crash ultimately cost him a chance of victory. Meanwhile, the pace advantage that Leclerc had held over his team-mate on a Saturday wasn’t as clear cut in Monaco and Sainz may well have been able to secure pole but for his team-mate’s crash. Having to back out of his flying lap meant Sainz was forced to start behind Leclerc. He made up for it in the race to finish second but it could have been even better for him without the red flags in qualifying.
Unfortunately for Leclerc, his pole lap meant nothing as a pre-race driveshaft issue prevented him from taking the start. Sainz redeemed the weekend for the team to nab his first podium in red, the team’s first of the season.
Leclerc did have a runners-up finish himself at the British Grand Prix and bounced back from the Monaco disappointment to outscore Sainz by 8 points across the following five rounds. After the Silverstone race, the Monégasque led his team-mate by 12 points, sixth and seventh in the standings respectively while the pace differential stood at an average of 0.261sec.
Slowly over the next few rounds though, Sainz’s consistency and pace begin to improve and the results went the way of the Spaniard.
This was particularly impactful because of the misfortune Leclerc faced during the same races. At the Hungarian Grand Prix, Leclerc was involved in the first corner pile up that put him out of the race through no fault of his own. Sainz meanwhile escaped and went on to finish third following Sebastian Vettel’s post-race disqualification.
Likewise at the Russian Grand Prix, Leclerc was one of those that were caught out most by the late-race downpour while Sainz was one driver who made the switch to intermediate tyres at the right time in the dying laps.
Despite Sainz getting closer to Leclerc in terms of pace, the latter maintained his one-lap advantage for the most part. Narrowly separated for the entirety of the year, Sainz’s qualifying performances only usurped those of Leclerc in Russia and Brazil ahead of the final three rounds of the year.
And yet examining the one-lap deficit between rounds 7 to 13, the qualifying gap falls from 0.261sec to 0.147sec, still in Leclerc’s favour.
The back-to-back rounds at the Red Bull Ring are also worth noting. The only time in 2021 in which teams raced at the same circuit on consecutive weekends, Sainz was able to not only close the gap to his team-mate in terms of single-lap pace, but overturn it entirely.
A transformation of just under 0.2sec in the space of a week evidence of how the Spaniard was able to quickly apply what he learned and apply it to the season as it progressed.
Entering the final third of the campaign, Ferrari’s chargers closed up even further. The intermediate conditions in Russia and Turkey distort the numbers but where there is an applicable comparison to be made, the numbers shrink even further when compared to earlier in the season.
At Monza, Mexico and Brazil the pair could hardly be separated, finishing qualifying within a tenth of one another, twice in Sainz’s favour.
We will discount the Russian and Turkish Grands Prix due to the changeable conditions during the qualifying sessions and the results forming an outlier in our data.
Without the Sochi and Istanbul rounds, the gap between the Ferrari team-mates falls even further to a slender 0.029sec deficit just about in Leclerc’s favour.
By the final rounds of the year, Sainz finally gets the upper hand on his team-mate in comparable qualifying sessions, taking the head-to-head twice in the final three rounds.
These rounds signal the turnaround in pace, 0.190sec in Sainz’s favour. In the end, the qualifying battle between the team-mates ended up at 13-9 in Leclerc’s favour, but the trend indicates that the fight may be closer still in 2022.
Leclerc endured the bulk of the misfortune of the duo in ’21, dropping out of points-paying positions at multiple races while Sainz made the best of his chances to end up narrowly ahead of his team-mate in the drivers’ standings.
Whether the 5.5-point gap in the Spaniard’s favour is enough to definitively call him the superior of the two will depend on personal preference but there’s hardly a tenth in it heading into the new era.
If Sainz can hit the ground running this season, he might surprise one or two including his highly-rated younger partner at Ferrari. If Leclerc gets the rub of the green, Sainz could be in for a rude awakening after his ’21 heroics.