Leclerc's Singapore sacrifice for Sainz - a driver too good to be No2


It took the efforts of both Ferraris to win the 2023 Singapore Grand Prix, writes Mark Hughes. Carlos Sainz earned the plaudits, but Charles Leclerc also played his support role to perfection

Charles Leclerc behind Carlos Sainz in 2023 Singapore GP

Leclerc boosted Sainz's victory chances — but hampered his own — with choice of soft tyre

Rudy Carezzevoli/Getty Images

Around the humid floodlit streets of Singapore Carlos Sainz delivered Ferrari a brilliantly unruffled victory to become the first non-Red Bull winner of the season. From pole, in a car which tended to suffer more tyre degradation than the Mercedes of George Russell and Lewis Hamilton or the McLaren of Lando Norris – all of which were in contention for the win – Sainz set about winning at the slowest possible speed.

That way, not only would he give his tyres the easiest possible time, but he’d keep the field so compressed by running no faster than the midfield, that the gaps would not open up for his pursuers to make an undercut attempt around the pitstop window. Supported by team-mate Charles Leclerc in the tail-gunner role, Sainz just drove to the gap, guided by the pitwall, exactly as was laid out in the team plan earlier in the day. A plan which Leclerc had bought into, understanding that this was probably only a winnable race for Ferrari if the strategies of the two cars could be combined to frustrate the likely Mercedes and Norris challenges.

Carlos Sainz and Charles LEclerc embrace after Ferrari win in 2023 Singapore GP

Leclerc congratulates Sainz on a team victory


He’d much rather it was him in the leading role of course but accepted it was his own shortfall in qualifying — where he was third-fastest albeit only eight-hundredths of a second slower than Sainz’s pole — which had placed him here. Once he’d agreed to the team plan, it was then his own initiative to volunteer to start on softs rather than the mediums which made a one-stop strategy much more comfortable. Correctly reckoning that everyone else in the first few rows would begin on mediums, the softs would help him out-accelerate Russell off the grid and put him into the second place essential to helping Ferrari dictate the pace.

Running 1-2, Ferrari could use Leclerc to back Russell and the closely-following pack away from Sainz at the chosen time, allowing Carlos to pull out the gap needed to make a stop, but preventing the others from being able to do so. Once Sainz had that gap, the plan was for Leclerc to go on for as long as his softs would allow. But that likely wouldn’t be much past lap 25 and he’d then be left to manage as best he could, having released Sainz to victory. It didn’t happen quite like that because there was a safety car on lap 20, which brought everyone in at the same time – meaning Leclerc had to be stacked behind Sainz. A further delay for pitlane traffic lost him places to Russell, Norris and Hamilton. With his engine by now running way too hot, Leclerc turned everything down and limped home a very distant fourth, only just clear at the flag of Max Verstappen’s Red Bull which had not even been able to qualify in the top 10.

Aston Martin F1 safety car ahead of Carlos Sainz and Max Verstappen in 2023 Singapore GP

Leclerc lost position after pitstop delay under safety car

Antonin Vincent / DPPI

It was a true team performance from Ferrari, delivered with discipline and both drivers played their roles to perfection, with Sainz in the late stages cleverly allowing Norris to get within DRS range so that he in turn could hold off the attacking Mercs of Russell and Hamilton on much newer and softer tyres. A late VSC (for Esteban Ocon’s broken-down Alpine) had allowed Mercedes to throw the dice of a second pit stop for the much faster fresh tyres. Had it not been for Sainz’s clever ruse, the Mercs would surely have taken a 1-2. Instead, Russell crashed out of third on the final lap, with Hamilton inheriting the place.

Related article

But why was it Leclerc – a driver who has held a small but definite advantage over Sainz in their three seasons together – in the support role? Sainz had been faster at the previous two races of Monza and Zandvoort too and this was his second consecutive pole. The trend is definitely with him. There was a test at the mid-point of the season where Sainz finally got the team to agree to try a set-up direction he’d been pushing for ever since first driving the SF-23 and its nervy rear end. Because it seemed to have a built-in aerodynamic inconsistency at the rear, Sainz suggested engineering in a false understeer balance so that he could at least have confidence to push. It worked for him – and for the car.

For Leclerc, not so much. “I’m not completely comfortable with the car at the moment,” he said in Singapore. “A bit too much understeer for my liking and I struggle to drive around it. Because of the unpredictability of the car, I cannot have the oversteer that I want. Because of this rear-end unpredictability we cannot run with a lot of front because then whenever you have a snap, you lose a lot of grip from the car and it’s just very difficult to manage. It’s not that it’s an understeery car but you have to put understeer in to make it predictable.”

Carlos Sainz ahed of Charles Leclerc in 2023 Singapore GP

Current balance suits Sainz. but is a struggle for Leclerc


It illustrates how small the differences are between them and how the effect of different car traits can have a far bigger effect on lap times than any difference in raw ability. Sainz says he has felt comfortable in the car since around the time of the Spanish Grand Prix but that there was still something missing.

Sainz: “In the summer break I sat down with my engineers and said ok what do we do to start putting the whole weekend together better because clearly we have a lot of pace. We are doing some good things but not putting the whole thing together. What can we do to improve that and have consistent performances? Zandvoort was a very good weekend, Monza was almost perfect and here was perfect. When you work and analyse and you have the speed it pays off.”

Related article

MPH: Why Lando believes McLaren can battle Red Bull

MPH: Why Lando believes McLaren can battle Red Bull

Only one team has made significant inroads into Red Bull's advantage this season and it's bringing another big upgrade to Singapore. If it lives up to its billing, the latest McLaren will close up on the championship leaders, says Mark Hughes

By Mark Hughes

Essentially Sainz is just too good to be a number two even if he cannot always be the number one alongside someone of Leclerc’s huge natural speed.

Ferrari has improved too. It was expected to be fast at around the low-downforce demands of Monza but just a week before that at the high-downforce Zandvoort the car was a long way off the pace. Yet at Singapore – a track demanding high downforce – it was quick. There was a new front wing giving a wider set up range to balance out the bigger rear wing. Also, as Sainz pointed out, there are things about the Singapore track favouring the car, which didn’t apply to Zandvoort. “Yes, we have these sharp, short corners,” confirmed Sainz, “and the car works better on these than on the longer corners like at Zandvoort. This is great but we shouldn’t get carried away.”