Saturday in Melbourne was a disastrous day for Carlos Sainz. A day that may have sentenced him to the supporting role at Ferrari if the inherent speed of Charles Leclerc had not already done so.
Leclerc was clearly quicker than Sainz in Bahrain and Saudi, a fact that Carlos readily acknowledged as he admitted he was not yet quite au fait with the characteristics of Ferrari’s rapid F1-75.
In a nutshell, Leclerc is aggressive and likes a ‘pointy’ car. Similar characteristics can sometimes affect Sainz’s confidence in high-speed corners. Dial them right out though, and the result can be understeer in low-speed corners, where the Ferrari is particularly strong.
At a resurfaced Melbourne, Sainz looked comparatively stronger throughout practice and was actually a mite quicker than Leclerc in Q2 before it all went pear-shaped in Q3 through no fault of his own.
No luck for Sainz in Melbourne, as his weekend got progressively worse with a red flag, steering wheel glitch and cold hard tyres
Antonin Vincent / DPPI
On his first run, he was about 200yds behind Leclerc on the road when Charles set provisional pole. Carlos had actually been a tenth up at the end of sector two but, when Fernando Alonso crashed his Alpine at Turn 11, the red flag appeared before Sainz crossed the line to complete his lap.
Compounding his problem, an electrical glitch that was finally traced to the steering wheel meant that for about three minutes before his second Q3 run, Ferrari could not fire up the car. When it did, there was insufficient time left for Carlos to complete a tyre preparation lap. He had to go for a time at the end of the ‘out’ lap with his red-walled soft tyres nowhere near optimum temperature. The result was a disastrous ninth on the grid with his team-mate firmly ensconced on pole. Even Sainz’s Q2 time would have put him on the second row…
“Beating Verstappen is tough enough without having a team-mate taking points from you.”
In terms of making progress in the race, to have that at Albert Park is about as bad as it gets, with the possible exceptions of Monte Carlo and Budapest. In an attempt to provide some overtaking, the Melbourne weekend had begun with an unprecedented four DRS zones, although one was subsequently dropped on safety grounds.
No doubt that was part of the thinking that prompted those out of position, principally Sainz, Alonso and Kevin Magnussen, to start on the hard compound Pirelli rather than the medium, which was the starting tyre of choice. Run long and hopefully overcut the medium tyre runners.
But Sainz’s weekend went from bad to worse. Again, the car did not want to fire up for the lap to the grid and this time Ferrari changed the steering wheel. The new one did not have the same switch settings and off the line Sainz briefly got anti-stall. That and the slow warm-up of the hard compound tyre relegated him to 14th on lap one and, in his haste to make up lost time, he ended up in the kitty litter on lap two.
One bad race may not be the end of the world. The race day impetuosity was hardly typical of a man who ended a streak of 17 consecutive points finishes and 31 consecutive race finishes. And, if you’re being kind, it was rooted in Ferrari’s mechanical gremlins.
Sainz retired in a shower of gravel
Robert Cianflone/Getty Images
But, and it’s a big ‘but’, Leclerc already has a 38-point advantage over his team-mate in the championship. And, perhaps more importantly, an unexpected 46-point lead over Max Verstappen, the man who will be Leclerc’s biggest championship rival over the 23-race season. Just three races in, that cushion is bigger than either Verstappen or Lewis Hamilton enjoyed at any point during 2021! An unanticipated but delightful bonus for Maranello. It means that it would take a fastest lap-setting Verstappen six races to catch up if Leclerc finished second to him every time.
Eddie Irvine, a man with four years inside knowledge of being a Ferrari No2, told Italy’s Gazetta Dello Sport, “If I were Mattia (Ferrari team principal Binotto), I’d give very precise orders, as was the case in my day. Beating Verstappen is tough enough without having a team-mate taking points away from you.”
Irvine joined Ferrari with a very different agenda from Sainz. Eddie Jordan was his team principal who sold him to Ferrari to partner Michael Schumacher at the end of 1995. EJ says of Irvine, “He had one target and that was to make as much money as he could without spending a penny.”
Irvine’s target was to make as much money as he could, said Eddie Jordan
Jordan himself was never one to miss a money trick. He had Irvine under contract until the end of ’96, knew that his driver was keen to make a few bucks and, without much success in ’95, didn’t fancy being the one to pony them up. So, he attempted to place Irvine.
Jordan had, of course, given Michael Schumacher his F1 debut at Spa in ’91. He phoned Michael and suggested Irvine as a Ferrari team-mate, saying that Irv was quick, sensible, would be respectful, liked testing – smirk – etcetera.
That sowed the seed although then-Ferrari team principal Jean Todt initially had some reservations about Irvine’s attitude and nearly choked when Jordan suggested a fee of between $4-6m because it would cost him an awful lot to find an Irvine replacement… Todt, however, agreed to a meeting, at which point it became clear that sponsor Marlboro would be footing the bill anyway. And they liked Irvine from his junior days when he’d been mentored by James Hunt, even if driving may not have been top of the agenda!
James Hunt talks to Irvine ahead of the 1989 Brands Hatch F3000 round
Darrell Ingham/Getty Images
Jordan was ecstatic when he sealed the deal to sell Irvine for $5m, plus space on his helmet and overalls! “It was daylight robbery and I was the one wearing the mask!” EJ says in his autobiography.
Which was when Irvine played his trump card. Feigning disinterest in the Ferrari move, he said he’d been thinking about it, didn’t fancy taking on Schumacher every fortnight, actually liked it at Jordan and was going to stay.
Jordan went apoplectic.
Well, Irvine said, if you can see your way to sharing your commission on the deal with me, I might just go. If not, no dice…