When Mattia Binotto said “I think we’ve got the best line-up in the entire pit lane” ahead of the summer break, it got me thinking. Who does have the best driver pairing?
Sorry, I’m being cheeky. I might be asking that question, but I’m not offering to conclusively answer it.
However, it is a statement that provides a reminder of just how good this grid is.
You can see the Ferrari team principal’s logic. In Charles Leclerc he has one of the brightest young stars in the sport who is already a proven race-winner, and alongside him Carlos Sainz has been immensely impressive. Dare I say it, surprisingly so.
It’s not that I didn’t rate Sainz before. He was able to push Max Verstappen pretty close during their time as team-mates at Toro Rosso, and I’d go as far as to say that if Verstappen wasn’t in F1 then Sainz would have been a certainty for a Red Bull seat after a short spell in the junior team.
Binotto says Leclerc and Sainz are the strongest line-up on the grid in 2021
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At Renault he was very solid, and McLaren even more so. But at those two teams I felt like there wasn’t a standout moment that said he was going to be bashing down the door at a top team. In fact when Sebastian Vettel’s departure from Ferrari became public I thought it was more likely going to be Daniel Ricciardo who got the nod at Maranello.
But where I was wrong about Sainz’s standout moments is the fact that his level was so consistently high, then it was hard to deliver anything that was clearly above it. That’s being shown now at Ferrari, where he’s so often on Leclerc’s pace and has been able to provide 83 points – three more than his team-mate – after his post-race promotion to third in Hungary.
That has helped Ferrari to third in the constructors’ championship, ahead of McLaren by virtue of Leclerc’s second place at Silverstone. But McLaren has a talent who has found another level again in the form of Lando Norris, who is almost singlehandedly keeping it in the fight.
Norris has shown that excellent trait of always improving throughout his time in F1 so far and not showing any signs of plateauing, as he delivers immense one-lap speed coupled with race consistency. And at just 21 years old, he has so much potential to get even better.
It has been needed too, because Ricciardo has struggled since his switch and has scored just 44% of the points that Norris has. But it would be a brave person to bet against the Australian turning it around during the latter part of this season, or looking like a completely different driver when the new regulations hit next year.
That’s all before we take into account a Mercedes pairing that has dominated F1 for four straight years and a Red Bull line-up that has the brightest talent the sport his seen in some time alongside an experienced hand who has won in both his current car and a midfield Racing Point.
Red Bull has enjoyed one of its strongest seasons in years with Verstappen and Perez
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But Perez – like Ricciardo – has yet to hit his stride. There’s definitely more to come from the Mexican, even if he’s already helping support Verstappen to keep Red Bull right in the championship fight. And it’s a tough fight because Valtteri Bottas is more than comparable to Perez, especially when you take into account his qualifying prowess where he so often pushes Lewis Hamilton (the most successful qualifier in the history of the sport, remember) extremely close.
Having an outright number one and number two dynamic – even if that’s not always how it’s publicly described – is different to what Ferrari and McLaren have, but it doesn’t make either pairing less strong. It’s becoming ever-more likely that George Russell will join Hamilton at Mercedes next year, and that could make it even stronger, but it’s not an absolute guarantee it will be an improvement given the run of success the team has enjoyed.
The Ferrari pairing is that rare sweet spot of drivers that (so far) work harmoniously, yet have the potential to often be sharing the same piece of track.
And as you look down the standings, Leclerc and Sainz provide by far the best hit rate for any pairing in terms of points distribution until you reach Alpine. That’s a team that can now say it boasts a race-winner alongside a two-time world champion, and they are separated by just one point in the standings.
At 24, Esteban Ocon has already had the backing of Alpine with a new long-term contract, and although his season has been up-and-down, it couldn’t have been any more “up” than in Budapest. Fernando Alonso, meanwhile, is showing he is fully worth his spot on the grid even at the age of 40, and between them the pair are able to put the Alpine in positions it quite often shouldn’t be based on the car’s performance.