until Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League

Formula 1

Mark Hughes: Sainz risks becoming Leclerc’s wingman

by Mark Hughes
7 min read

Carlos Sainz’s face on the second step of the podium as the anthems played said it all: deeply contemplative and a frown of concern. Yes, he was second, and yes, the Ferrari promises to give him a very fruitful season. But not at any stage in the weekend was he quite on the pace of team-mate Charles Leclerc.

In fact, he felt it was the furthest off he’s ever been, not necessarily in numbers (he qualified just 0.126s slower) but in terms of how far away he felt he was in extracting everything from the car. “I’ll be honest, it’s been the most difficult weekend of my Ferrari career,” he said immediately after the race.

He knows it’s a bad time to suddenly be outpaced by Leclerc, just at the moment he is finally in a title-contending car going into his eighth F1 season. Having competed on level terms with quality team-mates throughout his F1 career, Max Verstappen, Lando Norris and Leclerc included, in cars that were not potential race winners, now is not the time to lose that thread.

It threatens to put him in a support role to a Leclerc title bid, something which would actually make things easier for the team in some ways. But it’s absolutely not something he will be prepared to accept at this stage. If he is to have a more Rosberg-like dynamic to Leclerc’s Hamilton and not a Bottas one, the rebound from Bahrain needs to be sooner rather than later.

Mattia Binotto Carlos Sainz Charles Leclerc Ferrari F1

The first signs of his struggles came in Friday practice when he was a long way off. “In FP1, FP2 and FP3 I was very far behind,” he admitted, “the most far that I’ve been ever in Ferrari and that’s why even with a 1-2 that we scored I’m not entirely happy with the weekend.

“It just shows that I need to put my head down, understand this car, understand where is Charles making the difference with his driving and the way that he’s approaching the corners and driving the tyres.”

Sainz worked away at it and his qualifying performance was the strongest element of his weekend.

At 0.126s off Leclerc, he missed joining him on the front row by the three-thousandths of a second by which he trailed Verstappen.

Charles Leclerc Carlos Sainz Ferrari F1

If we compare the best Q3 laps of Leclerc and Sainz, though Q3 was Sainz’s best session of the weekend, we can see the areas where the Spaniard will be working at understanding.

Turn 1. Sainz is cleaner here. Leclerc overshoots slightly, misses the apex and has to change down to second gear to regain momentum. What is notable is that Leclerc overlaps the braking with the throttle here, as he does in several corner approaches through the lap. This is typically used to keep a lively rear end more stable under extreme braking, keeping just a little bit of drive to the rear wheels to prevent them locking. It’s a tricky balance to pull off though, as it can cost more in lost braking efficiency than it gains you instability – and this is perhaps a contributory cause to Leclerc running wide here, at a point in the lap when the tyres will be at their coolest.

Unlike Leclerc, Sainz, on the correct part of the track, is able to stay in third and be earlier on the gas. Sainz’s simpler, more binary, approach has worked to his advantage here, but only because Leclerc has over-committed.

T2-T4. Sainz’s advantage carries on the run through T2/3 and up to the approach of T4. Here Leclerc doesn’t brake as hard, takes a bit more speed in, necessitating him to be busier on the throttle on turn in, compared to Sainz’s more on/off input.

T5-T8. With the cars then accelerating flat out through the gears they are confronted by the quick downhill left-right flick of T5-6. T5 is flat in sixth gear but T6 requires a lift. Leclerc’s lift is smaller and he maintains more speed going in, even if that does give him an oversteer snap on exit. Regardless, he is quicker all the way down the hill as a result of that ballsy T6 entry. Into T8 Leclerc is earlier onto the brakes but earlier off them too – and they carry much the same entry speed into there.

T8-10. Leclerc stays marginally longer on the power on the approach to T10 and is manipulating the throttle through there, where Sainz is not.

T11-13. Into T11 Leclerc is overlapping brake and throttle and takes a chunk of time from Sainz on entry. Leclerc stays flat-out later on the approach and is later on the brakes but is again using the throttle to tame the rear. It’s at its most stark in T11.

Into T13 Leclerc is earlier on the brakes, but much earlier off them, carrying more speed in and needing to get creative with the throttle to keep it on line.

T14-15. Into the 14-15 double apex Leclerc stays a gear higher and his minimum apex speed is significantly higher and he maintains that advantage onto the pit straight.

It appears as if Leclerc on that day was just more at ease with barrelling into the turn and improvising an answer to whatever dramas ensue, where Sainz is keeping it simpler and cleaner – but slightly slower as a result. It’s a fine line Leclerc is walking but he’s treading it beautifully.

Charles Leclerc Carlos Sainz Ferrari F1 Bahrain GP

But even in their competition with each other, they were still a team. In discussions between them pre-race about how best to handle Verstappen, there was a moment where they each realised just what a great position that was to be in. “Before the race, Charles and I were working together and the first thing that we said to each other is how good it feels, just to be starting first and third and to finally be fighting for something bigger, and together. And we kind of had that moment of just realising that we are in the fight this year, and it was… between us a good moment to reflect.”

On race day the comparison between the two Ferraris is less straightforward. Leclerc started the race on brand new tyres, Sainz on used. It was that two-against-one tactical game targeted at Verstappen. “The plan was to make sure that we were running a reverse on Max because they were either going to choose new or used also.

“We elected for the used and this probably made me fall a bit too behind in the first stint because Charles was pushing very hard at the front and Max was nearly managing to keep up with him on the used and me on the used just reflected a bit the struggles that I’ve had all weekend that is just I’m not quite there with the car yet. I’m not managing very well the tyres and suffering a bit with the rear.”

It looks to be all in that Leclerc technique of overlapping brake and throttle on corner entry…

Charles Leclerc Max Verstappen Carlos Sainz Ferrari F1

Verstappen’s late retirement gifted Sainz second place – and in the mathematics of the game that can be considered a great outcome for Carlos. On a rare weekend where he’s struggled, he’s finished only one place behind his team-mate rather than two.

“I need to improve if I want to fight for a win and I will put my head down and try to do some steps coming into Jeddah,” he said. “Can I improve it from one weekend to another? I think I can improve it. Can I cut down the deficit completely? It’s a very good question.

“I wish I can and I will be working hard for it but I still need to understand everything and I still need to analyse everything with my with my engineers to come back stronger.

“[But generally] it’s just great news for Ferrari and for us because it’s where Ferrari should be and it’s where Charles and I want to be in our lives, fighting for world championships. It’s still going to be a long year. It’s a quick car but it needs to be a quick car all year.”

And from Sainz’s perspective, it needs to be a quick car he can get fully on top of, to keep him away from the wingman role. He’s far too good for that role. But he has to deliver the performances that are within him.

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