Leclerc turns the tables on Sainz at last race in another close fight at Ferrari

2023 F1 team mates head-to-head

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It has been remarkably close between Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz Jnr over their three seasons and 66 grands prix as team mates so far. The combined scoreline as it stands has Leclerc on 673 points to Sainz’s 610.5.

Over that time Leclerc has consistently held the upper hand in qualifying, winning the intra-term battle by the same 13-9 margin over the first two seasons, and nudging it up to 15-7 this year.

For the second time in three seasons, the pair swapped championship positions at the final round this year. Sainz was the beneficiary two years ago, rising from seventh to fifth at Leclerc’s expense in the finale. The roles were reversed this year, Sainz’s no-score at Yas Marina costing him what would have been his best championship finish to date, as he fell from fourth to seventh, Leclerc among those who gained.

When drivers are this close, small problems can tip the balance easily either way. Both can point to failures which prevented them from starting the grands prix in Qatar (Sainz) and Brazil (Leclerc). But the latter was probably more hard done by on the whole: a failure struck as he held third place in the season-opener and guaranteed him a grid penalty at the following round; later in Austin his car was disqualified for a technical infringement which his team mate’s was not checked for. That said, for cruellest misfortune of the year it is hard to top what happened to Sainz in Las Vegas.

Carlos Sainz Jnr, Ferrari, Singapore, 2023
Sainz was the only driver to beat Red Bull to victory
Sainz earned the bragging rights as the only driver to win a grand prix in 2023 in anything other than a Red Bull RB19 – something Leclerc would certainly have given up his fifth place in the championship for. That came about as Sainz returned from the summer break in excellent form in an SF-23 which Ferrari had finally got their head around.

He took pole position at Monza and put up a strong fight against the Red Bulls – and, later, Leclerc – for the final podium position. In Singapore he took pole position and Leclerc, to his credit, played the team role to perfection to ensure Red Bull’s only Sunday defeat of 2023.

Next time out at Suzuka further tweaks to the Ferrari turned it more to Leclerc’s liking, and from then on he was never headed by Sainz in qualifying for a grand prix. Leclerc might well have taken a win of his own at Las Vegas had Max Verstappen not profited from a Safety Car period ironically triggered by his own clash with George Russell.

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Although Sainz went to the final race with 12 points in hand over Leclerc, and the advantage of not having to relinquish his car to a junior driver in first practice, the weekend started to go wrong for him in second practice when he crashed heavily. An elimination in Q1 the following day left him running out of the points as the laps ticked down to the end of the season, while Leclerc upheld Ferrari honours with his third podium finish from the final four rounds – as many as he’d taken in the preceding 18 grands prix combined.

No doubt it was a disappointing season for Ferrari as they slipped one place to third behind Mercedes in the constructors championship. But their closely-matched drivers can look back on 2023 with considerable satisfaction at the job they’ve done. If next year’s car proves to be the step forward Ferrari need it to be, then the races at Monza and in Las Vegas showed Verstappen can expect to face two genuine competitors from the red team.

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Leclerc Q

Unrepresentative comparisons omitted. Negative value: Leclerc was faster; Positive value: Sainz Jnr was faster

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Keith Collantine
Lifelong motor sport fan Keith set up RaceFans in 2005 - when it was originally called F1 Fanatic. Having previously worked as a motoring...

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21 comments on “Leclerc turns the tables on Sainz at last race in another close fight at Ferrari”

  1. As a Ferrari fan 2023 was a very different to 2022 in the sense that last year I thought the drivers did well and the team let them down, and this year it was the opposite. Ferrari should never have lost 2nd place in the title with this years car.

    I’d hoped that 2023 would be Charles coming of age season, one where he eliminates mistakes and builds a consistent season. That didn’t happen. He had a couple of horror shows – namely Spain and the Netherlands, as well as totally unnecessary 110% quali laps where he was always going to drop it like Miami or silly collisions like Melbourne. As a huge Charles fan I felt he had some serious low points this season, and whilst the team let him down on occasion, mistakes wise he was a world away from Max, Lewis and Fernando and very much in the group of Lando and George which I’d hope he’d develop out of.

    Carlos, for my money, had a disgraceful season. I saw a video on Race surrounding Leclerc’s extension and was aghast to hear that he had a “good” and “very strong” season. Carlos was miles off Charles for most of it, which the statistics don’t adequately reflect. As an overall weekend performance, I’d have Carlos ahead of Charles in Spain and Netherlands where Charles was a joke frankly. Carlos finished ahead in Saudi and Miami but Leclerc had a penalty in one and threw it at the scenery in the other – I don’t think Carlos outdrove him.

    That leaves us with Italy and Singapore, were Carlos was impressive in a new car. Leclerc was still as close as can be in quali and the race in Italy and in Singapore Leclerc’s race was sacrificed, for the second time there in 4 years, to help his team-mate win. Once Charles was on top of the car for the remainder of the season Carlos didn’t get a look in and he would surely have won Vegas without the SC too.

    Overall, I think Ferrari have a strong line up, Leclerc is the fastest driver outright over one lap but needs to improve in a couple of areas. Carlos needs to accept number 2 status if he wants to be there past his current contract but I think Ferrari are finally on the right track. Strategy and in season development were much better this year and if Charles turns the corner over the winter, second place in both championships should be a minimum requirement.

    1. Agree with most of this. Leclerc doesn’t seem to be on much of a curve, and this was already his fifth year at Ferrari. Verstappen might deny it, but Monaco 2018 was a clear turning point for him. He has driven like a champion ever since, and was ready and able to pounce on the first opportunity he got. Leclerc doesn’t give the same impression. Even if Ferrari can somehow match Red Bull next season, the smart money is probably still going to back Verstappen.

      Seems a bit harsh on Sainz, though. Even if he is indeed not quite as fast as Leclerc he wasn’t leading him in points and even in average qualifying position until the last couple of races by sheer luck. Plus, and going back to the earlier point, when Ferrari got their one chance to win it wasn’t Leclerc leading the charge.

      1. I agree with you re Sainz to an extent but I felt Carlos went in 2023 thinking that the only way to beat Leclerc was to drive at 95% as a tactic and guarantee results through consistency, relying on Charles ending up in the wall frequently. Whilst this is a legitimate tactic, it does lead to the impression that there was always time on the table for his side of the garage. I find the points total comparison fair but misleading – for example Carlos was 14 points ahead after 2 rounds despite Leclerc outqualifying Sainz in Bahrain and far ahead in the race before the retirement and subsequent grid drop in Saudi – where Leclerc was half a second faster in quali.

        Realistically, Charles should have had 15 extra points in Bahrain, a top 3 is Jeddah, in Miami his q2 run was good enough for 2nd, in Monaco the team got him a 3 place grid drop for the block in the tunnel on Norris, and he lost a lot of points in Brasil and Austin too. For me there’s a 60 point swing that should have made this season a complete walkover for Charles but his low points and silly errors cost him dearly. That’s excluding the really poor weekends for Charles but also omitting Qatar DNS for Sainz.

        The Charles we saw post Japan – limited racecraft errors, fighting for pole constantly, strong in the wet, managing the team over the radio in Abu Dhabi – was the evolution I expected to see in the off season. I think once he got the shock that Carlos was not only ahead on points through consistency, but also on performance in Italy and Singapore that his perspective changed and he raised his game.

        I think Ferrari should also have won in Vegas, I feel Charles is the unluckiest good looking millionaire in the World sometimes. Singapore was also largely facilitated by Leclerc helping the team, so I’m not fully signed up to the idea that Carlos was exceptional that weekend – strong certainly but with assistance.

    2. I don’t think the drivers were bad at all this year. Yes, Leclerc had his couple of bad days like he unfortunately seems to have every year, but so had any other driver except for Verstappen of course.
      Hamilton blew it in Doha and was absolutely nowhere quite often, so I don’t consider his season any better than Leclerc’s.
      Sainz was quite close to Leclerc for most of the year and very strong after the sommerbreak until Suzuka. Ferrari lost quite a lot of points this year due to reliability and bad luck that other teams, especially Mercedes didn’t. In terms of strategy, drivers and raw pace there was little to choose between the two of them, so imho P3 just behind P2 is not the maximum, but also not massively underachieving.

      1. It’s not necessarily that I think they were bad it’s that Charles had a couple of huge dips which I hoped he grew out of and Carlos was constantly off the pace, rarely able to be fighting for the positions Charles was.

        I felt Hamilton was fairly strong tbh. Russell has finished ahead of him in 8 of the last 36 races going back to the middle of last year and one of the was Zandvoort where he was ahead due to a tyre change under the SC. I think that’s enough justification to say that Hamilton got the most out of the car despite a few errors and a shaky start to the year.

        I’m not sure reliability was a main concern in the battle with Merc, Ferrari had 2 DNS and one DNF, Merc had 3 DNFs. Ferrari drivers crashed out of 3 races, Merc 2.

        What worries me as a Ferrari fan is that Ferrari were 105 points clear of McLaren post Canada and finished 104 ahead – with McLaren running a rookie. That’s where bad results like Zandvoort take hold and Carlos’ inability to beat Charles in the last 7 rounds tells me there were more points to find. I feel second place for that car should have been a comfortable target and neither driver can say they had a great year.

        1. Agree with this, leclerc was obviously faster but he made plenty of mistakes and had a few races where sainz was faster, which wasn’t the case the past years, so they definitely left a lot of points on the table, however so did russell, even just if you think about the last lap mistake in singapore (and already pitting was a losing strategy for him, he was 2nd before) and canada, hitting the wall early on when he was 4th, I think.

        2. Robert Henning
          9th December 2023, 11:39

          There’s a lot of misinterpretation of data to fit a preconceived narrative going on in the last few comments.

          There’s also good reasons why one can argue Hamilton and Leclerc drove seasons of similar caliber, and in fact at The Race, Leclerc was ranked higher than Hamilton for what it’s worth.

          Moreover the McLaren Ferrari comparison ignores plenty that happened in between and assumes many constants to draw a conclusion.

          Good comment to support your narrative but a bad comment to take a proper view of things.

          1. How can one define a proper view of things? Surely it has to be evidence based.

            My perspective on Hamilton’s and Leclerc’s seasons is that pace wise they were comparable but Leclerc had more obvious howlers and poor races. I think Leclerc’s form from Japan onwards was top quality, his best in his time in F1 – but as a whole I felt he should have evolved past basic errors he made, particularly at the start of the season.

            Any comparison across 14 race comparisons is bound to have variables, that’s a given. But considering Ferrari have long been lauded as the strongest driver pairing, I felt that parallel to McLaren reflects poorly on Sainz in particular. The first Ferrari home finished ahead of McLaren 8 times in those 14 events, that should have resulted in a comfortable lead for Ferrari despite 2 DNSs. I simply feel that the Ferrari was the second strongest car most often this season.

            Further to the McLaren comparison is the driver totals. Post Canada it was, CS 68, CL 54, LN 12. After Abu Dhabi it was CS 200, CL 206, LN 205. This was with Lando making plenty of mistakes at key moments too but his consistency, especially in midseason, kept him in the battle. Lando’s dips simply weren’t as big as Charles and he was considerably better than Carlos. From that viewpoint, the drivers at Ferrari simply didn’t deliver enough points in comparison to their closest rivals in my view.

    3. I have been saying this since 2022: Ferrari doesn’t have a good lineup. These drivers are not championship contenders.

      Five years in a team is long enough to make such judgement. Leclerc is solid, great on one lap, but his is more of a Button than a Max/Lewis/Fernando. He needs a monster car and a mediocre team mate to be the champion.

      1. Leclerc reminds me a bit of Mika Häkkinen. He could be extremely fast in qualifying, could deliver solid races, had some flashes of brilliance, and when he got himself in a dominant car, he dutifully became champion. But he made it harder than it had to be, and only just squeaked through in 1999 for his second title. But when the car wasn’t exactly there, he often wasn’t that much faster than David Coulthard.

        1. Roth Man (@rdotquestionmark)
          8th December 2023, 20:01

          Very good comparison.

        2. Also agree with this comparison, didn’t think about it before.

      2. People comparing leclerc to Button and Hakkinen and saying he’s not champion material – what? They were both great champions!

  2. Roth Man (@rdotquestionmark)
    8th December 2023, 10:52

    Really tough position for Ferrari, they’ve got two fantastic drivers but can either of them really bring it home when it counts. Sainz seems more mentally robust and sometimes more astute but lacks a little pace of the top guys. Leclerc is lightning quick, top top talent but can’t keep the mistakes out of his game.

    Think Ferrari may help themselves by going back to a clear number one and two situation and backing Leclerc all the way. But can he ever be a Lewis or a Max with the mistakes he still makes all these seasons later?

    1. I don’t think Leclerc has had many mistakes this year. Maybe Miami. I don’t know if that’s because the pressure of the championship wasn’t there this season or if he’s learning. Guys like Norris and Russel made prominent errors but they don’t seem to get called out as much as Leclerc.

      1. Roth Man (@rdotquestionmark)
        8th December 2023, 20:08

        You make a valid point. I think with all his Mr Bean like bad luck and his previous reputation that it actually felt like he made more mistakes than he did on reflection. He certainly had a few “off” weekends however.

  3. I don’t know why Ferrari seem to be reluctant to give Sainz a contract extension, he and Leclerc are one of the most solid lineups. Yeah, Sainz isn’t as quick or consistent as his teammate most of the time but he quietly accumulates a lot of points. Who’s a better #2 driver? Leclerc still has a couple bad days, but so has everyone else. Despite his reputation, I don’t think there were any glaring mistakes this year like Lando had.

    1. Yes, getting any better driver than sainz means going with 2 alphas, with the negatives that brings.

  4. Robert Henning
    9th December 2023, 11:47

    Leclerc’s season started with a great performance at Bahrain ending in a DNF. Then a grid penalty at Jeddah. Then an overambitious move to DNF at Melbourne, an excellent weekend at Baku, an overambitious crash at Miami compromising his race, his race engineers lack of awareness costing him a guaranteed podium at Monaco.

    Then skill issues at Spain.

    Good races at Canada, and Austria. Good race at Silverstone, and Hungary with little to show for, good weekend at Spa and skill issue at Netherlands.

    Good weekends from Monza to AD pretty much.

    Luck was majorly in Sainz’s favour this year and yet he lost. Leclerc had a DSQ, DNS and a retirement out of his reach and still that wasn’t enough for Carlos to beat Leclerc.

  5. It’s crazy how when we compare some of the key stats on Leclerc vs Sainz as teammates over the last 3 seasons, we always see Leclerc being comfortably ahead in quali pace, generally stronger in racedays, always spending more laps ahead of his teammate, yet, there’s very little between them in terms of points.

    Ferrari ends up either ruining Leclerc’s Sundays by poor strategy or operational issues, and due to that Sainz masks the embarrassment of a convincing defeat at the hands of his teammate. This gives Sainz more confidence in not obeying team orders, and it hampers Ferrari’s race results further.

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