At a windy and gripless Portimao, Carlos Sainz in his third Ferrari outing outqualified his super-fast team-mate Charles Leclerc – an impressive achievement and one in which a kaleidoscope of factors had a part to play. It was a set of circumstances which allowed for a fascinating compare and contrast between the approaches of the two drivers.
Portimao’s track surface was barely any grippier than when it was brand new last year – and its gusty winds were even stronger. In combination with a very conservative Pirelli compound selection (the three hardest in the range) and probably also with the trimmed ’21 aero regs, maximising the potential of any of the cars was highly improbable. The Ferrari was no exception, but it applied just as much to the four Mercs and Red Bulls which line up directly ahead of Sainz on the grid, with Leclerc 0.3s and three places back.
“In the last sector in particular you cannot imagine how unpredictable and difficult to drive it is,” exclaimed Sainz later. That final sector begins at Turn 11, the exposed highest peak of the circuit, diving then down the hill before repeatedly cross-crossing the direction of the wind in the remaining four turns. “The track was 0.3s quicker in Q2 than Q3,” Sainz continued. “The difference was all up there. In Q3 I went into Turn 13 showing zero delta [to his best lap] and lost those three tenths in just the last few corners. Up there the wind is pushing you much more.”
But it was in delivering two quality, error-free Q3 laps in such circumstances that gave Sainz particular satisfaction. “I did it twice in tricky conditions. That gives me a good feeling.” As, of course, did out-qualifying Leclerc. “It doesn’t hurt! I know every time Charles is on track he’s extracting a lot out of the car; he’s pushing like crazy. I’m enjoying it. When I’m on track I’m pushing like hell. I don’t save anything in FP1 or FP2; I’m always at the limit and he has a similar approach. I’m learning a lot from him and how he approaches things, especially Q2 and Q3, how he manages to nail those special laps. There’s still a lot to learn but little by little it’s just getting better.”
Leclerc has too often pulled a sensational lap out of a mediocre car for it to be coincidence – and that’s the special ability Sainz seeks to emulate. But Leclerc didn’t manage to do it here – ironically for the very same willingness to strive beyond what seems feasible that often delivers those spectacular laps. “I was trying to over-push,” he said, “which works in most conditions but in these conditions if you’re a little bit under the limit and manage to do a clean lap it pays off and I struggled to do that. It was incredibly difficult in these conditions.”
Leclerc’s willingness to try for the unreasonable, to transcend the limitations of the car for just one inspired lap, backing his supreme talent to out-run the emergencies he’s created, is what has brought about Gilles Villeneuve comparisons. It cannot always work – and the chances of it doing so are exponentially less when conditions are so changeable from one lap to the next. “It’s no excuse,” he says. “I didn’t do a good enough job. I struggled to be consistent. I should have done a better job.”
Meanwhile, as Leclerc just did his usual instinctual stuff, expressing his gift, Sainz was conscientiously continuing the intensive learning programme that’s been ongoing ever since he first sat in the Ferrari and found it so very different to the McLarens he’d been driving in the previous couple of years. For him, the tricky conditions were just part of that learning. “I’ve done some progress with my driving style,” he says, “learned to drive a bit differently this weekend. I’ve tried also different things on the set up and it’s given me a better feeling. It’s making progress but there are still things to discover.”
The level of thought Sainz is applying to this whole process was simply extended to encompass the conditions. “If you want to extract the absolute maximum from the car you have to adapt your driving, with headwind, tailwind, understeer, oversteer and drive differently – you have to know how to drive each corner. This weekend I’ve put in a lot of effort, focussing on each corner, how to approach it, how to drive it. There’s a lot of thinking going on inside the car.” It’s not instinctual yet, not in the muscle memory, but instead is very considered. The approach he would have been taking anyway, even if Portimao qualifying hadn’t been a crazy battle with weather elements and rubber elastomers, turned out to be perfect for this day. “Every time I’m inside the car I’m having to think a lot. There’s still a lot of trial and error to open up my window of knowledge with the car. I’m still learning things.”
His laps were considered, planned, thought-out. Leclerc’s were leaps of faith into the wild blue yonder. That contrast is partly just them, but exaggerated here by the different stages of familiarity with their environments – and it played out how it did.
But it’s going to be challenging for Sainz to remain the lead Ferrari driver in the race – for reasons that have nothing to do with learning processes or inspiration. He starts on the soft tyre while Leclerc got through Q2 on the medium, which is much the better tyre after about four laps and should allow Leclerc access to a better strategy. “I would love to have got through on that tyre,” says Sainz with regret. “It felt really good today but I had traffic with it on my first Q2 lap. I got caught up with Kimi and I made a mistake so it wasn’t a strong lap. We played it safe to go through on the soft after that.”
Last year that soft had a spectacular, but short-lived advantage over the medium at the start – which is what allowed Sainz to pass both Mercs within the first couple of laps to lead the race in his McLaren. But he doesn’t foresee a repeat, even though all four cars ahead of him are on the slower-to warm medium. Last year’s race was held in cool conditions, with drizzle threatening. The forecast for this one is sunny. “If the sun is out, like today, there’s very little difference in the warm-up of the two tyres,” he says, regretfully.
Nonetheless, Sainz now looks to have made the best adaptation of the five established guys in their new teams this year. “I’m proud that it’s working, and proud of the engineers and everyone back in Maranello. The work is paying off.”
When he calmy out-braked Valtteri Bottas here last year to lead a grand prix for the first time in his career, it seemed to foreshadow many similar future scenarios. It still seems that way.
There’s something almost inevitable about his progress. The talent, intelligence and sheer application are such a potent mix. That and how his personality just gets everyone around him automatically onside.
It’s almost incidental how freakishly good his team-mate is. There’s much more to come.