Carlos Sainz’s Best Teammate In Singapore Wasn’t Even On His Team
12:59 PM EDT on September 18, 2023
At Sunday's Singapore Grand Prix, Carlos Sainz took matters into his own hands in the back half of the race, and was rewarded for it with his second Formula 1 victory. More specifically, Sainz decided to employ some of the best teamwork of his career in order to hang on to a 1-2 finish against a pair of charging Mercedes cars on fresh tires, a collaborative strategy that saw the Spaniard purposefully keep the second-place driver within a second, betting the other driver would get into the Drag Reduction System range, and properly defend against George Russell and Lewis Hamilton. It would have made sense for that other driver to be Charles Leclerc, Sainz's teammate at Ferrari, but instead, it was his former teammate, McLaren's Lando Norris, who both executed and benefited from Sainz's decision to treat him as a teammate and a brick wall on Sunday.
It's fitting that Sainz worked better with someone on a different team than with Leclerc, because the two Ferrari drivers seem to be worlds apart. Ever since Sainz moved over from McLaren ahead of the 2021 season, he and Leclerc have been in something of a stand-off of ideologies. While the two drivers have been buddy-buddy off the track, their styles while inside Formula 1 cars have often clashed with each other and with Ferrari strategy. Whereas Leclerc is usually faster on any given day, he is also a team player, for better and often for worse, someone who will follow the strategy team's decisions at all costs even when those decisions are obviously flawed. Sainz, on the other hand, is more assertive and confident in his own plans while behind the wheel, often telling the team to let him do his own thing. At Sunday's Singapore Grand Prix, both of these styles came out to play once more, and by the end of the race, it seemed as clear as ever that Sainz and Leclerc are not necessarily the best of teammates.
It started with Leclerc being used early on to serve as a "sacrifice" (as Russell called him early on) for Sainz's bid to go from pole to victory. Essentially, Ferrari told the Monegasque driver to slow down in order to let Sainz build a gap to protect him from the field, and specifically Russell, Norris, and Hamilton, who started second, fourth, and fifth, respectively. On paper, this seems like a decent strategy for Ferrari to attempt to ensure its first win of the season, and actually the first win by any team this season that isn't Red Bull (that team had some issues with a new technical directive and ran slow all weekend; that didn't stop Max Verstappen from going from an 11th-place start to a close fifth by the end, but it did stop the Red Bull clean sweep of 2023). Leclerc is a fast enough driver to keep the three Brits behind while giving Sainz time to have a calm drive, and breaking open what was targeted to be a three-second gap between first and second place would allow Ferrari to bring both drivers into the pits at the same time, should a safety car happen.
This is where trouble started for Ferrari on Sunday. Because it's Singapore, it was only a matter of time before the safety car appeared, this time on lap 20. Leclerc had built the aforementioned three-second gap to Sainz, slowing down the pack behind him, and so Ferrari brought both drivers in for a double stack pit stop. Sainz got out clean, but as Leclerc pitted, both Mercedes drivers and then Norris were able to get into the exit lane faster, forcing Leclerc into a nearly six-second stop and, crucially, back into fifth place. It was a no-win situation for him, because the choice was to either lose time in the pit stop or trying to exit. If he had been allowed to go closer to Sainz, perhaps he would have had space to exit ahead of everyone else. Maybe there's even a scenario where Ferrari doesn't pit him until the following lap of the safety car; it's hard to say if that would have worked better, but by pushing him back onto the charging trio, Ferrari made it impossible to keep the 1-2, preferring to prioritize Sainz at all costs.
Luckily for the Scuderia, it would turn out that Sainz had a plan in mind to use another driver as a teammate. Despite holding Norris off for the middle part of the race, as anyone would a rival from another team, Sainz saw an opportunity to use his old pal in order to secure the top two spots on the podium. Let's set the scene, though: On lap 43, Esteban Ocon's Alpine had engine failure, causing his car to stop in the middle of the track. This brought out a virtual safety car, and the opportunity for the top five to pit and make a charge for the end. Sainz and Norris decided to stay out on their hard tires, while both Mercedes drivers took a gamble and threw on a brand new set of mediums, a set that the team had purposefully kept fresh during qualifying for such an eventuality. (For his part, Leclerc saw the Mercedes drivers pit and said it was probably "the right choice;" Ferrari told him to stay out, though, and he did, because he always listens.)
As soon as the Mercs came roaring back out of the pits on lap 44, following a clean double stack of their own, it became pretty obvious that it was the right call. Both Russell and, especially, Hamilton were much faster than the rest of the top three, catching Leclerc at about two seconds per lap. The Ferrari strategy then turned to one of deterrence, trying to use Leclerc to slow down the Mercedes duo for as long as possible. That turned out to not be long at all, as both passed Leclerc on laps 53 and 54, setting up a charge at Norris and, eventually, Sainz, with single digit laps remaining.
That charge never materialized, though, as Sainz purposefully slowed down at key intervals, allowing Norris into his DRS range just long enough so that the McLaren driver would be able to defend against the Mercs. This push-and-pull from Sainz was not without risk, as he was gambling that Norris would defend with his life, because if the Mercedes passed him, there would be very little to stand in their way for a 1-2 finish ahead of Sainz. Credit then should go to Norris, who had several perfect defenses on the racing line, constantly frustrating Russell right behind him, and further frustrating Hamilton, who felt he had more pace than Russell. This tension finally snapped on the final lap, as Russell kept trying to get past Norris, until he pushed too hard and ran off the track and into a barrier, ending his race less than two minutes from a podium finish.
By that time, it was too late for Hamilton to make a real move on Norris and Sainz, and the former teammates were able to see out the final lap for the former's third podium of the season and the latter's second Formula 1 victory, after last season's Silverstone GP. The two embraced after the race, washed in the glory of what many teammates claim to want but never truly achieve: A perfect moment of harmony between two drivers, one that serves both well and ensured the top spots. It's perfect that it wasn't Sainz and Leclerc celebrating together, though Leclerc did congratulate Sainz heartily, as he often does. Leclerc ended up finishing fourth, thanks to Russell's crash, though he would have lost out to a charging Verstappen if the race had gone one more lap. For all their gesturing and apparent bro-love, there's too much conflict there, and the two Ferrari drivers have constantly butted heads on strategy and execution, often with a helping (or hurting) hand from the pit wall.
In a way, Singapore 2023 was a perfect mirror to the aforementioned Silverstone 2022, in which Sainz was asked to do a similar bit of backing up to help Leclerc win, during Leclerc's still-alive though quickly dwindling drivers' championship chase. Sainz, though, called the strategy out for the flaws, and refused to back the pack up behind Leclerc, which kept him in firing distance to capitalize on Leclerc driving with front wing damage later in the race.
Sainz was able to hold off Hamilton and Sergio Pérez and pick up his first win for Ferrari, while Leclerc finished a disappointing fourth. Whereas the Spaniard saw the strategy for the mistake that it was and corrected it himself last season, Leclerc either didn't see it or chose not to go rogue in Singapore, and he paid the price of a podium finish yet again. Meanwhile, on the fly and with no communication, Sainz was able to implement his own "on purpose" strategy to ensure that Norris would serve as the best teammate he's had all year, and the reward of a 1-2 finish was good enough for both to celebrate in a champagne-doused evening in Singapore.