Since the return of Formula One from the summer break, Charles Leclerc has looked distinctly second best to his Ferrari team mate. In Zandvoort Sainz was over a third quicker than his Monegasque Ferrari counterpart then claimed pole position at the team’s home race in Monza and again in Singapore.
Yet in Suzuka, the Ferraro form guide was flipped and it was Leclerc who looked the quicker driver in the red cars throughout practice and then in qualifying.
Sainz leads Leclerc
How Leclerc switched things around will mean he now has the opportunity to make in roads into his team mates 19 point lead in the drivers championship, although team boss Fred Vasseur is only interested in closing the gap to Mercedes who are currently in second.
The Scuderia were far from their dominant best in qualifying for the 2023 Japanese Grand Prix, as Verstappen returned to being the quickest driver by far – but McLaren were the second quickest team and ill start from. P2 and P3.
Leclerc squeezed ahead of Perez by just over a tenth of a second, with Sainz filling in behind in P6.
However the key to the Leclerc revival was founded earlier in the weekend.
Leclerc qualifying fightback
“Charles must have done a very good lap, but I didn’t get a clean sector one in my last lap, which probably accentuated the difference a bit,” revealed Sainz after the session. “I’d say he’s been a tenth or two quicker all weekend.”
Sainz lost a tenth to his team mate in the demanding aero sector one and another two tenths in sector 2, though the pair were almost identical in the final part of the Suzuka track.
The problem for the Spaniard began at the beginning of the weekend. Unlike in Zandvoort, Monza and Singapore where he hit the ground running in Suzuka Carlos struggled from the off.
Ferrari brought a new floor to Japan which was designed to improve “efficiency” but only Leclerc ran the floor in FP1 as ferrari looked to evaluate the differences between the two.
Carlos mistes on early upgrade
Sainz had the revised bodywork for FP2 but having missed out on the knowledge from FP1 he spent most of the second track session switching between setups rather than honing the direction he would go for the rest of the weekend.
“I took the approach yesterday and this morning to try different things on the car, try to change the balance quite a bit and try different things in set-up to try to put the car in a different place a bit,” said Sainz explaining his deficit in qualifying.
“By the time of quali, I saw that it was not quite working and we had to go back to a more basic set-up. In the end I probably ended up compromising my qualifying preparation and my weekend in general.”
In the ground effect and cost cap era of Formula One it has been noticeable the teams are delivering less new components and often only fit them to one car initially for evaluation.
Hamilton been ‘test mule’
Lewis Hamilton claimed much of the early part of 2022 saw Mercedes use him as the test mule with the W13 whilst allowing George Russell to concentrate on familiarising himself with his new team.
In Azerbaijan 2022, Russell out qualified his world champion team mate for the third successive Grand Prix but Toto Wolff told reporters:
“Hamilton’s car is in a different specification again this weekend. Lewis has been trying some experimental parts of the car. There was a different floor solution on his car that didn’t work.”
Despite being “distracted” in his race weekend preparation, Carlos Sainz has no regrets in Japan. “Some weekends you need to challenge yourself, especially circuits where you know the car is weak, challenge the car a bit, try to put it a bit outside its normal window to see if you can find something, and that’s what I tried this weekend,” said the Spaniard.
Leclerc driving style affected
“It definitely didn’t help but I also don’t think it made my life too complicated, I also think Charles has been very quick and probably the unpredictability and the balance of the car with the wind is not helping, but it’s how it is.”
Leclerc has admitted in previous weekends he has been making driving technique experimental changes because the 2023 Ferrari does not suit his preferred ;oversteer’ method of cornering.
“From Zandvoort, we had a lot more understanding of the car but this understeer thing is there from the beginning of the year,” explained Leclerc.
“It’s basically this whole car that needs to be set up a bit more on the understeery side because it’s a very unpredictable car when you have oversteer in the car, so I cannot run the oversteer that I want. But it’s been like this since the beginning of the season, so I haven’t been at ease like I’ve been last year where the lap times were coming more easily.
“You need to adapt to any car that you get and this weekend I’ve tried to change a few things, wishing to go a bit more my way. But unfortunately, the overall performance is not as good as what we all expected.”
Sainz Qatar record better
This doesn’t represent a permanent switch in the fortunes of the Ferrari drivers and mean Leclerc will prevail for the rest of the season.
Ferrari boss Vasseur said in Japan that the performance difference between his drivers swings “from track to track” with the “set-up and balance of the car”.
The long run data from Suzuka practice suggests Lecerlc will have enough to keep ahead of his team mate this weekend and also ahead of the Mercedes pair who looked miles off the pace.
Next time out in Qatar, Carlos Sainz has proven the stronger of the two Ferrari drivers beating Leclerc both in qualifying and the race when F1 staged its inaugural event in the Gulf state back in 2021.
Same, same, but different 👀
— Formula 1 (@F1) September 23, 2023
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