The difference in fortune between Ferrari drivers Charles Leclerc – completely dominating from pole to take the lead in the world championship – and Carlos Sainz, ninth on the grid and spun on lap 2, was striking. But their respective fortunes have swung to a razor’s edge.
Leclerc’s dominance of the Australian Grand Prix was based on how he and Ferrari got the car into the perfect balance during a weekend where that was quite a difficult thing to pull off. Achieving this balance was also absolutely crucial to avoiding the tire problems Max Verstappen and Red Bull suffered even before they retired with a fuel leak.
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Red Bull’s Christian Horner admitted after the race that they had gone in the wrong direction during set-up after misreading track developments throughout the weekend. On Saturday they were using a setup to protect the rear tires (which they thought was problematic on Friday) when it was front graining which was the limitation on race day.
It also gave them a tough understeer balance in the slow Sector 3 corners, allowing Leclerc in the supple Ferrari to secure pole 0.3 seconds ahead of Verstappen. From there, having won the start, Leclerc was able to dominate, Verstappen still limited by the graining of the front left tire.
It was a perfect weekend for Leclerc.
Things were rather different for Sainz. He entered this weekend having been troubled by his lacking rhythm at Leclerc in Bahrain and, to a lesser extent, in Jeddah. He felt he had made progress over the Saudi weekend in feeling and understanding the car and was keen to put those lessons into practice at Albert Park.
In practice on Friday and Saturday morning he was in excellent form and race after race looked just as fast as Leclerc for the first time this season. “It seemed like everything was going well, and I felt like I was a lot more at home with the car and I had some good laps,” he summed up.
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It all started to go wrong in the third quarter. In Q2 he had gone for two laps pushed against Leclerc’s – and it had worked for him, giving him a time a few tenths faster than his team-mate. For the first round of Q3, he planned to start again, which meant he had to go out early in order to make two runs in the session.
2022 Australian Grand Prix: Sainz retires after a gravel spin
There was a delay in starting the car, later attributed to an electrical problem with the steering wheel. His race plan was changed to only do one lap of push after one lap of preparation to get the tires in. Released late, he quickly found himself in the rhythm. Leclerc had just taken provisional pole but at the end of Sector 2 Sainz was going faster. He was 0.144 seconds ahead. He was in sight of the start/finish line when a red flag was raised for Fernando Alonso’s Turn 11 crash.
As everyone sat in the pits waiting for the final runs of Q3 to begin, Sainz had yet to set a time. Again, the plan called for a single lap of tire preparation before the attacking lap. Again the car refused to start. Leclerc left the pits to embark on what would be the pole lap. By the time they started Sainz’s car there was no time for a warm-up lap – and with tires far from temperature he was only able to set the ninth best time of the session. Even his time in Q2 would have put him fourth on the grid had he repeated it. But it was a disaster.
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Instead of the standard choice of mediums to start the race, he and the team opted for hard ones instead – the theory being that he could use the pace of the car as the slower medium tire cars loomed ahead of him , allowing him to overtake them with a much later stop.
On the dummy grid, the car once again refused to start. In desperation the steering wheel was changed. This allowed the car to start, but the replacement steering wheel was not properly adjusted. “Similar issues with the switches in the car as yesterday,” he explained. “Some of the switches don’t work. We had to change the steering wheel a minute before the start, which meant that the second direction wasn’t set up correctly for the start, and I had the wrong start map setting which left me gave an anti-stall on both starts.
That and poor grip from the hard-to-heat hard tires saw him drop to 14th and then lose further places on the opening lap. Frustrated and trying to keep going, he spun into the gravel pit at the 9-10 turn on lap two. There could hardly have been a starker contrast between his teammate’s fortunes. The point of divergence between them seemed to be nothing more than an electric gremlin.
“I have to be hard on myself for pilot error,” he said afterwards. “Obviously we’re still getting to know those tires and clearly the hard tire this weekend was tricky in the early laps and I shouldn’t have attacked like I did. It’s an easy conclusion. I don’t shouldn’t have pushed so hard and I should have been patient.
HIGHLIGHTS: Watch the action from a thrilling 2022 Australian Grand Prix
“But at the same time we weren’t perfect as a team. Too much management [wheel] issues, anti-stall issues and the quali that meant it put you on the back foot. It puts you under pressure and I didn’t react accordingly.
The timing of this streak of misfortune and error is particularly bad, as it looks like Ferrari is clearly in a title campaign. Leclerc’s big advantage – 38 points after Melbourne – will be hard for Sainz to swallow.
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