Charles Leclerc, often perceived by some as Ferrari’s golden boy and No.1 driver, has backed Fredric Vasseur’s insistence that he and Carlos Sainz begin the season on an equal footing.
Sainz and Leclerc got a feeling for the sleek SF-23 they’ll pilot this season at the team’s public launch, stoking anticipation around a more reliable and faster Ferrari that could give Red Bull a greater challenge in 2023.
In front of a grandstand packed full of Tifosi, both drivers sunk into the cockpit for a few laps of Ferrari’s own Fiorano track – albeit on Pirelli’s demonstration tyres and steering clear of the car’s limits.
Leclerc was first into the cockpit on Tuesday but Vasseur has made one thing crystal clear: the Monégasque talent won’t be given such priority on Grand Prix weekends, at least to begin with.
Mattia Binotto’s replacement as Ferrari principal laid down the law at his first press conference in F1’s hottest hot-seat: “The target is to win with Ferrari and for Ferrari and there will be no number one and number two. But if at one stage we have to take action, I will take action and it doesn’t matter if it is for one driver or the other.”
Despite finishing the season second-place in the Championship and 62 points clear of Sainz, having dominated the Spaniard 15-7 in qualifying and won three Grand Prix, Leclerc is willing to prove his superiority over his team-mate on-track.
“I agree with this philosophy,” Leclerc said at the Maranello launch, as per Mundo Deportivo in Spain.
“It’s important for Carlos and I to be fully motivated and do the best possible job at the start of the season and we have to push each other to perform at our best, and at one point in the season, if one driver is clearly in contention to win the championship, I’m sure the team will do everything possible to ensure that the driver fighting for the title does so in the best possible conditions.
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“The relationship has always been very good. We get along very well, we share a lot of passions also off the track like golf, padel, chess, we have spent a lot of time together and we have a good relationship.
“Of course, we are very competitive but the competitiveness we have is very healthy.”
Leclerc quickly pulled clear of Sainz last season, taking a commanding championship lead after three races while the Madrid-born talent struggled to find the F1-75’s limits.
Although a heap of reliability nightmares and mistakes saw the 25-year-old quickly fall behind Max Verstappen, he always had the upper hand on Sainz.
Still, Leclerc didn’t always get preferential treatment. The most glaring example came at Silverstone, the scene of Sainz’s maiden Grand Prix victory. When a late Safety Car bunched up the pack, race leader Leclerc was hung out to dry on dying tyres while his rivals pitted. The Monégasque dropped to fourth by the flag.
That incident, one among many bizarre errors that cost Ferrari last season, was followed by Binotto wagging his finger in front of a raging Leclerc’s face in the Silverstone paddock; an incident that could have been a turning point for the departed team boss.
Vasseur has plenty to work on down at Maranello but stepping up to make a decision on favouring Leclerc or Sainz could become a critical one.