Even before a single lap has been run in the 2023 Formula 1 season, never mind a race result decided, Ferrari team boss Fred Vasseur has twice been asked to pin his colours to the mast – Charles Leclerc or Carlos Sainz.
He went with neither, adamant it’s too early to back one driver over the other.
“But,” he wrapped up the first time around, “if at one stage we have to take action, I will take action.”
The second time, he ended with “and if at one stage I have to take action for Carlos or for Charles, I will do it.”
It’s an action that, should it come, will have long-term consequences.
Team-mates at Ferrari for the first time in 2021 it was widely-speculated that Leclerc could have the measure of Sainz, but that wasn’t to be with the Spaniard winning the first round – although only by 5.5 points.
However, that was a season in which Ferrari were still trying to get their horse (powers) into order in the wake of their 2019 engine scandal.
Once they’d sorted that out, although the reliability was still lacking, it was all Leclerc in 2022 barring a bit of a helping hand from then team boss Mattia Binotto for Sainz at the British Grand Prix.
Let’s be honest, neither Leclerc nor Sainz were ever going to win the 2022 Drivers’ Championship title, there were too many reliability problems for Ferrari’s engine and the less said about some of the strategy calls from “Red Bull’s B or C team”, as Ralf Schumacher called the Scuderia, the better.
But with Leclerc winning two of the first three grands prix and racing out to a 34-point lead over his nearest rival, 60-odd up on Max Verstappen, Binotto should have heeded the call to back the Monégasque driver. By the time, three races later, Verstappen had snatched the lead in Spain, Binotto should’ve re-evaluated his stance.
If he had done that then maybe one race later in Monaco, where Leclerc’s grand prix was undone by a wet-weather tyre call, it would have gone a bit differently. Maybe then he would have won his home race to retake the lead in the standings. Maybe that would have changed the outlook for Ferrari’s season.
A lot of maybes with no concrete evidence to back them up, and yes it still took a handful of races that included Binotto’s finger wag at Silverstone and Leclerc’s crash from P1 at Paul Ricard to wrap up the eulogy, but it was in Monaco where the rot set in. Fingers were pointed at Binotto, they should’ve been wagged.
This season if – and it’s a big if – Ferrari are able to resolve last year’s troubles then new team principal Vasseur needs to pick a number one, and sooner rather than later because there’s no doubting Red Bull already have theirs – and it’s the driver with the big ‘1’ on his car.
If teams want to fight for the Drivers’ title they need one of two things: a number one driver, as Red Bull have, or by far the most dominant car on the grid so the team-mates can share the results, as Mercedes had for several years.
Ferrari, today, have neither of those. Given that the Scuderia is unlikely to put a car on the track that will blitz the competition this season, they need to go with the number one driver option.
But whoever they back, they should probably expect the other won’t be around come 2025. Leclerc and Sainz are out of contract at the end of next season and, while Sainz has yet to enter the rumour mill, already there is speculation about Leclerc.
According to respected pundit Peter Windsor, and he’s not the only one who has said this in recent times, Toto Wolff is going to make a play for the Monégasque driver, it’s just a matter of when, that when depending on when Lewis Hamilton retires.
Losing Leclerc, a driver most of the paddock believe has the ability to win a World title or three, would be a huge blow for Ferrari. He’s come through their ranks a junior, he’s much-loved by the team and the Tifosi, and he’s a proven race-winner who can also do the job in qualifying.
And according to Felipe Massa, he’s also “one of the greatest” on today’s grid. No one is saying that about Sainz.
From Toro Rosso, losing out on a Red Bull promotion to Verstappen, to Renault to McLaren and then onto Ferrari, the Spaniard is clearly good enough to be a Formula 1 driver, but is he good enough to lead a team’s charge to championship glory? The team moves suggest no as none of them have backed him long-term to be their star driver.
Ferrari signed Leclerc, after just one season with the team, to a five-year extension that ran through to the end of 2024 such was their faith in the driver. Whether they keep him in 2025 could depend on this season and whether or not Vasseur will back him and him alone for the Drivers’ Championship title.
Simply put, Ferrari need Leclerc to stick around long-term more than they do Sainz. So while Vasseur is saying “today” choosing a number one is not a decision he’s willing to make, he may need to make it tomorrow…