Carlos Sainz produced a spectacular Singapore Grand Prix weekend performance to become the first non-Red Bull victor of 2023 – but, more pertinently, the tip of the Spaniard’s excellent recent run showcases he will arguably provide Charles Leclerc with the toughest test of his Formula 1 career yet.

After a troubled and unfortunate beginning to the season, Leclerc had appeared to get a handle on Ferrari’s capriciously performing 2023 car as the season approached the midway point, collecting the team’s third podium of the year in Belgium and overturning his team-mate in the standings.

Sainz, meanwhile, had stagnated following an assured start to his third campaign in red, unable to get on terms with Leclerc at all of the five weekends prior to the summer break. His ending to the opening half of the year was epitomised at the Spa-Francorchamps circuit where a strong showing on Sprint Saturday was followed up by a clumsy Turn 1 clash that curtailed his race prospects.

However, since the summer break, Sainz has been a rejuvenated individual behind the wheel, delivering on the flashes of promise he has previously shown in his three-year Ferrari tenure on a more consistent basis.

In results terms, the ex-McLaren racer has put Leclerc in the shade in the trio of rounds to occur since F1’s resumption, maximising Ferrari’s package and scoring the second most points of any driver. Unsurprisingly, a certain Max Verstappen tops that chart.

While Leclerc seemed to have the edge in pace terms at Zandvoort, a slide on a greasy track surface in qualifying saw the Ferrari protégé slip up and hand the impetus to his partner. Since that moment, Sainz has not looked back, delivering an impeccably established performance during treacherous conditions on race day to come home fifth in what he proclaimed the “sixth fastest car”.

Carlos Sainz Jr (ESP), Scuderia Ferrari 02.09.2023. Formula 1 World Championship, Rd 15, Italian Grand Prix, Monza, Italy, Qualifying Day.

Heading to Monza, the Temple of Speed, the venue of Leclerc’s greatest triumph and a place the adoring Tifosi continue to flock to worship their great Monegasque hopeful every year, Sainz turned the tables, stringing together a supreme qualifying lap to seize a well-earned maiden pole position in Italy.

Despite the Red Bulls eventually breaching Sainz’s valiant defence, resisting Leclerc for his first podium of 2023 ensured the Spaniard’s momentum continued to build, culminating in his success in Singapore.

When Red Bull finally floundered at the Marina Bay Circuit, Ferrari was on hand to capitalise, and it was Sainz who delivered when it mattered during qualifying to earn the team’s backing as it strived to end its barren run. On one of the most technically challenging tracks of them all – one in which Leclerc had never been out-qualified by a team-mate – Sainz clocked the benchmark time to eclipse George Russell and the sister Ferrari, thus earning race-day priority.

Whereas during his only previous F1 victory – Silverstone 2022 – Sainz had demonstrated vulnerability when leading, this time around he controlled matters expertly. Even when his prized victory was placed in doubt when Mercedes gambled on fitting both drivers with brand-new tyres, Sainz was undisturbed, showing the immense composure associated with a seasoned World Champion by slowing down in the closing laps to hand Lando Norris the aid of DRS that ultimately preserved his position.

Whilst he admitted his tactic could have backfired, Sainz got the reward he richly deserved for his display of ingenuity. Most significantly, though, he prevailed as the one who ended Red Bull’s record run.

The 29-year-old has credited his remarkable mid-season turnaround to a meeting with his engineers over the summer break that has enabled him to extract his ultimate pace on a regular basis. He has become settled with the SF-23 in its current state, unlocked a set-up direction to work around the car’s inherent flaws, and will be extremely tough to beat across the remaining rounds of the year.

Carlos Sainz Jr (ESP) Ferrari SF-23. 17.09.2023. Formula 1 World Championship, Rd 16, Singapore Grand Prix, Marina Bay Street Circuit, Singapore, Race Day

On the other hand, Leclerc, ever the exemplary professional, was content to play the team game in Singapore and share in the team’s overriding joy – but deep down the loss will have hurt. Ever since his promotion to the works Ferrari outfit in 2019, Leclerc has predominantly been the driver who has always received acclaim. Seeing his team-mate thrust into the spotlight will be unchartered territory, and Leclerc will be desperate to turn the tide back in his favour.

There’s certainly no reason to think he won’t at some stage; after all, the Monegasque native is battling an unstable car that he has never truly settled with. “I’m not completely comfortable with this car at the moment, a bit too much understeer for my liking and I struggle to drive around it,” Leclerc said. “And because of the unpredictability of the car, I cannot have the oversteer that I want.”

Despite that open revelation, Leclerc still only ended up 0.079s away from snatching pole in Singapore. Indeed, only a slight mishap at Turn 17 denied him from ending up with the fastest time and the right to earn the preferential treatment on strategy that potentially would have seen him win.

Contrast that to Sainz, who was consistently winding up several tenths away when combating a car that didn’t allow him to express his full capabilities, and it’s still obvious that Leclerc has the greater upside when he gets it together. Only when he is equipped with a car that is benign in its balance and pointy at the front end will a true gauge of Leclerc’s ability be issued.

For that reason alone, he’ll be desperately hoping Ferrari’s “brand new” car for 2024 removes the intrinsic flaws that have stymied his and the team’s potential this season.

An overhauled concept should, in theory, reset the balance of power internally between the two Ferrari drivers. But in the present, Leclerc has endeavoured to address his current struggles. The five-time F1 race winner has already conceded that he must adapt to match Sainz’s newfound level.

“I mean Carlos in Monza and here [Singapore] has been completely on it,” Leclerc admitted. “He’s been very strong so, yeah. It’s great to have him on such a form because he pushes me also to understand a bit more on my driving style and try to fit my driving style to this car. So there’s a bit of work to do, but it’s first of all great to see that at least the competitiveness [of the car] seems to be up there, that Carlos is still at ease and now it’s up to me to catch up.”

Charles Leclerc (MON) Ferrari on the grid. 17.09.2023. Formula 1 World Championship, Rd 16, Singapore Grand Prix, Marina Bay Street Circuit, Singapore, Race Day

This recent period is disputably the first time Leclerc has properly lagged behind Sainz. Although the latter emerged ahead on points in their debut season together Leclerc still had the underlying advantage in relative pace terms. With Leclerc largely heralded as Ferrari’s champion in waiting the 25-year-old will need to again prove that remains the case on the race track in the coming months.

For that reason alone, Sainz’s resurgence is potentially presenting Leclerc with the greatest threat yet to his globally recognised position, at least externally, as Ferrari’s chosen one. Whilst Sebastian Vettel was far from a spent force when Leclerc arrived on the scene at Ferrari in 2019, the dynamic between the two was at the opposite end of the spectrum to the one he now shares with Sainz. Vettel represented the experienced multiple-time champion up against the burgeoning talent of Leclerc, with the expectation exclusively magnified on the four-time title-winner’s every move.

But by effectively ousting the German from Ferrari through his sheer star quality, Leclerc has since taken on the mantle that Vettel previously upheld, taking a large proportion of the slack – rather unfairly – for the Scuderia’s continued shortcomings.

Speaking of Ferrari, the prized team debatably could have its own problems to contend with regarding its driver pairing. While Leclerc and Sainz get on cordially outside of the car, cracks have started to appear on the track this year, and there’s reason to doubt whether they can co-exist in the same operation. While Sainz favours understeer, Leclerc is at his lethal best when he can manipulate an oversteering machine.

Ferrari effectively sacrificed Leclerc’s race in Singapore to secure a morale-boosting victory. Whilst only a one-off for the time being, prioritising Sainz on development thereafter would be a long-lasting sacrifice to Leclerc’s phenomenal skillset.

With contract negotiations set to intensify over the coming months, it’s crunch time for Leclerc both on the track and away from it. He would be well-advised to listen to Vettel’s previous words of wisdom when it comes to utilising his talent: “Don’t waste it”.

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