The most recognizable car in Formula 1 has not won a title since 2008. But two up-and-coming drivers have the Prancing Horse confident it can give the champions plenty to think about.
The sound of camera clicks echoed from the pavement in the Circuit of the Americas paddock last October, photographers hoping to capture a picture of the 20 drivers, 10 teams and a host of young drivers in attendance.
Some looked for the perfect angle outside the garages as team members ran back and forth to their hospitality suites, while others waited for the drivers to come out into the concourses. Every time a driver came out of the hospitality area, they were overwhelmed.
Standing on a patio, Carlos Sainz gave a self-conscious look when asked if he ever adjusts to photographers. He says it’s something you get used to over time, but days like this “are very hectic.” It comes with the territory of being part of the most famous team in the history of the sport.
For seven decades, people have been drawn to the team. Charles Leclerc remembers watching the Monaco Grand Prix as a 3 or 4 year old from his best friend’s balcony. As the cars zipped through the narrow streets below, one thing caught his eye: “For me, it was all about the red car.”
“You end up knowing . . . red means Ferrari and Ferrari means red,” says Sainz.
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He didn’t know who was driving – it happened to be seven-time F1 world champion Michael Schumacher – or even that it was a Ferrari. He was simply drawn to the vibrant color that symbolizes passion and courage. This was no accident. Team founder Enzo Ferrari once said: “Ask a child to draw a car and he will surely paint it red.”
Two decades later Leclerc is driving for Ferrari and his colleague also has early memories of the team. “If you remember your car when you were little, you remember a red car, which shows how big Ferrari is,” says Sainz. “You end up knowing . . . red means Ferrari and Ferrari means red’.
For years, Ferrari was also synonymous with success. Ferrari is the only F1 team to compete every season since the world championship began in 1950, and since then has claimed 16 constructors’ titles, 15 drivers’ championships, 243 first-place finishes and 242 pole positions. Some of the biggest names in the history of the sport have driven for the team: Alberto Ascari, Niki Lauda, Gilles Villeneuve, Kimi Räikkönen, Fernando Alonso, Sebastian Vettel and Schumacher. All with red cars — rosso scuderia — emblazoned with the cavallino rampante logo, a prancing black horse on a bright yellow background.
But Ferrari haven’t won a constructors’ title since 2008 or a drivers’ championship since Räikkönen in ’07. Its sixth-place finish in the constructors’ championship in ’20 was its worst in 39 years, and the team was winless in ’20 and ’21. Then last year the duo of Leclerc, 25, and Sainz, 28, started the season with a 1–2 finish in Bahrain, the Prancing Horse’s first trip to victory lane in 46 races, with Leclerc winning again in the third race , Australia.
As the season wore on, however, things fell apart and ended with Max Verstappen winning 15 times and taking the drivers’ title with four races to go. Leclerc went on to finish second and Sainz was fifth, leading to optimism that Ferrari’s title drought could end in 2023. But the team is cautious. “(It was) not a surprise, but in a way a relief, to see that we were as competitive as we would have expected,” says Leclerc. “We knew how hard we’ve worked to come back very competitive this year. But we still have doubts about how competitive we will be.”
When Sainz joined Ferrari from McLaren in 2021, he and Leclerc became the team’s youngest ever pair of drivers. They bring different strengths—Leclerc displays ballistic speed, while Sainz has a methodical approach and calm demeanor. They’re thoughtful when answering questions, sometimes looking over the interviewer’s shoulder to think of an answer, but their youthfulness shines through when they crack jokes—as in the C2 videos on Ferrari’s YouTube channel, which feature largely silly contests . (Watching them struggle to find country names with emojis as their only clue is really must-have content, especially when Leclerc, when faced with a turkey emoji, guesses “chicken”.)
When Sainz joined Ferrari from McLaren in 2021, he and Leclerc became the team’s youngest ever pair of drivers.
Erick W. Rasco/Sports Illustrated
While both began their karting careers, the Spaniard faced an added pressure: to shake his tag his son. Sainz’s father, Carlos Sr., is a two-time world rally champion who competed in the Dakar Rally earlier this year at the age of 60. (He was forced to retire from racing after a horrific accident.) Leclerc’s late father Hervé was a former F3 driver turned mechanic and mentor to Charles. Leclerc began racing karts at a track managed by his close friend Jules Bianchi’s father, who was his godfather despite being only seven years older than Leclerc. “From the beginning, we always raced karts together,” says Leclerc. “Maybe for fun, but for me, I was younger playing against (Jules), who had a lot more experience and that helped me catch up.” Bianchi went on to drive in F1 for Marussia, but died after a crash at the 2014 Japanese Grand Prix. When Leclerc runs, the word papas it is engraved on the left side of the back of his helmet, while Jules is on the right.
Leclerc and Sainz complement each other well, which was evident in qualifying for the French Grand Prix last July when Sainz allowed Leclerc to slip past him. The slight increase in speed from the tow helped put Leclerc on pole. “The problem for Ferrari is definitely not the drivers,” says Felipe Massa, who drove for the team for eight years and missed out on winning the 2008 drivers’ championship by one point. “It’s other things that just need to be a little more connected.”
As the 2022 season wore on, Ferrari was hampered by strategic mistakes and reliability issues (and, to be fair, the occasional driver error). Leclerc had the best car in Monaco—on his home track—but the team called both drivers into the pit at the same time, forcing him to wait for the crew to change Sainz’s tires and give the lead on a track where the Overtaking is notorious. difficult. Six weeks later in Austria, Ferrari had a good chance of another 1–2 finish when Sainz’s engine failed late in the race, his car engulfed in flames. The team also struggled with tire degradation throughout the season.
“When all those mistakes started, you could see the face of people in the team change a little bit,” says Massa. “Then you see that the pressure starts to be greater within the team. Mistakes are increasing in other areas.”
At the Brazilian Grand Prix in November, team principal Mattia Binotto revealed another reason why Ferrari struggled late in the season: The team was forced to stop developing its 2022 car because it had reached a spending limit below the F1 budget cap. The team’s fans – the tifosi – began calling for Binotto’s sacking and he eventually resigned in December.
“At Ferrari, everything is so intense in a good way, but it’s also on the bad side,” says Massa. “And sometimes someone has to pay.”
Binotto’s replacement is Frédéric Vasseur, who has revitalized Alfa Romeo, renewing staff confidence, attracting new partners and last year led the team to its best team result – sixth in the constructors’ race – in a decade. He will be reunited with Leclerc, who rode for him as a rookie in 2018. He will also face higher expectations, which comes with the territory.
As the 2022 season wore on, Ferrari was hampered by strategic mistakes and reliability issues (and occasional driver errors).
Erick W. Rasco/Sports Illustrated
“Critics are fair and I’m the first to listen and understand them,” says Sainz. “You feel like you’re part of Ferrari, you’re in control more than anyone else. But it is also true that we have taken a huge step forward (in 2022).” After several years, he says, “It’s normal not to have things perfect, not to do them right. We’re on another learning curve to try to understand the car better and the team better, to perform better.”
One thing that won’t change is the ethos. Emblazoned on the left sleeve of their team kits is a simple hashtag coined by Binotto: #essereferrari. It roughly translates to “it’s a Ferrari,” but it’s more of a sight than a read. It’s evident in the fan base as the flags fly on the track and the racing bonfire burns — red — in the garage. “I see Ferrari as a passion,” says Sainz. “If you’re part of Ferrari, you feel an incredible feeling for the team and you know you want to do well. You want to do well for the tifosi because you will feel the passion, you will feel the history, you will feel the legend of the team.
“It’s a huge responsibility but also the best responsibility.”