Ahead of the Singapore Grand Prix, which they won, Ferrari’s expectations were not high. Ditto as they headed to this weekend’s Japanese Grand Prix but, after the first day of Free Practice at Suzuka, Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz are pleasantly surprised by their speed relative to pace setting Red Bull.
Leclerc was second fastest to timesheet-topping Max Verstappen at the end of FP2 on Friday, the Dutch ace 0.32s quicker in the Red Bull. On the day, the Ferrari Media Office reported: “The team got through its planned programme, with the two SF-23s finishing both sessions in second and fourth places.
“This Friday showed the cars to be competitive over a flying lap and also indicated that a two-stop race is almost a certainty because of high tyre degradation, something that was expected, but exacerbated by particularly high temperatures at the end of the Japanese summer.”
Both drivers had a stint on next year’s F1 prototype tyre during FP1 before switching to the Softs for a qualifying simulation. In the afternoon, both drivers again started off on the prototype tyre, before switching to the Medium and then the Soft for a qualifying simulation.
Leclerc reported in Ferrari’s Friday review: “We seem to be slightly closer to our competitors than expected, so it was quite a positive day overall. On my side, we tried out a few different things on the car to make me a bit more comfortable, which was good. I’m looking forward to confirming that feeling tomorrow.”
Sainz: We have a couple of interesting days ahead of us
Ending the day P4, Singapore Grand Prix winner Sainz echoed his teammate: “This weekend the gaps to our closest rivals seem very close, therefore back to where we were in previous races, with Red Bull very strong again.
“On my side, we’re still fine-tuning the car a lot and today we tested many different set-ups to try to find the best compromise for this track. We have a lot of data to look into and tonight we’ll need to decide what settings to run tomorrow, trying to put the car in the right performance window,” explained Sainz.
The timesheets show that the Spaniard, fresh from his second GP victory needs to find a couple of tenths to be in that window. Sainz ventured: “We have a couple of interesting days ahead of us.”
While Red Bull are likely to wrap up the 2023 F1 Constructors’ title on Sunday, Ferrari are scrapping with Mercedes for second-place honours. Only 24 points separate the teams in the standings, in F1’s B-List battle that should go down to the wire.
With Verstappen also due to wrap up this year’s F1 driver’s crown, the title battle is not a thing anymore. Hence, for lack of little else in terms of a contest, the focus now turns to the teammate battles as it appears Sainz is gaining the higher ground at Maranello, while Leclerc needs to raise his game accordingly.
Ahead of Sunday’s Round 16 of the 2023 F1 World Championship, Sainz (P5 in the standings) leads Leclerc (P6) by 19 points. Both within reach of Fernando Alonso (P4) and Lewis Hamilton (P3) in the remaining seven rounds.