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Protecting Sainz: This is how Leclerc sacrificed his own race in Singapore

Charles Leclerc reports that he was only planned as a water carrier for Carlos Sainz in Singapore from the very beginning – But he has only himself to blame for that

“To be honest, that wasn’t the plan,” Charles Leclerc answered after the 2023 Singapore Grand Prix when asked whether he had the pace to win the race. From the beginning, his job was only to protect his team-mate.

Ferrari’s plan was “very clear” before the race, “and that’s why I went on the soft [at the start],” revealed Leclerc, who had qualified third. Team-mate Carlos Sainz and Mercedes driver George Russell were on the front row.

While Sainz and Russell started on medium tyres, Leclerc chose the softs. “I changed my mind at the last minute to make sure I was ahead of George in the first stint, because it was clear that it was an advantage for Carlos,” said the Monegasque.

Ferrari team boss Frederic Vasseur says of the start: “The plan was to overtake Russell, not Carlos. We knew that track position was crucial in Singapore and the best way to protect Carlos was to have Charles behind him.”

The plan worked perfectly because Leclerc overtook Russell at the start, giving Ferrari both cars at the front of the field. “That’s why at one point we also asked Charles to slow down a bit to protect us against an undercut from Russell,” Vasseur revealed.

On the radio, the Monegasque was initially instructed to leave three seconds of air in front, later it was even five. “I knew it was going to be a difficult race for me. In the first stint it was all about protecting Carlos,” Leclerc stressed to Sky.

Why Leclerc didn’t make a second stop

He reveals the plan was actually to stop in front of Sainz later in the race “and try to keep second place.” But that didn’t work out. “Unfortunately, I didn’t have much luck with the safety car,” Leclerc points out.

Because the Ferrari plan was thrown out the moment the safety car came after an accident by Logan Sargeant on lap 20. The Scuderia had to bring both drivers into the pits one after the other. Leclerc was the one who suffered.

Due to traffic in the pit lane, he lost several seconds during the stop – and thus two positions to Russell and Lando Norris. “That’s when I basically lost the race,” explained the Monegasque, who also made a mistake after the end of the safety car period.

As a result, when the field had sorted itself out again, he found himself only fifth behind Sainz, Russell, Norris and Lewis Hamilton. When the virtual safety car was deployed again later, the two Mercedes drivers took advantage of this to make another stop.

Leclerc reveals: “Over the radio they told me to do the opposite of Lewis in front of me. Lewis pitted, so I had to stay out.” So he got back to P3 in the meantime, but had no chance in the battle against the Mercedes drivers on fresh medium tyres.

Leclerc once again protective guilt for Sainz after the VSC

He eventually finished the race in fifth place, but where he says he would have ended up had he stopped himself under the VSC as well. “I don’t think it would have been a ‘gamechanger’,” he clarifies.

And Vasseur also explains: “I can understand Mercedes’ strategy because they were behind, […] and they had a new set of mediums.” Leclerc, on the other hand, no longer had a new set of mediums and would still have been behind the Mercedes drivers after the stop anyway.

Instead, Ferrari preferred to use the opportunity to bring Leclerc temporarily in front of the two Mercedes drivers once again and to use him as “protection”, according to Vasseur, for Sainz at the front. In the end, as we know, the Spaniard was able to win the race.

Leclerc, by the way, sees the responsibility for having only been a water carrier for his team mate on Sunday with himself. He emphasises: “It would have been up to me to do a better job [in qualifying] to be in a different position.”

If he had been on pole, the roles might have been reversed.

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