- Seven-times F1 world champion favourite to retain title
- ‘When I put the helmet on, every driver is the same,’ Leclerc says
The Ferrari drivers Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz insisted on Friday they have no fear of taking on the seven-times Formula One world champion Lewis Hamilton. The Briton goes into the season as strong favourite to retain the title and at 36 is an elder statesmen on the grid but, while his younger rivals said they respected his achievements, they claimed they are not intimidated by the Mercedes driver.
Leclerc, who is 23 and entering his fourth season in F1, was off the pace in his Ferrari last year but if the Scuderia can challenge, Hamilton’s record as the most successful driver in the sport does not overawe the Monégasque. “Whenever I put the helmet on every driver is the same,” he said.
“I have huge respect for everyone on the grid and Lewis has achieved so much in the sport, but when I put the helmet on I try to fight him as much as I do with anybody else on the grid.”
His new teammate this season is Carlos Sainz, whom Ferrari recruited from McLaren to replace Sebastian Vettel. The 26-year-old Spaniard has six years in F1 and is equally eager for the chance to mix it with Hamilton.
“I see a Mercedes and I want to fight that Mercedes as much as I want to fight anyone else,” he said. “I don’t see Lewis Hamilton inside the car. The respect I have for Lewis is huge and all drivers have a lot of respect for the guy who has seven world titles – it’s incredible – but you never think about who is inside the car, you always try to beat him.”
Last season, Ferrari’s sixth-place finish was their worst since 1980, when their 10th place was the only time they have finished outside the top six since the constructors’ championship began in 1958. Their car lacked power and suffered from drag and, with the chassis design largely frozen for 2021, it means making major steps forward will be a herculean task for the Scuderia.
The team principal, Mattia Binotto, believes they moved forward over the winter, however. He insists his team has to do better in 2021 but played down expectations. “Last year was a big, big disappointment. We cannot repeat such a bad result,” he said. “We need somehow to do better in 2021 but what counts is our will to win. I am not saying we will win. We need to be realistic.”
Binotto indicated that with a major regulation change in the offing for 2022, Ferrari are likely to shift their focus to next year’s car early in the campaign, suggesting they will be willing to take another difficult year in favour of coming back strongly. However he was emphatic that the team should display a strong positive mentality regardless.
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“The will to win is our commitment, our intention, our focus is being aware that each single detail counts, the determination will be important and showing progress,” he said. “That is what I am expecting. It’s a matter of mentality, team mentality, drivers’ mentality and, as team principal, I am fully aware of the responsibility I have being part of such a team.”
Hamilton has extended his contract with Mercedes for this year and is in every position to take his eighth title. He was a powerful exponent of equality and diversity last year, stridently supporting anti-racism and promoting the Black Lives Matter movement. Mercedes will launch their new car next week and on Friday Hamilton reiterated his determination to make a difference.
“Change is still needed. We have to keep striving for equality for all, in order to continue to see true and lasting change in our world,” he wrote on social media. “As long as I have air in my lungs, I will continue to fight for change in everything I do. I will work to create pathways and opportunities for kids of colour within sciences, engineering and creative disciplines.”
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