Leclerc has consolidated himself as the early championship leader after taking two wins from the first three races, while a DNF for Sainz at the most recent round in Australia has left him trailing his Ferrari teammate by 38 points. 

So far at least, Sainz has been unable to challenge for victories, with the Spaniard finishing a distant second behind Leclerc in the season-opener in Bahrain before going on to complete the podium with third in Saudi Arabia. 

A retirement at the end of what proved to be a disastrous weekend for Sainz in Melbourne leaves Leclerc as the Ferrari driver in the pound seat to fight for the title. 

The Monegasque boasts a 34-point lead over Mercedes’ George Russell and is 46 points clear of Red Bull’s Max Verstappen. Despite suffering two DNFs in three races, the reigning world champion has proven to be Leclerc’s closest challenger.

Sainz’s Australian Grand Prix weekend started with promise but began to unravel in qualifying when he lost his best lap in Q3 due to an unfortunately-timed red flag, before an issue starting his F1-75 left him beginning his final run with tyres in the incorrect temperature window. 

He went from appearing to have the pace to potentially challenge for his maiden pole position to ending his race in the gravel bed on the second lap after crashing out of 14th place following an awful start from ninth on the grid. 

Asked if it had been the worst weekend of his F1 career, Sainz responded: “It’s a difficult one because I don’t remember my other 100 and something races in F1, so it’s tricky to know if it’s the worst one. 

“But it’s definitely a weekend where I was a lot more at home with the car and was putting together some strong laps during the weekend and all of a sudden everything turned out to be, probably yes, one of my most disappointing weekends in F1. 

“The most important thing is that I learn from it, and we also learn as a team from it to be more perfect, to be more strong and more robust in all the aspects and keeping in mind that there’s still 20 races to go and anything can happen.” 

Sainz makes a valid point. There are still over 500 points up for grabs in F1’s longest-ever season and things could quickly turn around in his favour, but there is no denying that Leclerc has hit the ground running with the new generation of cars. 

Sainz is operating at a high level but he is ultimately falling just short of what Leclerc is able to achieve at this stage. His DNF in Australia ended a 17-race points-scoring streak that stretched back to last year’s Styrian Grand Prix, underlining the 27-year-old’s remarkable consistency since joining Ferrari. 

And Sainz believes that Leclerc deserves more credit for his impressive start to the year, insisting it is not just down to Ferrari having a very competitive car. 

“Charles has understood this car very well and he is doing great things with it,” Sainz said. “Of course it is a great car but I also believe he is putting together some very strong races and some very strong performances. 

“I was excited about qualifying and the race, just to see how much progress I felt like I did. But unfortunately the weekend went how it did and the [points streak] came to an end. 

“There was always going to be a race where things went not my way and there was always going to be a race where I ended up doing a mistake. The important thing is to learn from and to come back and try and be more perfect. 

“With the car that we have this year, if you do not finish, you are going to lose a lot of points that you could have scored and this is a great example of that. I need to make sure we can put it together better next time.”

What comes next for Sainz? 

Despite Leclerc’s healthy advantage over Sainz and the challenge posed by Red Bull’s rapid yet fragile RB18, Ferrari boss Mattia Binotto is adamant it is still too early in the season to consider team orders. 

“It's only three races which have been done now,” Binotto said. “There are still 20 races left, hopefully 19 or 20. So the championship is still very long.

“Our drivers are free to fight, and I am really looking forward and enjoying that they are battling for a good place, and first place, if possible.”

Ferrari stressed that Leclerc and Sainz would be given equal status at the start of 2022 and while that remains the case for the time being, the Italian outfit could be forced to throw all its weight behind one driver at some stage as it looks to end its 14-year wait for a world title. 

How Ferrari - and its drivers - handle that scenario if it does unfold will be fascinating. Would Sainz play the team game if he was asked to give up the chance of his maiden grand prix win, for example? It would certainly put him in an awkward situation. 

Sainz’s contractual situation also needs to be taken into account, with an extended deal in the works and on the verge of being signed off according to some reports. Sainz is more likely to get the terms he desires if he proves he will play the team game when called upon. Until the contract is signed, Ferrari holds the power. 

The upcoming run of races will be critical for determining which way Sainz’s season goes and whether he will emerge as a true contender, or be forced to play wingman.