Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz Jr. Are Ready to Make Ferrari Formula 1 Champions Once Again

Charles Leclerc of Monaco and Ferrari and team mate Carlos Sainz of Spain and Ferrari speak with Sebastian Vettel of Germany and Aston Martin F1 on the grid during Day One of F1 Testing at Bahrain International Circuit on March 12, 2021 in Bahrain, Bahrain.
Charles Leclerc of Monaco and Ferrari and team mate Carlos Sainz of Spain and Ferrari speak with Sebastian Vettel of Germany and Aston Martin F1 on the grid during Day One of F1 Testing at Bahrain International Circuit on March 12, 2021 in Bahrain, Bahrain.

Dan Istitene/Formula 1 via Getty

"As drivers, we always have good hunting grounds. And this is one of my favorites," said Scuderia Ferrari driver Carlos Sainz Jr. while inside the Circuit of the Americas race track in Austin, Texas, last month.

Sainz, along with his teammate, Charles Leclerc, was in Texas for the U.S. Grand Prix, the 17th race of the Formula 1 season, where they'd later have a strong showing by finishing in 7th and 4th position, respectively, during the Oct. 24 race.

The USGP is unique because it's the only F1 race in the country and just one of three in North America. That means unless American fans are willing to travel outside of the states for the other 21 races, it was the place to be.

"The atmosphere in the city is great," 27-year-old Sainz, originally from Spain, said of Austin. "The number of people that turn up for the Grand Prix, not only at the circuit, but in the city, and the vibe that the city gets during the Grand Prix, is great."

For three days of events, tens of thousands of F1 fans descended on Circuit of the Americas, braving the hot Texas sun to catch a glimpse of their favorite drivers. The place felt like a theme park, a sentiment that was reinforced by the zip line, Ferris wheel, and an ax-throwing range set up just inside the gates.

And just like Disneyland, there were dozens of shuttle drivers perpetually at work, moving hoards of fans dressed in Ferrari red, McLaren orange, Red Bull blue, and Mercedes black, all around the circuit's 3.4 mile-long track.

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If there were ever any doubt that F1 was gaining popularity in the U.S., one step inside the Grand Prix put that to rest.

"I love it. The mood just in the whole U.S. is something that I enjoy so much," 24-year-old Leclerc said. "I mean, everything is so huge here. Everything seems possible, and it's just an amazing feeling."

Much of the buzz could be traced back to Drive to Survive, the Netflix docuseries that premiered in 2019 and most recently aired its third season in March.

In a New York Times report, ESPN — which exclusively broadcasts F1 races in America — said race viewership had increased from around 547,000 in 2018 to nearly a million in 2021.

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"I think it massively boosted Formula 1, and it's great because it can seem like complex sport from the outside, but then, once you understand the fundamentals, it is actually an extremely interesting sport," Leclerc said of Drive to Survive. "It managed to simplify a little bit of our sport, and other than that, humanize the image of us drivers. In the end, we are normal persons behind the visors, and I think this was great."

The increase in popularity has had a real effect on the sport — next year, F1 plans to add Miami to its schedule, creating a second race in the states.

Sainz and Leclerc sat down with PEOPLE at the USGP to talk about life on the track and how they're ready to take Ferrari, and F1, to the next level.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Charles, you've talked before about not feeling nervous while racing. Where did that fearlessness come from, and was it something you had to work on?

Leclerc: I did work on it when I was younger. Around 11 years old, I went to a center in Italy that was taking care of athletes for the physical preparation, but also for the mental preparation, and just to be at 100 percent all the time. Obviously, there are moments where you are more under pressure, and in these moments you need to be able to give your 100 percent, and not leave anything on the table, because especially at such a high level in Formula 1, you need to be able to be on your "A" game every lap you do.

So there's been preparation on that, but it's also part of me, and it's my mentality. It's always been my mentality, just focusing on the job, and I've always told myself that the pressure won't give me anything more to put into the car, so I'm just trying to think about optimizing everything that I have in control. I am confident then that if I do everything the way it should be done, the results will come.

Speaking of having that type of mentality, Carlos, you've said before that your father — rally car driver Carlos Sainz Sr. — helped give you a "champions mentality." Can you talk about that?

Sainz: I think he's one of the guys who was praised for his attitude toward the team and toward racing. So I've been tremendously lucky to have him as a mentor. He traveled with me to pretty much every race when I was a kid. And he was constantly giving me advice on the mentality and the work ethic that a champion needs to have.

Carlos Sainz of Spain and Ferrari looks on from the grid during Day One of F1 Testing at Bahrain International Circuit on March 12, 2021 in Bahrain, Bahrain.
Carlos Sainz of Spain and Ferrari looks on from the grid during Day One of F1 Testing at Bahrain International Circuit on March 12, 2021 in Bahrain, Bahrain.

Joe Portlock/Getty Carlos Sainz Jr.

Having him by my side, I was one of the luckiest guys. It came with its negatives, like having rivals on the track, maybe they were more aggressive with me or whatever, but it came with positives, which is having a two-time rally champion and one of the best drivers in rallying history give me advice every single race.

Did you feel becoming a driver was your destiny?

Sainz: I had to fight for it. If I wouldn't have fought for it and if I wouldn't have made the changes that I did to my attitude, to my way of driving, to my way of going through the different good and bad moments that I went through, I don't believe I would've made it to F1. So I don't think it was destiny. I believe more in hard work. I believe more in dedication, in discipline, in trying to become always a better version of yourself whilst trying to stay true to your values and to the way you see.

Charles, your late father, Hervé Leclerc, also raced cars in Formula 3. How did he influence your career?

Leclerc: My father was always a huge help for me since the beginning, he gave me a passion for the sport, and he helped me massively in the first years, especially when I had to learn all about the basics of the sport.

What my father also taught me is, to be honest with myself. And this is, for me, the most important. Especially when you arrive in Formula 1, you've got a lot of people around you, not because you are a nice person, but because you are a Formula 1 driver. And you always hear nice things about yourself, which is not always helpful. He taught me to be honest with myself, to look in the mirror after a race and say, "Okay, Charles, what could you have done better in this race?" This allows me to be critical of myself, and try to learn from it.

Of course, there is an inherent danger in motorsports. Charles, you experienced tragedy when your close friend, Anthoine Hubert, died in a crash during an F2 race in August 2019. How do you balance your passion for racing with the risks?

Leclerc: I just love this sport. I think I knew [from an early age] ... that it was very dangerous, even though it has improved massively in the last years. But it is still, and it will always be, a dangerous sport because of the speed we are going. Of course, I wish none of that happened, but it didn't change my view on the sport that I love. I love the adrenaline I get, I love the feeling of being in control of a car that is going so quick.

Charles Leclerc of Monaco and Ferrari celebrates in parc ferme during qualifying ahead of the F1 Grand Prix of Azerbaijan at Baku City Circuit on June 05, 2021 in Baku, Azerbaijan.
Charles Leclerc of Monaco and Ferrari celebrates in parc ferme during qualifying ahead of the F1 Grand Prix of Azerbaijan at Baku City Circuit on June 05, 2021 in Baku, Azerbaijan.

Mark Thompson/Getty Charles Leclerc

The competitiveness there is in the paddock, and just trying to gain the last thousandths of a second to get in front of the others — this is what drives me. Every time I wake up in the morning, every time I go to sleep the night, I only think about where can I gain those last thousandths to be a better driver.

What motivates you, Carlos?

Sainz: I think driving is something I've always enjoyed, and it gives me the rush and that feel of doing something particularly different and high levels of adrenaline. It's something that I'm very good at, so you always enjoy things that you're good at doing. But what actually gives me the drive is competition. Knowing that I'm up against the 19 best drivers in the world, going to the best circuits of the world, working with the best engineers in the world, with the best mechanics, with the best marketing staff, you know you're working with excellence in every single department.

You want to be the best at that, and you want to be the one winning. That's what gives me the drive to keep pushing, keep trying to improve myself and be the best driver in the world.

Let's talk about the thrill of racing — there are only a few people on the planet who will ever know what it's like to be in an F1 car. How would you describe it?

Leclerc: For me, it's the adrenaline. I couldn't live without adrenaline in my life. It just feels very, very special. It's difficult to put into words what we feel. The best way to describe it is a roller coaster that you can control, and we are going at speeds that are just incredible. You just need to always think ahead of where you are on track because things are going so quickly.

Sainz: It's an extremely difficult thing to describe. I think you cannot imagine the forces and the speed that we are going through corners. When you realize that we are doing corners over 5G, 6G, I don't know if people understand what a g-force is. But just to give you an example, if I'm going through a 5G to 6G corner over 200 miles an hour, if my head plus the helmet weighs [19, 22 pounds], my head is going to weigh [over 110 pounds] when going through a corner.

The amount of force that you need to produce on your neck muscles to hold [132 pounds] on your head for one hour and a half for each corner? All of a sudden the sport seems a lot more physical than what you would imagine.

Ferrari is the most successful team in Formula 1 history, but teams like Red Bull and Mercedes have been dominating for more than a decade (the last time a Ferrari won a Constructors' Championship was in 2008). How do you two take the team to the next level? What qualities will be important in becoming a future F1 champion?

Sainz: Ferrari has always been there fighting for championships. And in an attempt to take the next step and be champions, there were some mistakes being made. And last year, the car was all of a sudden a lot slower than what the team expected. We took not one but two or three steps backward with the intention of trying to put a car together to win. So we made our mistakes, and now, we are in the process of recovering from the mistakes and from the bad moment.

I think this year the team has progressed a lot. We've done an incredible leap forward, probably one of the biggest leaps forwards that the sport has seen recently, and we are on our way back up. How long will it take us to be back where we want to be? Time will tell, but I think the team is doing everything they can to be back winning as soon as possible.

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Leclerc: I think there are different ways to become successful, and a season like this year is a good example of it. You've got two drivers that have different qualities that are fighting for the title, which are Lewis [Hamilton] and Max [Verstappen].

Lewis is very calm, very consistent, very quick all the time, not so aggressive, but strong. And Max, on the other side, is very, very aggressive, but strong, too. And they are two different types of drivers, but you can make it work in both ways.

What's most important in Formula 1 is to be able to build a group. This may be something that is not clear for someone that is new to Formula 1. You see two cars racing, but don't think how many people are working behind the scenes. We've got thousands of people in Monaco, working to develop one car. And as a driver, you need to be strong to put all these people behind you, and for them to be motivated enough to design the best car possible. That for me is what a champion needs to have.