‘We got quite crazy with it’: Inside Formula 1’s driver chess club

Formula 1 knows all too well just what a game-changer a Netflix series has been for its profile, enjoying a boom off the back of Drive to Survive’s success.

‘We got quite crazy with it’: Inside Formula 1’s driver chess club

But it is not the only sport or pastime to enjoy such a surge. In October 2020, The Queen’s Gambit became a hit on Netflix, based on the 1983 novel about a female chess prodigy, played by Anya Taylor-Joy, who rises to become the greatest player in the world.

It resulted in a massive swell in interest for chess. Retailers reported sales for chessboards were up as much as 1,000%, according to The New York Times, while new sign-ups to chess.com, one of the world’s biggest online chess websites, were seven times greater than usual.

But it was not only the general public who entered 2021 with a heightened interest in playing chess, which, along with golf and padel, has become one of the major new hobbies for F1 drivers this year.

Ferrari drivers Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz Jr are the two drivers who have taken chess the most seriously this year. As well as excelling on-track as team-mates, helping lead Ferrari to third place in the constructors’ championship ahead of McLaren, Sainz and Leclerc have also become good mates off-track. It’s given a youthful, fresh feel to the atmosphere at Maranello.

Chess is an interest that has always been with Leclerc, but as he and Sainz looked for something to do during the quiet periods at the start of the season, it quickly got competitive.

“I’ve actually always been into it, I always liked chess as a child,” Leclerc told Motorsport.com.

“I think it was during all the media days at the beginning of the year, we didn’t know what to do and I was playing chess, and he saw me, and said OK, I’m downloading this.

“We got quite crazy with it in the first part of the year. We played against each other, and we’ve never stopped.”

It was a new obsession for Sainz in particular. “He freaking loves his chess with Charles,” said former McLaren team-mate Lando Norris. “I think I might have beaten him in the first game - then I just quit! I might be wrong, he’d probably tell you I’m lying…

“He was playing like hours and hours of it, him and Charles. I never knew he played before.”

From flights between races to between sessions in the car, and even during the lengthy rain delay at the Belgian Grand Prix, Leclerc and Sainz have been glued to their phones playing each other using an app.

 


And unsurprisingly, it has become incredibly competitive. In a video for Autosport earlier this year, Leclerc and Sainz debated who was better at chess and won games more often.

“Today we played on the plane, and it was 2-2,” Sainz told Leclerc. "And you didn’t want to play the last one. So if anything… I had the upper hand.”

“No, no,” replied Leclerc. “Remember Spa?” Sainz claimed he lost because he was so focused on the race.

 

“He’s very good at chess in the night, so whenever we come back from races from 9pm onwards, he’s very good,” said Leclerc. “But in the morning to the evening, I’m much better.”

But Leclerc and Sainz are not the only drivers to have gotten hugely into chess this year. Between sessions and various commitments down at Haas on race weekends, Mick Schumacher is another driver who will typically be found playing the game with any free time available.

A chess board has become part of Schumacher’s essential kit to take with him to races, giving him the chance to sit and play to unwind. Schumacher typically plays with Kai Schnapka, a physio who worked with Michael Schumacher towards the end of his F1 career before linking up with Mick in junior categories. Schumacher also played some games with Timo Glock, but is yet to play the Ferrari drivers.

Yet it was only by accident that Schumacher really got into chess. “We have a chess board at home, we’ve always been playing it here and there, but never properly,” Schumacher told Autosport/Motorsport.com.

“We were very big into backgammon, Kai and I. And then we actually stopped playing - we forgot our backgammon board, and the only thing we had was chess, so we started playing chess!

“Then for a time, we were mixing chess and backgammon, and now basically we just play chess. It’s fun, I beat him the whole time!”

Mick Schumacher, Haas F1 Team

Mick Schumacher, Haas F1 Team

Photo by: Haas F1 Team

Chess is something Schumacher has found himself improving at as the year went on. “At the beginning of the year I was losing most of them,” he said. “Then for some reason I’ve understood the game a bit better and started winning most of them.”

That kind of mental improvement is exactly the benefit Schumacher sees in test. Back in May, he discussed the benefit of playing such games in an interview with GP Racing.

“I feel like these games kind of bring focus back, as you always have to be switched on with your mind,” Schumacher said. “In a weekend, I always want to be mentally ready for every challenge that comes.”

Read Also:

Next year’s 23-race season is set to give drivers more time than ever on the road, meaning more flights and more periods at racetracks to fill between their racing duties - and for F1’s unofficial but growing chess club, perhaps some more members.

shares
comments

Related video

Honda: Too much mutual respect led to McLaren communications issues
Previous article

Honda: Too much mutual respect led to McLaren communications issues

Next article

Perez: Verstappen has made me raise my level in F1

Perez: Verstappen has made me raise my level in F1
Load comments
Unpacking the technical changes behind F1 2022's rules shake-up Prime

Unpacking the technical changes behind F1 2022's rules shake-up

Formula 1 cars will look very different this year as the long-awaited fresh rules finally arrive with the stated aim of improving its quality of racing. We break down what the return of 'ground effect' aerodynamics - and a flurry of other changes besides - means for the teams, and what fans can expect

Why F1's new era is still dogged by its old world problems Prime

Why F1's new era is still dogged by its old world problems

OPINION: The 2022 Formula 1 season is just weeks away from getting underway, but instead of focusing on what is to come, the attention still remains on what has been – not least the Abu Dhabi title decider controversy. That, plus other key talking points, must be resolved to allow the series to warmly welcome in its new era

Formula 1
Jan 20, 2022
The Schumacher trait that will give Haas hope in F1 2022 Prime

The Schumacher trait that will give Haas hope in F1 2022

Mick Schumacher’s knack of improving during his second season in a championship was a trademark of his junior formula career, so his progress during his rookie Formula 1 campaign with Haas was encouraging. His target now will be to turn that improvement into results as the team hopes to reap the rewards of sacrificing development in 2021

Formula 1
Jan 19, 2022
The “glorified taxi” driver central to F1’s continued safety push Prime

The “glorified taxi” driver central to F1’s continued safety push

As the driver of Formula 1’s medical car, Alan van der Merwe’s job is to wait – and hope his skills aren’t needed. James Newbold hears from F1’s lesser-known stalwart.

Formula 1
Jan 15, 2022
When BMW added F1 'rocket fuel' to ignite Brabham's 1983 title push Prime

When BMW added F1 'rocket fuel' to ignite Brabham's 1983 title push

There was an ace up the sleeve during the 1983 F1 title-winning season of Nelson Piquet and Brabham. It made a frontrunning car invincible for the last three races to see off Renault's Alain Prost and secure the combination's second world title in three years

Formula 1
Jan 13, 2022
How “abysmal” reliability blunted Brabham’s first winner Prime

How “abysmal” reliability blunted Brabham’s first winner

Brabham’s first world championship race-winning car was held back by unreliable Climax engines – or so its creators believed, as STUART CODLING explains

Formula 1
Jan 10, 2022
The steps Norris took to reach a new level in the 2021 F1 season Prime

The steps Norris took to reach a new level in the 2021 F1 season

Lando Norris came of age as a grand prix driver in 2021. McLaren’s young ace is no longer an apprentice or a quietly capable number two – he’s proved himself a potential winner in the top flight and, as Stuart Codling finds out, he’s ready to stake his claim to greatness…

Formula 1
Jan 9, 2022
How Fangio set the bar for Schumacher and Hamilton in F1 Prime

How Fangio set the bar for Schumacher and Hamilton in F1

Juan Manuel Fangio, peerless on track and charming off it, established the gold standard of grand prix greatness. Nigel Roebuck recalls a remarkable champion.

Formula 1
Jan 8, 2022