Inside the Formula 1 drivers’ chess club
But it’s not the only sport or hobby enjoying such momentum. 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 becomes the world’s greatest female player.
This resulted in a massive wave of interest in chess. Retailers reported chess board sales rose 1,000%, according to The New York Times, while new listings at chess.com, one of the world’s largest online chess websites, were seven times higher than usual.
But it’s not just the general public who have entered 2021 with an increased interest in the game of 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 the track as teammates, helping Ferrari take third place in the Constructors’ Championship ahead of McLaren, Sainz and Leclerc also became good friends off the track. This gives a youthful and fresh touch to the atmosphere of Maranello.
Chess is an interest that has always been with Leclerc, but as he and Sainz were looking for something to do during the quiet periods at the start of the season, it quickly became competitive.
“I’ve actually always been into it, I always loved chess as a kid,” 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 uploading this.
“We got pretty crazy with it in the first part of the year. We played against each other and we never stopped.
It was a new obsession for Sainz in particular. “He loves his failures with Charles,” said former McLaren team-mate Lando Norris. “I think I might have beaten him in the first game – so I just gave up! I could be wrong, he would probably tell you I’m lying…
“He was playing like hours and hours, him and Charles. I didn’t know he was playing before.
From flights between races to between sessions in the car, and even during the long 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 winning games more often.
“Today we played on the plane, and it was 2-2,” Sainz told Leclerc. “And you didn’t want to play last. So if anything…I had the upper hand.”
“No, no,” Leclerc replied. “Do you remember Spa?” Sainz claimed he lost because he was so focused on the race.
“He’s very good at night chess, so every time we come back from races starting at 9 p.m. he’s very good,” Leclerc said. “But from morning to night, I’m much better.”
But Leclerc and Sainz aren’t the only pilots to have gone all out in chess this year. Between sessions and various commitments at Haas on race weekends, Mick Schumacher is another driver who will usually play the game with whatever free time is available.
A chessboard is now part of Schumacher’s essential kit to take with him to the races, giving him the chance to sit down and play to relax. Schumacher usually plays with Kai Schnapka, a physio who worked with Michael Schumacher towards the end of his F1 career before joining Mick in the junior categories. Schumacher has also played a few matches with Timo Glock, but has yet to face the Ferrari drivers.
Yet it was only by accident that Schumacher really got into chess. “We have a board at home, we’ve always played it here and there, but never properly,” Schumacher told Autosport/Motorsport.com.
“We were very into backgammon, Kai and I. And then we stopped playing – we forgot our backgammon board, and the only thing we had was chess, so we started playing chess!
“Then for a while we mixed chess and backgammon, and now we just play chess. It’s fun, I beat it all the time!
Mick Schumacher, Haas F1 Team
Photo by: Haas F1 Team
Chess is something that Schumacher has improved over the year. “At the start of the year, I was losing most of them,” he said. “Then for some reason I understood the game a little better and started winning most of them.”
This kind of mental improvement is exactly the benefit Schumacher sees in the test. In May, he discussed the benefits of playing such games in an interview with GP Racing.
“I feel like these games kind of bring attention back, because you always have to be on with your mind,” Schumacher said. “In a weekend, I always want to be mentally ready for every challenge that comes my way.”
Next year’s 23-race season should give drivers more time on the road than ever before, which means more flying and more time at racetracks to fill between racing duties – and for the club. unofficial but growing F1 chess, maybe a few more members.