Carlos Sainz is emerging as the surprise of the 2021 Formula 1 season as he helps steady the ship on choppy waters at Ferrari, after a few volatile years on the driver front at Maranello.
In a nutshell, the Spaniard was deemed unwanted by Red Bull, marked time at Renault, energized McLaren before Ferrari came knocking, and he is now in the best team in the sport’s history.
However, times are not as good as can be at Maranello. A woeful car, relative to the pace-setters, has not helped Sainz nor his teammate Charles Leclerc.
Nevertheless, Sainz has fast ingratiated himself with the team and their engineers. No easy task for a new driver to arrive at a team ‘belonging’ to a much-loved driver as is the case of Leclerc – homegrown and groomed for the Reds – with a long-term deal in his pocket; very much the Scuderia’s chosen one.
In this landscape, in which winning a Grand Prix means beating your teammate, Sainz had his work cut out, not only to beat one of the most highly regarded drivers on the grid, but to also win the hearts and minds of the team, Tifosi, and Italian media who collectively have a deep affection for his teammate.
But those hearts and minds are now also embracing the Spaniard, his work ethic and commitment to the cause has been impressive for both team insiders and outsiders looking in.
Furthermore, Sainz is no fool and knows that Leclerc is his target and respects that fact, as he eloquently pointed out in an interview with BBC earlier this year: “First of all, you go into this team kind of making a dream come true. So there is a lot of excitement and a lot of nervousness before doing your first race, your first test.
“But I have managed to keep that nervousness on the positive side and I am actually enjoying a lot the process of coming to live in Italy, spending a lot of time in Maranello, a lot of time in the factory, getting to know the whole Ferrari history and what surrounds it. Getting to know the culture also, and just embracing the challenge and trying to maximise it.”
It is no secret that Carlos Sainz Senior was always intent on his son joining Ferrari. From day one, that was the plan and be sure, Junior in his father, has the best minder in the business to depend on.
For Team Sainz, leaving McLaren for Ferrari was still a big call considering that the British team, where Carlos was plug and play with rising star Lando Norris, is on the up but the lure of the great Italian team is too hard to resist for any race driver.
However, it was clear to him (and everyone for that matter) Ferrari were not in a good place at the start of this season when he walked through the staff entrance at Via Abetone Inferiore.
Sainz explained the decision-making process: “Obviously I did think about it. When you sign a deal, you consider all these options, but immediately as I started to have my first conversations with Mattia [Binotto] and everyone, I realised that I was going to have equal opportunity.
“So, maybe my first year in the team is going to be challenging to match Charles’ results. But I rely a lot on my talents and my work ethic and the way I approach things and even if the first year is going to be tough, I am expecting in the future to be close to him or even hopefully a bit ahead.
“Once I knew they were going to let me perform at my highest level without putting any barriers to it, for me it was a no-brainer – because we are athletes, we are self-confident, we all believe we are the best and I’m just waiting to get a bit better, a bit more at home with the team to try to perform at a higher level.”
As for teammate Leclerc, and rival number one, Sainz relished the challenge: “If you want to test your qualifying speed against anyone, it is against Charles Leclerc. I think he is the best qualifier on the grid. He is one of the greatest if not the greatest talent in F1 now, and I am actually getting to learn now why he is performing at such a high level.
“It is not only speed. He also has a very good work ethic, he is very good at team building, he has a lot of strengths that make him such a strong driver. I am loving the challenge, to be honest, because I know there is no one better than him probably as a single lap with a Ferrari F1 car.”
At the same time, Sainz has enough status to point out the problems he and Leclerc have with the lamentable SF21 this season: “I would say right now if you put any driver in a Ferrari, it will be difficult [for them] to out-qualify Charles because he has that three years experience, he knows exactly how to pull out a lap in Q3 with this car, he knows exactly what the car does and he has the talent to extract that performance with a Ferrari.
“Then, if you want to go and beat Max in the Red Bull it would be very complicated, and Lewis in the Mercedes and Lando in the McLaren – guys that are performing at their best with a car because they have the experience with that car.”
Typically F1 teammates tend to co-exist in harmony until the team delivers a winning car, at which point either one gets more out of it than the other and co-exist accordingly or they both find the sweetspot and crash into each other trying to beat one another.
Sainz intends to avoid conflict: “Inside the craziness of any Formula 1 driver. I try to be a bit pragmatic, a bit philosophical about the whole thing and I try to take things easy, especially with teammates.
“There tends to be a lot of competition with teammates and I am the first one who wants to finish ahead of Charles in every race, in every qualifying. But at the moment in Ferrari, there is a priority number one that is to take the team forward as quickly as possible back to the top.
“And having that priority in mind probably you don’t give the relationship with the team-mate as much importance. Maybe you take away one percent of importance from it, which is still important.”
While Leclerc has often been compared to the late Gilles Villeneuve for their style and approach to racing, it would be fair to say that Sainz is more Alain Prost in his approach to F1. A deep contrast to Charles’ style that in the end might work for the team’s two alpha males.
It’s early days for the partnership, so it’s all good for now between the two Charlies, says Carlos of Charles: “He’s a great guy. I enjoy working with him outside of the car. We have very similar passions outside motorsports. We share a lot of hobbies, we talk a lot about them and we play a lot of sport outside F1, and it makes the relationship a bit more relaxed.
“The fact that you can get on well with the teammate outside the car, it makes the relationship inside the car also a bit more relaxed.
“One thing I discovered in McLaren is what a difference it makes for an athlete to perform in an atmosphere and in a team where they appreciate your value, where they give you the importance and the perfect environment to perform at the highest level, psychologically but also technically.”
It was not always the case for the 27-year-old from Madrid: “I had to adapt to a new team after three years with Toro Rosso but that year no one was talking about adapting to new teams.
“It feels like this is the new thing now because five drivers have changed teams, but back in 2019 no one heard about the challenge of changing teams and I was, like, putting my hand up and saying: ‘Guys, this takes time and I’m going to need time to perform my best.’
“But no one was buying the story. Now it looks like more people are buying the story, which is true. Anyway, I didn’t have my best year.
“At McLaren, I definitely found my home and I’m really thankful to Zak Brown and everyone in the team for giving me that two-year deal. I managed to pay them back in terms of results.”
Ironically, with McLaren on a steep rise and Ferrari on an alarming decline, Sainz had to grab the chance when suiting up in the legendary Red became an option: “I couldn’t say no to that opportunity and I jumped the boat into Ferrari hoping to create a very similar environment and situation to McLaren, expecting that was going to be possible.
“So far it has worked really well because I found a really nice team, a good atmosphere here and I’m enjoying myself a lot.”
No doubt his legendary father was instrumental in getting Carlos Junior into F1, but while many doors may have been opened for him thanks to his name, the pressure to perform because of that same name is a double-edged sword.
“It’s had some very good things for me, some very positive stuff,” admitted the Ferrari driver. “And some negative stuff, let’s say, or some extra challenges that I had to face when I was a kid.
“If we start with the challenging stuff, the difficult stuff, when I was 11-12 years old and I started competing and was going to all these go-kart centres, no-one called me by my name. I was always ‘the son of Carlos Sainz’.
“‘The son of Carlos Sainz is here in the go-kart centre, he is doing this lap time, my oldest son or the other kids are doing these lap times so they are quicker than the son of Carlos Sainz.’ Or ‘my son is going to make it to F1′.
“It was tough. I was no one, basically, and I felt this pressure. I was the centre of attention at all these go-kart centres and I felt the kids wanted to beat me maybe more than they wanted to beat the other kids. But very quickly as I matured I changed that a bit into positive. So the extra pressure aged 15-16 of now driving for the Red Bull junior team was not affecting me maybe so much because I had gone through all that pressure before.
“And since then, honestly, having [my father] a two-time world champion guiding my career and giving me all the advice that an athlete needs to perform at a very high level was only positive. He has given such huge advice,” and added: “He is the first guy I call always.”
As for the below-par patch his team is in at this stage of their illustrious history, Sainz said: “I feel like the challenges we are facing with Ferrari now need or rely on a bit of a medium to long-term period of time. In that sense, I am very happy with how this first half of the year is going, and I feel like I still have a lot of potential and a lot of speed to find.
“In the future, I want to be part of this team and honestly I don’t think too much of who is on the radar. I know if I perform at a very high level and I keep working hard and the way I’m working I shouldn’t be too worried about what’s around.
“I’m going to focus on myself, keep my objectives in check and try to accomplish them. And I know if I manage to accomplish those then everything should come naturally.”
After a strong third place at the Russian Grand Prix, after mayhem descended over Sochi in the final laps, Sainz now leads Leclerc in the drivers’ standings, the Spaniard is sixth overall.
In the aftermath of his podium finish at Sochi, the very vocal hearts and minds of the Italian media showed big respect to Sainz’s performance on the day.
Corriere della Sera: “Strategy, patience and risk. This is how Carlos Sainz took Ferrari to the podium. Three podiums with Ferrari against one from Leclerc, he is becoming the leader. Sainz was ahead during the first 14 laps and gave the illusion that winning was possible. When the others rubbered up for the water, Carlitos went upstream.
“The end gave [Sainz] back what the race took away from him due to an early pit stop for ‘graining!’ which demolished the perfection of his first laps. Remarkable comeback after a start from the dirty side with inevitable wheelspin, in which he opted for the right side to take advantage of Norris’s wake and move to the lead.
“This highlighted one of Carlos’ most valuable characteristics: patience. The water helped the Spaniard to get back up after suffering too much in the dry. McLaren at this time is superior in everything [to Ferrari] but in the end, the lucidity and opportunism were telling: Carlos obeyed, unlike his former teammate Norris.”
Gazzetta dello Sport: “Determination of steel from Sainz without triumphalism, as Mattia Binotto pointed out. The podium is a reward for the driver and the work of the Scuderia that this weekend whose main offensive weapon was Spanish. It must be said that Sainz was good, he gave us emotions on Saturday and Sunday.
“In qualifying, he was one of the most lucid with the team when it came to selecting the dry tires, a wise decision that led to an unexpected front row.”
“On Sunday he did better, avoiding McLaren of poleman Lando Norris at the start. Carlos took the lead in the race and handled Maranello’s direct rival well. Despite the ‘graining’ Carlos was not discouraged, he struggled but when rain arrived the rain he was ready like on Saturday: correct decision and a podium ahead of Ricciardo’s McLaren.
“Being on the podium is a sign that Ferrari is starting to be prepared when opportunities arise and in F1 responsiveness is a virtue. A consistent weekend – the front row, a great start, and a podium behind the 2021 kings but ahead of McLaren. Fighting beyond the limits of the SF21, third place is a reward for Ferrari.”
Sky Italia: “In his first season with Ferrari, the Spaniard is performing beyond expectations. Characteristics like his are important for a team that wants to fight again for the constructors’ title and also the drivers’ title, of course. It is essential to be able to count. on a solid team player like Carlos.”
📻 “A team effort right there!”
— Scuderia Ferrari (@ScuderiaFerrari) September 27, 2021