Carlos Sainz took a leaf out of Alain Prost’s book in delivering a lesson in canny racecraft worthy of Formula 1’s great ‘Professor’ at the Singapore Grand Prix on Sunday.
The Ferrari driver lived up to his nickname of ‘Smooth Operator’ by controlling the race from pole position and recognizing that sometimes going slower is a surer route to success – particularly on a track where overtaking is difficult.
France’s four-time F1 World Champion Prost, who earned his professorial nickname for the smooth and cerebral way he read a race, would have approved.
The Spaniard could have tried to pull away from the pack in the early stages but safety cars are always a feature of the Marina Bay circuit, their deployment capable of turning a race on its head, and so he kept everything under control.
Sainz deliberately lapped slower than he might have done, keeping the pack within range and too close to make a strategic pitstop work.
Then, after pitting when the safety car came out on lap 20 he managed the pace so the hard tyres could go the distance.
After Mercedes pitted for fresh mediums during a virtual safety car with 18 laps to go, and started reeling in the top three, Sainz saw another way of getting the win without going faster.
He slowed down to keep second-placed Lando Norris within DRS (drag reduction) range, helping his former McLaren team mate slipstream to defend against Mercedes’ George Russell while also buying time.
“This is a sort of strategy that you always keep in the back of your head in tracks like Singapore, where it might come in useful at some point,” he said, joking that he and Norris should buy each other drinks.
“By giving him DRS I saved his P2, and by him getting my DRS and defending as well as he did from Russell, he helped me to get P1,” he explained.
Sainz did not need the Ferrari pit wall to tell him what to do
“I always felt like I had the head space and the pace in hand to do whatever I wanted to do,” he told reporters, after the grand prix.
“I’m not going to lie, you’re under pressure and you obviously are very close to making any kind of mistake but I felt under control, I felt like I could manage well and we brought it home. That was the best feeling,” the Ferrari driver insisted.
The fine balance was between letting Norris get too close, and trying to overtake, and not close enough and losing the connection.
“There was in particular one lap that I think Lando defended into 16-17, and then I had to slow down a lot into (turns) one-two-three to give him DRS again,” he said.
“I think that move actually, saved my race, saved also Lando’s P2 because I feel like there, if not, I would have been also dead meat. If the Mercs would have passed Lando, I think they could have got past me pretty easily,” the two-time grand prix winner reckoned.
Ferrari boss Fred Vasseur said his driver had made it easy for the team.
“It was a strange feeling for me on the pit wall because I was not too much stressed the last couple of laps… partly it’s the feeling that Carlos was really in control of the situation,” said the Frenchman.