Carlos Sainz was curious to measure himself against Charles Leclerc at Ferrari.
Sainz arrived as a proven, professional midfield leader, but his younger team-mate was already a two-time grand prix winner and a symbol of the next generation of Formula 1 super-talents.
Leclerc was also widely considered one of the fastest drivers in F1, capable of head-turning, seemingly impossible qualifying performances – a reputation enhanced by some of his virtuoso efforts with the troubled 2020 Ferrari.
So Sainz was curious. But not frightened. Because this hasn’t been something new to him – he was partnered with Max Verstappen as an F1 rookie, the often underrated Nico Hulkenberg at Renault, and then Lando Norris at McLaren.
And while he hasn’t perhaps always got the credit he’s deserved for his performances against those drivers, Sainz has never doubted himself – or felt his worth questioned by the people who matter.
“At the point that you sign a Ferrari contract it must mean that you must have done something well in your career to be able to get that drive,” he tells a trio of interviewers including The Race.
“I’ve always honestly felt really valued by the teams that I’ve been to. So, when I left Toro Rosso, when I left Renault, when I left McLaren and now in Ferrari I felt like people are rating me highly.
“Every time I’ve jumped in a Formula 1 car, it doesn’t matter if it was with Max, with Nico, with Lando or with Charles, I don’t feel like I’ve been slower than them or I don’t feel like I haven’t been able to match what they do.
“And I beat them very often and, if anything, I’ve been able to take them to the limit in pretty much every qualifying session or every race.
“I take that as a positive, because I know that these are now considered, and considered by me to be honest, to be one of the top three guys in the grid, and I love the challenge.
“They help me to be a better driver and I take the positive from being team-mates with these guys.
“This also gives me confidence, and it gave me confidence before being in Ferrari that even going up against Charles I shouldn’t be scared of anything after being team-mates with Lando and Max.
“I just take the challenge, take on Ferrari and see how I can drive against Charles.
“I shouldn’t be concerned about being on the pace or not because if I manage to cover two things – if I manage to be integrated in the team and comfortable with the set-up – then I know that I can be a match to anyone.”
Sainz walks the tightrope of confidence and arrogance superbly. He is convincing without sounding braggadocious.
Like all top sportspeople Sainz’s ambition is “to be better than anyone”. He feels he’s had a “promising” start to life at Ferrari, which is evidently his best chance to achieve that.
After navigating his way through the midfield mire – including that strong first year-and-a-bit alongside Verstappen at Toro Rosso where they were very close on pace but various reasons (mainly reliability) meant Sainz’s outright race results reflected poorly – Sainz is now halfway through a career-defining opportunity.
If we check the scoreboard, he is comparing extremely well to Leclerc. Sainz leads 83-80 in the championship and has a pair of podium finishes to his name.
His qualifying performances have been weaker, averaging a grid position three places behind Leclerc, but their average race result is almost identical.
Now, if we’re going to look past the black-and-white results of Sainz’s career to make a fairer judgement of him as a driver, we need to do the same for the 2021 season.
Leclerc has been the quicker driver and his peaks have been higher. Two pole positions when Ferrari peaked in Monaco and Azerbaijan were stunning.
The basic points of comparison for the season so far do slightly flatter Sainz. But considering the quality of the driver he is up against, that should not be held against him. Even being slightly behind Leclerc at this stage would be a good achievement.
“There were a lot of question marks going into the season,” Sainz admits. “I knew I was going up against one of the fastest if not the fastest guy on the grid right now, with a car that he knows very well, with a team that he is already very integrated with.
“There was always a question mark of where I’m going to fit into that and where I’m going to be, but I must say that I’m happy with the adaptation process. If anything, right from the start the speed has been there. Pretty much every weekend I have managed to be very, very quick at every point.
“Maybe the thing that I’m lacking still is to be consistently putting the whole weekend together, which is probably what brings you the points in the end and what brings the consistency and the whole picture together.
“It is something that I hope that – as I get more races with the team and we get to know each other better – is just going to get better and better.
“Already the two Austrias and Paul Ricard, I felt those three consecutive weekends I managed to put a pretty good weekend together and now it’s time to keep improving in that sense.”
Sainz’s efforts have been complicated slightly by Ferrari’s potential to switch from being a pole-claiming car to being buried in the midfield. A lot of work has gone into unpicking its tyre troubles at certain races, most notably France where Sainz was on great form and was superior to Leclerc but happened to pick a race where Ferrari fell off a cliff to achieve that.
The efforts to address that have coincided with Ferrari dipping in qualifying form but being stronger in the races. Leclerc’s excellent British Grand Prix is the exception to a clear trend since France.
Look at how their respective form fares up to and including France, and the four races since.
*Excludes Hungary Q2 crash
|1 to 7||7.4||6.7|
|8 to 11||5||5.7*|
*Excludes Hungary DNF
Sainz’s podium in Hungary obviously boosts his numbers over the recent sample set of four race results but the pattern of Ferrari becoming weaker in qualifying form is undeniable.
That’s a shame because Sainz needs a consistent situation to judge if he’s making progress in the areas he needs to. But to return to an earlier point, a deficit to Leclerc is hardly criminal. Especially as Sainz has been comfortably the most impressive of the drivers in the spotlight because they’ve changed teams.
That group includes Daniel Ricciardo, Sebastian Vettel, Fernando Alonso and Sergio Perez. Sainz challenged Leclerc from the beginning of the season in a way none of that quartet did to their respective team-mates.
And while Alonso is looking particularly impressive as the season progresses, only Perez (up against Verstappen) could claim to be facing a challenge like Sainz’s against Leclerc.
“I’ve always been quite an adaptable driver since I was a teenager or a kid,” Sainz says. “Every time I was going into a new category, a different car, I always enjoyed the process of having to be quick straight away with that car. And I took it as a challenge.
“It’s been in my DNA that it’s been something that I’ve always enjoyed and I’ve always been decently good at it but I guess also with the experience I’ve got better.
“I’ve changed teams now three or four times in Formula 1. And I know how big of a challenge it is so I was making sure that I didn’t underestimate the challenge.
“I faced some tough times when I changed from Toro Rosso to Renault. Also when I changed from Renault to McLaren, and when I went into Ferrari I wanted to make sure that I did not underestimate the challenge because I realised those two times that I changed teams that it was very, very complicated, and that it could take a few weekends and a few races to get used to the car and exploit the maximum level of it.
“I remember that back in the day I used to say it in the media and I used to comment about it but no one would really buy the story! Everyone was like, ‘yeah, well, but everyone changes teams now and then and you have to adapt quickly’. And I remember no one really believed me when I changed teams that it would take a bit of time.
“Now because maybe four or five guys have changed teams at the same time and we all struggled a bit at the beginning to match our team-mates in that sense, then I think everyone has realised that it’s actually a topic and it is actually true that it takes a bit of time!
“Especially if you’re going against guys that have been on that team for a long period of time, they know the team and the car very well.”
There’s no award for handling that better than the others, though. It’s just the start of the process. And though Sainz thinks he has adapted quickly he also recognises “there’s still a lot of things to do yet”.
“I was talking about putting those weekends together because it’s not only driving fast,” he says.
“Pretty much every weekend I’ve been on the pace that I wanted to be on the car, which speaks well about the season. It’s just what makes a good season is putting weekends together consistently and this is a target for the second half.”
That need for consistency is clearly a burning priority for Sainz. But it’s important that he has already shown himself capable of turning up for Ferrari when needed.
So far, the main strength of the Ferrari driver line-up is best illustrated by the fact the two drivers are there when the other stumbles.
In Portugal Leclerc had the better tyre strategy and use and finished sixth while Sainz fell out the points.
Leclerc wrecked his own chances of winning in Monaco as his qualifying crash there, which helped secure pole position, stopped him from starting the race. But Sainz was present in his absence to secure second place and Ferrari’s first podium finish of the season.
And while Leclerc was part of the first lap chaos in Hungary, Sainz went on to finish fourth on the road – which became third after Sebastian Vettel’s post-race disqualification.
But Sainz needs to bank a few more results like Leclerc did at Imola or Barcelona – events where a high-level qualifying performance gives way to a ‘straightforward’ and high-performing race. Inevitably improving his qualifying deficit is an important factor in that.
“We’ve both been very close to each other the whole year, pretty much since FP1 until FP3 until quali we are pushing each other a lot, and I’m enjoying the challenge,” Sainz says.
“I see how fast Charles is and it’s obviously taking me to a very good level to try and match him and to beat him, and vice versa. And the fact that we are also working well together makes us strong come race day.
“I still don’t feel like I have been that consistent at the moment, especially if you compare this season to my 2019 season or my 2020 season with McLaren. I feel like I’m not the consistent Carlos that I used to be back then, and I still have a few points to improve to change that and to improve that.
“But if I am not there, there’s always Charles and if Charles is not there, it’s always me. That’s a good thing to have in the team. We are working well and we need to keep going in that direction.
“I just need to keep getting more consistent and put weekends together.”
If he can do that then there’ll be nothing flattering about Sainz’s record against his team-mate. He’ll be equalling him on merit and proving he can indeed match anyone.