The Carlos Sainz Jr driving an old Ferrari Formula 1 car at Fiorano this week, preparing for life at F1’s most famous team, was not too long ago a nomadic and still slightly peaky midfield performer.
He is a rather different proposition to the one who sought an exit from an unconvinced Red Bull, knowing his path there was blocked, and was ousted at Renault 12 months later.
As Sainz acquaints himself with a 2018 F1 car in his Ferrari test over Wednesday and Thursday, he may well pause and think of where he was himself three years ago, how he found himself spurned again just a few months into the season, and the impressive career transformation he sparked by finally finding a willing taker in McLaren and leading the team through its 2019-20 renaissance.
Sainz was a strong performer at Toro Rosso alongside Max Verstappen in their rookie 2015 season, but his reputation never took off
“I think he’s done an outstanding job,” says McLaren Racing CEO Zak Brown. “I think he has exceeded our expectations.
“I think it goes to show when you give a driver a really good environment, not just a good racecar but a good environment, you get the most out of them.
“I think that’s something that Andreas [Seidl, McLaren team principal] and I in the garage are pretty good at.
“And he’s really excelled, he’s been very fast and qualifying, a very tough racer, he’s demanding when he needs to be.
“He’s done a great job the last two years, so I would say he has exceeded our expectations.”
And likely those of others. Sainz was a strong performer at Toro Rosso alongside Max Verstappen in their rookie 2015 season, matching him in qualifying.
But his reputation never took off, and while he was always a promising young driver, clearly capable of some excellent performances, few seemed to believe Sainz was a prodigious talent.
When Verstappen got promoted to Red Bull’s senior team a few races into 2016, Sainz was left at Toro Rosso. Though not in the same spotlight as Verstappen, he comprehensively outperformed the demoted Daniil Kvyat over the next 18 months.
However, it had become clear to Sainz he lacked a path to the front with Red Bull.
He always denied that Verstappen refused to be his team-mate again, but if it was not the young Dutchman’s preference it was almost certainly Red Bull’s, as the team did not want to pair Verstappen with Sainz.
Their relationship survived their rookie season in 2015 and the two get on well, but there are always stories of a fractious atmosphere within the garage – not helped, or maybe even primarily because of, the presence of their fathers, Jos and Carlos Sr.
So Sainz pushed for an escape, joining Renault before the end of the 2017 season as part of a complicated swap deal that would leave Toro Rosso with Honda power in 2018. His move included a full season with the works Renault team for 2018, ‘on loan’ from Red Bull.
Unfortunately for Sainz, his best-laid plans would be undermined. He was ousted at Renault by the shock signing of Daniel Ricciardo (although Esteban Ocon appeared poised to steal Sainz’s seat anyway). By then, Sainz knew he had effectively cut his ties with Red Bull by pushing for his Renault chance and ended his chances of a drive with the senior team, describing his decision as “abandoning the family”.
So, even though Ricciardo had created an unexpected Red Bull opening by taking Sainz’s place at Renault, Sainz knew that in addition to losing his current drive he was unlikely to find a route back to his long-time backer, suspecting his Toro Rosso successor Pierre Gasly would get the drive instead.
It may be unfair to characterise Sainz choosing to sign for McLaren as a marriage of convenience, but it was a welcome port in a storm.
McLaren rescued Sainz from career turbulence by giving him a two-year deal, the first of his F1 career, and in return Sainz filled the seat vacated by his childhood hero Fernando Alonso and gave the team some much-needed experience to partner rookie Lando Norris.
McLaren loved Sainz in a way his previous two employers didn’t
“When you drive under a series of one-year agreements you kind of feel like the next race might be your last race,” reckons Brown.
“That’s certainly not a good way to get any employee motivated if you’re kind of living under this constant unreasonable pressure.
“That [relationship] worked really well for us, and we both maximised each other’s results.”
McLaren loved Sainz in a way his previous two employers didn’t. In his three years (well, almost) at Toro Rosso, Sainz would have greatly endeared himself to the team around him. But Red Bull’s bosses were the ones pulling the strings.
While Sainz remains grateful to the company to this day for the chances afforded him, he quite quickly worked out he did not form part of the long-term plans for Red Bull Racing. And at Renault, the move that should have released him from the uncertainty of Red Bull just set him on a path for further rejection.
Sainz had a slightly difficult start to his full Renault season in 2018, when he was tallying decent results but by his own admission struggling to unlock a tenth or two in outright performance, especially in qualifying.
Up against Nico Hulkenberg, an underrated but excellent upper-midfield driver, Sainz failed to make the sort of impression that would mark him out as a potential member of the F1 elite.
But even before the summer break, Renault had made a gentleman’s agreement with Mercedes to place Ocon at its team in 2019. Of course, it steamrollered that by signing Ricciardo.
For Sainz, losing out to a race winner like Ricciardo was one thing, but being second choice to the talented but still unproven Ocon was hardly a ringing endorsement of Renault’s faith in him.
At McLaren, Sainz’s treatment appeared different from the get-go. Joining the team along with Norris, Sainz would be tasked with being the lead driver, its experienced head, and its spiritual Alonso successor. But he would also be treated with a great deal of consideration.
“I remember when he had his issue in Australia, in the very first race, I went into him after qualifying and I said, ‘I know you were on a mega lap, you just got caught out’,” says Brown, recalling an exchange with Sainz after traffic had caused the Spaniard to be knocked out of Q1 on his debut.
“I immediately went in and went, ‘man, you’re awesome, we all know what happened there’. And he said to me at that time, ‘I really appreciate that, no one actually usually comes in and tells me that’.”
Sainz confirms the story. More than that, he says the faith he felt from McLaren early on – in the form of that two-year contract – meant that as his luckless start to 2019 continued he would avoid any kind of negative spiral.
“I wouldn’t underestimate the support from all the management and what effect that has on the driver,” he says.
“Also having the security of a two-year deal, which is something I had never had before. And that is obviously important, to have that security.
“I remember in Australia I was really quick all weekend, I was very comfortable with the car, and then suddenly on traffic at the end of Q1 and I was knocked out, which made me incredibly frustrated.
“But as soon as the qualifying finished, I knew I was driving well and I just needed a couple of good comments from my bosses, and from everyone, just to cheer me up and feel that the next day was another day.
“That’s a good example of how a good team spirit works, how to operate a team by the management. And having also that security for two years it didn’t feel like one qualifying was going to change my whole career.
“That tranquillity – when in the next two races something else happened, a crash with Max in Bahrain, a crash on lap one with Kvyat and Lando [in China] – I never really felt the pressure building up. And I never really felt any kind of necessity to put a result together.”
Eventually, Sainz’s luck turned. He pieced together an excellent 2019, finished sixth in the drivers’ standings and led McLaren to fourth in the constructors’ championship – attracting Ferrari’s attention and sparking initial talks at the end of the year.
The same thing happened in 2020. He had an outrageously unfortunate first half, maybe even two-thirds, of the campaign before stringing together a sequence of excellent results that finally reflected the quality of his performances all year. Sainz rose to sixth in the points again, this time playing a vital role in McLaren grabbing third in the teams’ contest at the very last race.
That perseverance and dedication to the cause, in the face of some rotten luck, came despite deciding before the delayed 2020 season had even begun that he would leave McLaren at the end of the year, because Ferrari had identified him as Sebastian Vettel’s replacement. No decent professional would leave a team high and dry, not giving everything to the very end. But sometimes that happens.
Sainz refused to let it happen. At McLaren he was given the environment to excel and in return he gave the team the two finest seasons of his career to date. Brown says that is partly down to Sainz’s determination to prove himself after his Red Bull and Renault experiences, and partly down to how McLaren tapped into his potential.
“He’s an extremely determined individual, but I think athletes, you need to understand their psyche and what makes them work, they’re all different,” says Brown.
“I think you have to adapt to each individual. How you work with Lando is different from how you work with Carlos, which is different than how you work with Fernando Alonso. And I think some teams, not all teams, kind of have a ‘here’s how we work, you adapt to us’.
“That works for some. But I think at McLaren’s it’s a family atmosphere that we’ve created and so we adapt to each other. And I think we’ve helped raise Carlos’s confidence. “
Sainz always believed that his third season at Toro Rosso, which included a fourth-place finish in Singapore, showed how good he could be. That 2017 campaign was probably a much better marker of his ability than 2018 with Renault, but it’s the Renault move that carried more weight in terms of his wider reputation. Two years at McLaren restored the balance and then some.
He was good enough in the first year to attract Ferrari’s attention and in the second year he more than validated its decision to sign him.
“A team like McLaren has allowed me to extract the best version of myself, to find inside me a bit more performance, a bit more happiness in Formula 1″ :: Carlos Sainz Jr
But his raw ingredients didn’t change. He’s always been a hard worker, with great motivation and the right attitude towards development: assertive enough to inform car direction and patient enough to know when things need more time to change.
On-track he has proven himself capable of one-lap heroics but with more experience has come heightened racecraft, especially his judgement on the first lap and balancing up of risk versus reward, whether that be in terms of an overtake or how much he uses his tyres.
Crucially, at McLaren, he seemed more centred, able to brush off frustrations and stay in the zone, which is why he was able to produce some excellent recovery drives like Austria in 2019, his first podium in Brazil that year from the back row of the grid, or his charge from 15th to fifth in the Bahrain Grand Prix. That meant he showed his quality on a more consistent basis.
“I think he has everything he needs to become a top driver in Formula 1,” says Seidl.
“There’s a reason why Ferrari went after him.”
Now Sainz’s task becomes putting in the above-and-beyond effort in the off-season to gel as quickly as possible and prove at Ferrari he is the calibre of driver Red Bull and Renault ultimately doubted he’d be.
Driving a 2018 car at Fiorano this week will continue that process. It will probably be forever etched into Sainz’s memory as his first time in red.
But unless something goes terribly wrong over the next couple of years, his Ferrari career will have far greater highs than one and a half chilly January days testing a car quite different to the one he will race in 2021.
Switching to Ferrari could define Sainz’s career. But it comes after another move has already transformed it.
“Since the moment I arrived at McLaren, I felt completely at home,” says Sainz.
“I felt great motivation, great encouragement by everyone in the team, I felt a lot of support even after two or three tricky races to start my time at McLaren. I felt a lot of support from the management and the confidence has always been very high.
“A team like McLaren has allowed me to extract the best version of myself, to find inside me a bit more performance, a bit more happiness in Formula 1.
“It was a great place for me to find that next step that has allowed me to become a better driver. So, I’m very grateful for that.
“I feel ready for the next challenge. But these two years [at McLaren] will always be very special for me.”