When Fernando Alonso climbed out of his car at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Sunday afternoon, it marked the last time we will see him in an IndyCar for at least two years.
Alonso’s return to Formula 1 with Renault prohibits him from competing in the Indy 500 until at least 2023; managing director Cyril Abiteboul insisting there will be “no distractions” for the two-time world champion.
And while Alonso’s decision to return to the category that made him a superstar is understandably generating headlines, his story risks overshadowing some other big ones for his countrymen. Leaving Alex Palou’s excellent showing in qualifying – as well as in the first part of the race – at IMS aside, it’s worth paying some attention to what Carlos Sainz is about to do.
Sainz is closely mirroring Alonso’s career in many ways, starting out at the Faenza-based team (Minardi for Alonso, by then Toro Rosso for Sainz) and next racing for Renault and McLaren before joining Ferrari.
Sure, he doesn’t have the same CV Alonso had when he headed to Maranello, but that says more his machinery than Sainz’s potential. And he also doesn’t generate the same interest, because of matters surrounding Sebastian Vettel and that relationship at Ferrari, as well as the team’s overall struggles.
McLaren currently sits ahead of Ferrari in the constructors’ championship, and there might not be as much fanfare as we might have expected surrounding his move, but Sainz says the switch was still an easy choice.
“My decision of [moving to] Ferrari is fully committed,” Sainz says. “I’m super excited to join a team like Ferrari. Even though Ferrari is not going through the best year right now, it is Ferrari, and that is something for a driver like me, I cannot be more excited about.
“I’m convinced Ferrari will recover from a tough year, and I will be able to help as much as I can, to have a chance. You need to remember that not only Ferrari is struggling this year, but every team that is not Mercedes is one second off the pace. All nine teams have a lot of work to do in order to be somewhere near the performance of the Mercedes, that they’re putting together lately.”
Perhaps there would be a greater focus on Sainz if Ferrari was winning races and fighting for championships right now, but the opposite is true. And in that sense he faces a similar situation to the ones he has faced at both Renault and McLaren – namely, helping rebuild a big team that has aspirations of winning titles, but has a big gap to close.
“I have a very competitive spirit, and I want to capitalize on podiums and wins as soon as possible,” he says. “In Formula 1, it takes time and the fact that you need to be in the right place at the right time. Hopefully I’ve taken the right direction going into the future. I’ll be part of an amazing team like Ferrari, and I cannot wait to see what’s going on with Ferrari and to help with whatever I can help with as a driver with my input.
“I’ve gone through a really exciting period with McLaren and I think it’s helped me to learn a lot about how a team can evolve, and how to help a team move forwards. I go with the right amount of experience and with the right amount of motivation to help as much as I can.”
And there’s always a silver lining. Ferrari drivers come under intense scrutiny as Italy’s national team, even before they join the Scuderia. That Sainz has escaped that to a certain degree takes the pressure off just a little.
“Yeah, but I look at it as preparation,” he says of his readiness for being under the microscope. “In the future, if I want to fight for a championship, which I want to, you get that scrutiny and analysis obviously from the media (when you’re with) Ferrari, but also I’m sure once you’re fighting for a championship, the pressure is insane.
“You have to be ready for those kind of scenarios, and I want to be in that kind of scenario. Of course it’s something that is in my mind, but it’s something I’m willing to go through because it’s what every driver who wants to be world champion needs to go through at some point.”
Regardless of where the car is at, or of the coverage from Spanish and Italian media, Sainz is going to face a clear challenge in the form of Charles Leclerc. One of Ferrari’s own from its driver academy, Leclerc has already swept aside a four-time world champion and looks set to have the weight of the team behind him by the time Sainz makes the switch, having only signed a new five-year deal of his own in December.
“I’m aware that I’m obviously going in new, and he’s going to have been there for three years there by the time I arrive and he will know the car, and know the team.
“I’ve been in that situation before. For example, at Renault, when I arrived next to Nico (Hulkenberg). I know it takes a bit of time before getting to know everyone and how to exploit the full performance of our car, and how to build your team, and feed yourself into that team.
“I know what it’s like, I’ve done it before. I know it’s not going to be easy, especially with the talent of Charles and how good he’s been doing lately. He’s a great competitor, but it’s a challenge that excited me when I signed the deal. I might not be in a long-term contract, but I’m in a mid-term contract which gives me enough time to get into the team and start a bit from zero with a bit of patience, and adapt to the team little by little.”
But that’s all in the future, and while Sainz is clearly excited by the prospect of racing for F1’s most iconic name, he still has the rest of this season to see out with another historic team.
“My enjoyment at McLaren is still intact,” he says. “I’m actually enjoying it even more this last year because I’m less new, so I know more stuff, I know more of the people here, we’ve built up on a good relationship from last year with a lot of the engineers and the mechanics and the media, marketing, etc.
“I’m excited about this year still, it’s just I want the year to start turning the corner that I turned last year, and start grabbing those results that I think we deserve.
“I think McLaren are doing the correct steps. I admire this team, what we have achieved over the past couple of years, the direction we’re heading and everything I’ve seen from this year, going into the future. It’s positive.
“Nothing makes me happier than seeing this team moving forward, because every human being in this team deserves to go forward. Everyone is putting a great amount of effort in, and I think McLaren is doing a very good job of positioning themselves into a strong position for ’22, which I think is the biggest opportunity for all of the teams that are now more than a second behind Mercedes.
“It’s all about getting yourself into the right position with the management, with the structure, the engineering side, with the drivers side, putting yourself in the strongest position going into the end of ’21, (then) you grab the opportunity of ’22 as a little bit of a reset for F1.”
After all of the following in footsteps, it’s a reset Sainz hopes will prove the catalyst for achieving something Alonso never did: Winning a title for Ferrari.