INSIGHT: The big winner in F1's off-season shuffle

Coates/Motorsport Images

INSIGHT: The big winner in F1's off-season shuffle

Insights & Analysis

INSIGHT: The big winner in F1's off-season shuffle

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It says a lot about Carlos Sainz that he described a “bittersweet feeling” after taking his first podium finish for Ferrari in the Monaco Grand Prix. Second place was a great result for a team that only occasionally threatens the podium, but it reflects Sainz’s ambition that he saw it as a victory lost rather than a runner-up spot gained. And through little fault of his own.

Little, rather than no, simply because had he nailed the lap on his first run in Q3 after having been 0.169s up on teammate Charles Leclerc, he might have sat on provisional pole position when the session was stopped and the frontrunners were denied the chance to complete their laps.

But the bottom line is that he was in the mix. And having finished second after qualifying fourth, Sainz realized this was a case of what might have been.

“If you had told me on Wednesday that I would not be 100% happy about P2, I would have not believed it because we are not normally fighting for this position this year,” said Sainz.

“I was so comfortable in the car and so fast on Thursday and Saturday morning, and through qualifying, I genuinely felt like I could put it on pole and win my first-ever grand prix in Monaco.”

This is why, while Leclerc grabbed the headlines after first crashing while attempting to consolidate pole position then proving unable to start the race thanks to undetected damage caused by the crash, Sainz was arguably the real Ferrari story at Monaco.

After all, one of the big talking points of the season has been the struggles of those who moved teams to settle in due to the restricted pre-season testing, with Fernando Alonso, Daniel Ricciardo and Sergio Perez all underachieving to a greater or lesser extent at Monaco. Of those who have switched, only Aston Martin newcomer Sebastian Vettel maximized the potential of his car in terms of qualifying and the race, although Sainz would have done had misfortune not intervened.

Sainz felt heading into the Monaco event that it would be an effective test of how comfortable he is both driving the Ferrari SF21, and in the wider team as a whole. His pace supported the widely-held belief that he has been the most effective of those to change teams in terms of adapting to his new environment. You might argue that it could be some inherent car characteristic that has made his task easier, but Sainz himself has repeatedly expressed his amazement at how cars producing similar lap times require fundamentally different inputs from the drivers.

All of the drivers who switched teams took a rigorous approach – top F1 drivers are too professional not to. But Sainz learned a huge amount with his moves first from Toro Rosso to Renault during the 2017 season, then to McLaren for 2019. That first move in particular came as something of a surprise, with Sainz struck by just how much work it requires to get on top of the subtle differences and the baffling array of what are referred to as ‘tools’ available to the driver. These vary from team to team, and take time to master.

For Sainz, Monaco brought a milestone result in his Ferrari career – and also a missed opportunity. Hone/Motorsport Images

When he switched to McLaren, Sainz put a huge amount of work in over the winter to ease the process of adaptation. He took a similar approach with Ferrari, despite the difficulties imposed by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. He also capitalized on having a 2018-specification Ferrari to drive at Fiorano, which he took advantage of not only over the winter, but also between the early races of this season. While a different car, it still offers familiarity with the systems and process , along with some of the characteristics that inevitably carry over even as the cars changes. It all adds up. This was an advantage that, of the other movers, only Alonso could benefit from.

Sainz knows full well this is his big chance in F1; an opportunity that once looked to be slipping away from him. It’s often forgotten that he performed well alongside Max Verstappen at Toro Rosso in 2015 and early ’16 before comprehensively outperforming Daniil Kvyat, but having worked hard to force his ‘loan’ move to Renault from Red Bull, it backfired given his struggles alongside Nico Hulkenberg in 2018. He did make progress during the year but Renault decided against keeping him, ultimately signing Daniel Ricciardo. While that seemingly opened the doors to a recall to Red Bull, the political ructions caused in forcing his temporary exit played a part in the decision to take Pierre Gasly instead.

That left Sainz needing a drive, and at the time he made the decision, the switch to McLaren was hardly the perfect option. McLaren was struggling, with the realization after the end of its Honda partnership that the engine was not the source of all ills. But fortunately, McLaren was back on the up and Sainz drove superbly in 2019. He built on that last year, but his future lay with Ferrari.

Reading between the lines of what team principal Mattia Binotto has said about Sainz, particularly over the winter, it’s clear that Sainz was signed as a strong support act to main man Leclerc. Sainz, of course, will see himself as more than that, and progress he made last season, particularly on improving his already-good qualifying form, meant he evolved during 2020 into a slightly different driver to the one Ferrari selected. Remember, Sainz and Ferrari first held talks in late 2019, with the decision to sign him in place of Vettel made before the delayed start to the 2020 season.

Ferrari effectively hired Sainz as a support for Leclerc, but the Spaniard likely has his own ideas about how he wants that dynamic to play out over the longer-term. Coates/Motorsport Images

As expected, Leclerc has had the upper hand in qualifying, beating Sainz on four out of five Saturdays. To that we must add the caveat that Leclerc’s crash in Q3 at Monaco and its consequences, as well as its knock-on effect on Sainz, skewed the comparison there. Sainz’s sole qualifying ‘victory’ over Leclerc came in Portugal, perhaps not a surprise given the tricky track conditions that favored Sainz’s less on-edge approach.

But for Sainz, the key was always to get close to Leclerc on Saturdays rather than consistently beating him. Leclerc’s astonishing livewire qualifying laps arguably make him the best qualifier on the grid given his capacity for living on the edge, even if that did bite him in Monaco. But for Sainz to be capable of similar pace, as he was at Monaco, speaks well for the progress he has made. And what’s more, he gives the impression that it’s very much all part of the plan. For Sainz is a driver who leaves nothing to chance.

He has been excellent on race days, taking a conservative approach initially but coming on more strongly as the season has progressed. Other than the Portuguese GP, which ultimately went wrong for him thanks to a poor tire selection that led to him fading to 11th, he has been a consistent points scorer, and reached new heights at Monaco. By any measure, it’s been a positive start.

If Leclerc is Ferrari’s number one, Sainz has already established himself as what might be called ‘number 1.5’, and will back himself to deliver more in the future. It’s still asking a lot for him to consistently beat Leclerc given how high a level the Monegasque driver is operating at, but the fact it is conceivable is testament to how well-rounded a driver Sainz is.

That Sainz has worked out so well vindicates the decision made by Binotto to make the switch. It was clear that 2019 represented a changing of the guard at Ferrari, with top dog Vettel usurped by Leclerc. The decision to make Leclerc the focal point was made even before the 2020 season started and Vettel slumped, although whether that was inevitable or a consequence of the decision not to keep him – which surprised Vettel – is impossible to say with certainty. But what was clear was that the fractiousness, which culminated in the Interlagos collision, wasn’t sustainable. It was time to look to the future.

Ferrari is in a rebuilding period and the new-look line-up appears extremely well-balanced. It has two relatively young drivers – with Sainz the senior at 26, three years older than Leclerc – that you could argue is the strongest partnership on the grid. What has yet to play out is how the balance of power will settle between the two.

For now, the battle between the two is effectively on ice. The objective for Ferrari is to beat McLaren to third in the championship and nick some big results when they are on the cards. But the real focus is the new technical regulations next year, when Ferrari’s hope is that it can produce a car – or perhaps more pertinently, given Monaco showed that the Ferrari is at its most competitive on the least power-sensitive circuit, an engine – that will allow it to challenge for regular wins and ideally the championship.

That’s when the battle between Leclerc and Sainz could really get interesting – and show just how strong its driver line-up really is.

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