INSIGHT: Has F1's fastest nomad finally found a home?

Jerry Andre/Motorsport Images

INSIGHT: Has F1's fastest nomad finally found a home?

Insights & Analysis

INSIGHT: Has F1's fastest nomad finally found a home?

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When it comes to the 2023 driver market ‘silly season’, there’s one top team with a vacancy that will not be part of the rumor-mongering and uncertainty. While Ferrari and Carlos Sainz Jr have yet to formalize that they will continue together beyond next year, it is inconceivable that either will look elsewhere.

After all, why would they? Team principal Mattia Binotto said after the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix that they would sit down over the winter “to start discussing what our future can be”. Keeping hold of Sainz, who has integrated with the team so effectively this year, is a no-brainer for Ferrari. The only real question is likely to be exactly how long Ferrari wants to commit to Sainz, who was initially confirmed only for two years after moving to the team from McLaren ahead of 2020.

As for Sainz, when he joked in a recent press conference that he’s trying to work his way through driving for every F1 team, it reflected the fact Ferrari was his fourth employer in seven years. That’s unusually nomadic for a modern F1 driver, particularly one of Sainz’s quality, who has made his way from Toro Rosso to Renault (on loan from Red Bull) to McLaren and then Maranello since making his grand prix debut in 2015. But given he walked away from a McLaren team where he was very well-established to take on the Ferrari challenge, and has thrived, Sainz will be eager to secure a longer-term Ferrari future.

Yet for all that, Sainz hasn’t proved to be the driver Ferrari thought it had secured when they put pen to paper to recruit him. The deal was done ahead of the delayed start to the 2020 season at a point where Ferrari had decided to dispense with the services of Sebastian Vettel when his contract concluded at the end of the year. With Charles Leclerc having signed a five-year deal the previous year to keep him at Ferrari until the end of 2024, he was cast as the future of Ferrari with Sainz viewed as a good number two. Ferrari, of course, never explicitly intimated that, but reading between the lines of what Binotto had said about the partnership, it was clear Leclerc was seen as the star and Sainz as the wingman.

But even before Sainz walked through the Maranello gates, Ferrari started to realize it was getting more than it bargained for by signing the Spaniard. He had a strong 2020 campaign with McLaren; Ferrari particularly noting how much his qualifying had improved. That’s symptomatic of an intelligent, diligent competitor with a drive to improve himself continually – character traits that come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the career and character of his two-times world rally champion father, Carlos Sr.

When Sainz made the move from Toro Rosso to Renault, which happened four races before the conclusion of the 2017 ahead of a full year in ’18, it didn’t go as hoped. Having headed into ’18 expecting either to secure a longer-term deal at Renault or a return to Red Bull, he found both doors closing and made the move to McLaren for ’19. His full season with Renault in ’18 was his least convincing in F1 considering his experience at the time, but was a vital learning opportunity. Given how specialized modern F1 cars are, learning and mastering the baffling array of team-specific settings and how to make the most of the available tools such as diff maps and brake shapes is a long process. The scale of that challenge caught Sainz by surprise, but he’s not one to make the same mistake a second time.

That’s why when he moved to McLaren he put in a huge amount of work at its Woking headquarters, preparing, learning and ensuring that he had absorbed as much as he could before the start of the season. He took a similar approach when he moved to Ferrari, which proved more challenging given the restrictions created by the COVID-19 pandemic, that has paid dividends. As well as mileage in a 2018-specification Ferrari and the driver-in-loop simulator, Sainz devoted a huge amount of time to integration with personnel at the factory. Given the scale of the challenge, it allowed him to hit the ground at the start of the season if not running, then at least jogging.

Sainz, of course, came into 2021 focused on attempting to usurp Leclerc as the team’s lead driver. Again, that objective was not publicly stated – he’s too sharp to do that – but by becoming the perfect team player and delivering on track to a slightly higher standard than expected when he was signed, it was a realistic aspiration.

Sainz was unofficially hired to be Ferrari’s second option after Leclerc, but his performances have made that dynamic a little more complicated than many were expecting… Zak Mauger/Motorsport Images

Some would argue that he succeeded given that his third place at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix finale meant he jumped ahead of Leclerc in the points, finishing fifth in the world championship. It was an impressive achievement, although points can sometimes be an unreliable witness and Leclerc retained a slender advantage on the key performance metrics over the season.

Perhaps the most eyecatching facet of Sainz’s year was his qualifying performance. Leclerc is one of the strongest qualifiers in F1, capable of consistently delivering laps right on the limit, often exhibiting astonishing traction-sensing skills along the way – an essential ability given that the rear tires tend to overheat over a push lap. And yet Sainz wasn’t far off – just over 0.1% on average. What’s more, he outpaced Leclerc in qualifying in six of the last eight races. Even for those backing Sainz to thrive at Ferrari, that was surprising.

“Particularly this last six or seven races, I feel like I got the best out of the car in pretty much every quali,” said Sainz. “This is something I managed to do at McLaren very often, and it was a bit of a lesson to be pushed in this last third of the season.

“I’ve been up against very strong qualifers my whole career, with Max [Verstappen], Lando [Norris] and now Charles. I never felt I have anything to lose against him, and I think in this last third I’m doing what I did in the McLaren and the Toro Rosso.”

It has been hard work. Sainz has generally been a driver who is not prone to crashing, yet he did have a number of impacts during the season as he battled to get to Leclerc’s level. Although he also had a difficult time in the penultimate qualifying session of the season in Jeddah, spinning and brushing the wall with his rear wing endplate in Q2, he appeared to have got on top of the car by the final phase of the season. That was doubtless a result of pushing himself hard.

He also showed a knack for being particularly strong in the quicker corners, as the two Ferrari drivers often found very different ways to string together very similar lap times. That’s further evidence that, as well as learning from Leclerc’s skills, Sainz has also been able to go his own way. But he knew this was going to be a challenge.

“Not straight away after no winter testing and the challenges you have to adapt to in the first half of the season,” said Sainz of his expectations of getting to Leclerc’s level in qualifying on Saturday evening in Abu Dhabi. “But I’m happy to see during the last third, basically I’m missing nothing in quali.

Sainz gave Ferrari an early Christmas gift with a podium at Abu Dhabi, which helped him seal fifth in the points. Mark Sutton/Motorsport Images

“I can put the laps together when they matter, as well. That’s why Jeddah was so painful, because I spun when I had the pace to be easily in the top five. Today, I calmed myself down, reacted well, did a strong lap in Q2, went into Q3 and put it there [fifth].”

The races were always expected to be Sainz’s strong point and generally they went well, but he only finished ahead of Leclerc six times in the 20 races they both finished – with three of those in the second half of the campaign. While Sainz did occasionally show a better knack for tire management, particularly at front-limited tracks where Ferrari could struggle in that regard, especially early in the year, Leclerc’s race performances were also very effective.

Sainz did lead the way on the podium count with four appearances, including a second place at Monaco – where he was a pole position threat before Leclerc’s shunt ruined everyone’s last runs and gave him one of his two pole positions in 2021 – but often that was just down to circumstances. Leclerc had six fourth places, which could easily have turned to podiums through external circumstances.

So while the points positions flattered Sainz very slightly, the trajectory of his season was superb. This will make the battle between the pair of them fascinating in 2022, with Sainz already roughly at equal number one level and Leclerc doubtless determined to reassert himself. But for all that rivalry, they have worked well together and also bring complementary skills to the team given they have varying strengths and weaknesses.

But what’s essential for Sainz is the impression he’s made off-track. He’s well-liked and held in high regard, and the quality of his feedback and technical knowledge means he’s a loud voice when it comes to set-up and car development. Leclerc had got used to being the focal point, but Sainz is now very well-established in that regard. Indeed, Leclerc’s almost preternatural car control means that he does sometimes find it almost too easy to drive around limitations. That doesn’t mean he has no idea what the car is doing – far from it – but it is an area where Sainz potentially has an advantage.

All of this means that Sainz has made himself an indispensable part of the Ferrari team alongside Leclerc. That partnership has helped Ferrari achieve its objective of third in the constructors’ championship this season, and promises much for the future.

The big test will come if and when Ferrari re-emerges as a potential title-winning force. Because if this season has taught us anything, it’s that both Leclerc and Sainz see themselves as the driver to fight for that title.

It’s tantalizingly poised for next year, and all because Sainz has proved himself to be far more than just a good all-round wingman, and a driver whose knack for continually improving himself means he goes into 2022 in as good a position as he could hope to have been after just one year at Ferrari against Leclerc.

But there’s still another step to take.

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