‘It’s really cool’ – Sainz’s dream job – Asia Despatch

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Carlos Sainz
Sunday’s French Grand Prix is live on 5 Live and the Asia Despatch Sport website

Carlos Sainz is sitting in his new home close to the Ferrari factory and reflecting happily on his first six months as a driver for Formula 1’s most famous team.

“I’ve found it really cool,” he says in an exclusive interview with Asia Despatch Sport. “First of all, you go into this team kind of making a dream come true. So there is a lot of excitement and a lot of nervousness before doing your first race, your first test.

“But I have managed to keep that nervousness on the positive side and I am actually enjoying a lot the process of coming to live in Italy, spending a lot of time in Maranello, a lot of time in the factory, getting to know the whole Ferrari history and what surrounds it. Getting to know the culture also, and just embracing the challenge and trying to maximise it.”

The 26-year-old Spaniard has every reason for his sunny mood – his move has gone rather well so far.

Sainz has not usually been the fastest driver in a Ferrari this season, but that’s no surprise since his team-mate is the extravagantly talented Charles Leclerc.

But he has played a significant role in Ferrari’s revival, pushed Leclerc hard all the way, and scored the team’s best result so far – second place at the Monaco Grand Prix.

Sainz has also been the most impressive driver to have joined a new team in 2021.

While Sebastian Vettel at Aston Martin, Fernando Alonso at Alpine, and Daniel Ricciardo at McLaren have all toiled to one degree or another, Sainz has looked comfortable and at ease within Ferrari from the start.

Carlos Sainz
Sainz has made an impressive start with Ferrari

Taking on Leclerc

Within F1, there were those who worried for Sainz when he made the decision to leave McLaren, where he had been highly impressive alongside Lando Norris, to join Ferrari.

Leclerc had just signed a new contract until 2024 and Ferrari saw him as the man who would lead their challenge for the next half-decade and possibly more.

Leclerc had earned that position by beating Vettel, a four-time champion, on every possible metric in his first season with the team. For some, Sainz was consigning himself to a support role. Was it a wise move, they wondered, when he had just had the most impressive year of his career in a McLaren team clearly enjoying a renaissance?

But Sainz is made of sterner stuff than that. He had wanted to join Ferrari since he was a 10-year-old boy and visited the team’s garage at the Spanish Grand Prix, and he admits there was “definitely a bit of romanticism” in his decision to move. But he went into it with his eyes open.

“Obviously I did think about it,” Sainz says. “When you sign a deal, you consider all these options, but immediately as I started to have my first conversations with Mattia [Binotto, the team principal] and everyone, I realised that I was going to have equal opportunity.

“So [I thought] maybe my first year in the team is going to be challenging to match Charles’ results. But I rely a lot on my talents and my work ethic and the way I approach things and even if the first year is going to be tough, I am expecting in the future to be close to him or even hopefully a bit ahead.

“Once I knew they were going to let me perform at my highest level without putting any barriers to it, for me it was a no-brainer – because we are athletes, we are self-confident, we all believe we are the best and I’m just waiting to get a bit better, a bit more at home with the team to try to perform at a higher level.”

In fact, he says, the opportunity to gauge himself against Leclerc was part of the appeal.

“If you want to test your qualifying speed against anyone, it is against Charles Leclerc,” Sainz says. “I think he is the best qualifier on the grid. He is one of the greatest if not the greatest talent in Formula 1 now, and I am actually getting to learn now why he is performing at such a high level.

“It is not only speed. He also has a very good work ethic, he is very good at team building, he has a lot of strengths that make him such a strong driver.

“I am loving the challenge, to be honest, because I know there is no one better than him probably as a single lap with a Ferrari Formula 1 car.”

Sainz has been a team-mate of Max Verstappen, who is competing for this year’s world title with Lewis Hamilton. Is he saying he thinks Leclerc is the out-and-out fastest driver in F1?

“I wouldn’t say Formula 1,” he says. “I don’t know Lewis. I know Max, I know Lando.

“I would say right now if you put any driver in a Ferrari car, it will be difficult [for them] to out-qualify Charles, because he has that three years’ experience, he knows exactly how to pull out a lap in Q3 [the final part of qualifying] with this car, he knows exactly what the car does and he has the talent to extract that performance with a Ferrari.

“Then, if you want to go and beat Max in the Red Bull it would be very complicated, and Lewis in the Mercedes and Lando in the McLaren – guys that are performing at their best with a car because they have the experience with that car.”

Carlos Sainz and Charles Leclerc
Sainz has been beaten in qualifying five races to one this season

Taking the tension out of the competition

Leclerc has had the upper hand so far in his battle with Sainz. He is five-one ahead in their qualifying head-to-head, at an average advantage of 0.233secs, and leads by 10 points in the championship despite the technical failure that prevented him starting at Monaco, when he was on pole position.

But the competition has been closer than those raw statistics suggest. Sainz has a number of times been the pace-setter through a weekend, only for Leclerc to pull something special out of the bag in qualifying. And Sainz’s pace so early in his Ferrari career has been one of the most striking aspects of the season.

Sainz came to Ferrari after two years of being neck-and-neck with Norris, whose talent he describes as “very special”.

The good-natured and amusing badinage between Sainz and Norris was a key feature of their partnership. It was real – they genuinely enjoyed each other’s company – but there was a degree of calculation about it, too. And the same goes for Sainz and Leclerc. Sainz sees no need for animosity or unpleasantness with a rival or team-mate.

“Inside the craziness of any Formula 1 driver,” Sainz says, “I try to be a bit pragmatic, a bit philosophical about the whole thing and I try to take things easy, especially with team-mates.

“There tends to be a lot of competition with team-mates and I am the first one who wants to finish ahead of Charles in every race, in every qualifying.

“But at the moment in Ferrari there is a priority number one that is to take the team forward as quick as possible back to the top. And having that priority in mind probably you don’t give the relationship with the team-mate as much importance. Maybe you take away 1% of importance from it, which is still important.

“He’s a great guy. I enjoy working with him outside of the car. We have very similar passions outside motorsports. We share a lot of hobbies, we talk a lot about them and we play a lot of sport outside Formula 1 and it makes the relationship a bit more relaxed.

“The fact that you can get on well with the team-mate outside the car, it makes the relationship inside the car also a bit more relaxed.”

Carlos Sainz and Lando Norris
Sainz had a good relationship with Lando Norris at McLaren

A rocky road to the top

Perhaps Sainz’s phlegmatic, considered approach has been influenced by the slightly winding road he has taken to Ferrari, for his has not been the smoothest of careers.

He and Verstappen made their debuts together in 2015 for Red Bull’s Toro Rosso team. They were closely matched, but it was Verstappen who got the call to jump to the senior team after four races of 2016. Sainz saw no opportunities for progression inside Red Bull, and started looking for a way out.

He ended up moving to Renault for the final few races of 2017 and a full season in 2018, but never felt comfortable there either. It was only when he got to McLaren in 2019 that his career really took off.

“One thing I discovered in McLaren,” Sainz says, “is what a difference it makes for an athlete to perform in an atmosphere and in a team where they appreciate your value, where they give you the importance and the perfect environment to perform at the highest level, psychologically but also technically.”

Before McLaren, he says, this never happened. At Toro Rosso, he was only ever on a one-year contract. At Renault alongside Nico Hulkenberg, he wanted a two- or three-year deal, but it was not long before “rumours started about Ricciardo coming to Renault, [Esteban] Ocon, and I wasn’t in a good place. I didn’t feel as liked or as wanted.

“I had to adapt to a new team after three years with Toro Rosso but that year no one was talking about adapting to new teams.

“It feels like this is the new thing now because five drivers have changed teams, but back in 2019 no one heard about the challenge of changing teams and I was, like, putting my hand up and saying: ‘Guys, this takes time and I’m going to need time to perform my best.’ But no one was buying the story. Now it looks like more people are buying the story, which is true.

“Anyway, I didn’t have my best year but in McLaren I definitely found my home and I’m really thankful to Zak Brown and everyone in McLaren for giving me that two-year deal. I managed to pay them back in terms of results.”

Sainz’s performances in his first year at McLaren – both inside the car and out of it – attracted Ferrari’s attention. They were looking to move Vettel on after a turbulent year, and saw Sainz as the perfect foil for Leclerc.

“I couldn’t say no to that opportunity,” Sainz says, “and I jumped the boat into Ferrari hoping to create a very similar environment and situation to McLaren, expecting that was going to be possible. So far it has worked really well because I found a really nice team, a good atmosphere here and I’m enjoying myself a lot.”

Carloa Sainz and his father
Carlos Sr won two world rally championships

Escaping his father’s shadow

Sainz has motorsport in his blood. His father, also Carlos, is a two-time world rally champion and a bona fide legend of motorsport. But this did not always make an easy environment for his son as he made his way in the sport.

“It’s had some very good things for me, some very positive stuff, and some negative stuff, let’s say, or some extra challenges that I had to face when I was a kid,” Sainz says.

“If we start with the challenging stuff, the difficult stuff, when I was 11-12 years old and I started competing and was going to all these go-kart centres, no-one called me by my name. I was always ‘the son of Carlos Sainz’.

“‘The son of Carlos Sainz is here in the go-kart centre, he is doing this lap time, my oldest son or the other kids are doing these lap times so they are quicker than the son of Carlos Sainz.’ Or ‘my son is going to make it to Formula 1’.

“It was tough. I was no one, basically, and I felt this pressure. I was the centre of attention at all these go-kart centres and I felt the kids wanted to beat me maybe more than they wanted to beat the other kids.”

“But very quickly as I matured I changed that a bit into positive. So the extra pressure aged 15-16 of now driving for the Red Bull junior team was not affecting me maybe so much because I had gone through all that pressure before.

“And since then, honestly, having a two-time world champion guiding my career and advising me and giving me all the advice that an athlete needs to perform at a very high level was only positive. He has given such huge advice.”

The two remain close. Carlos Sr is part of his son’s management team, and attends most of his races, a wise but unobtrusive figure in the background. When Carlos Jr returns to Spain, he spends a lot of time at his parents’ house, and the pair play golf together often.

His father remains “the first guy I call for advice”. But the longer Sainz has been in F1, their relationship has shifted to one of his father providing “philosophical, big-picture advice rather than set-up or how to drive or anything like that”.

Ferrari and the future

Ferrari knew from the moment this year’s car hit the track in pre-season testing that it had strong performance in slow-speed corners. So their pace in the past two races, in Monaco and Azerbaijan, did not come as a complete surprise, even if, as Sainz puts it, “we didn’t know we were going to go and be on the first row”.

Unsurprisingly, they have taken their competitive showings as evidence that they are back on the right track after the purgatory of 2020, Ferrari’s worst season for 40 years. Now, Sainz says, “we need to focus our development in the medium and high-speed sections of the track and keep adding power to our engine. We still know we still need to get better on the straights.”

Ferrari, like many teams, have a lot of hope invested in the new rules being introduced in 2022.

For now, that is the final year of Sainz’s contract, but he wants a much longer future in Italy than that, despite the presence in F1 of Ferrari-contracted Mick Schumacher, the son of the team’s most successful driver, who is learning the ropes at Haas.

“I feel like the challenges we are facing with Ferrari now need or rely on a bit of a medium to long-term period of time,” Sainz says. “In that sense, I am very happy with how this first half of the year is going, and I feel like I still have a lot of potential and a lot of speed to find in Ferrari.

“In the future I want to be part of this team and honestly I don’t think too much of who is on the radar. I know if I perform at a very high level and I keep working hard and the way I’m working I shouldn’t be too worried about what’s around.

“I’m going to focus on myself, keep my objectives in check and try to accomplish them. And I know if I manage to accomplish those then everything should come naturally.”

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