🇧🇭 F1'24: R1: Why Me, Why Not?

"Yeah, we'd love to have Carlos Sainz, but we don't have a seat"

It can’t be easy knowing that you’re working out your notice period, especially after the decision was taken out of your hands, but that is what is happening to Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz, unceremoniously rejected by his team and facing an uncertain future after the Italian icons chose the last era’s defining driver to replace him from 2025.

The season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix helped Sainz’s stock too, as he threw in a few brave overtakes, both on his teammate and on George Russell, helping him to Driver of the Day and a 19th podium of his career behind the Red Bull machine. It might be that he is driving without the Ferrari pressure weighing on him, and instead of looking at what’s next, he’s thinking why not. Turning this unexpected news into a career-defining opportunity as the Spaniard turns 30 in 2024.

And while Lewis Hamilton (also serving out a very public notice period) plays out the season, knowing that some DuoLingo will come in maneggevole next year, Sainz needs to find one very limited commodity - a race seat in 2025, even though for most teams it’s a no-brainer to install the Spanish racer into their team - if only they had the space.

A marketable, race-winning driver who has scored points in every season at the top level. He already knows the inside of the Red Bull operation after starting out as a member of their Junior Team and working alongside Max Verstappen in 2015.

A fourth in Singapore 2017 the highlight for Sainz, who replaced Jolyon Palmer at Renault for the last few races of the year before joining the French side full-time from 2018, avoiding the Toro Rosso shuffle with their remaining drivers that year. In fact, a 2018 loan deal for Sainz was part of the deal for a complicated engine swap deal involving his old Toro Rosso team and McLaren wishing to ditch Honda for Renault.

He completed his loan deal with 53 points, and replaced his idol at McLaren. Fernando Alonso’s issues at the historic team have been well-documented, and the team cleared the decks, adding rookie Lando Norris to partner Sainz from 2019. It was at McLaren that Sainz arguably established himself as more than just the next journeyman driver. No longer with the Red Bull team, Sainz’s friendship with Norris was a complete contrast to his relationship with Daniil Kyvat and as both drivers settled into their new surroundings, began to pull the papaya-coloured car upwards.

Sainz’s familiarity within the Renault system, knowing how the engine worked, alongside his experience of negotiating his way through the Red Bull system helped him at McLaren, adding a friend as Carlando was born.

He rewarded the team’s faith with a fourth and third-placed finish in the Teams’ Championship - McLaren’s highest finish since 2012 and the duo of Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton.

Sainz was close to a win in the COVID year too, just losing out to Pierre Gasly at Monza 2020, picking his way through the chaos. But two years passed at McLaren, and it was time to replace yet another world champion as Sebastian Vettel headed to Aston Martin from Ferrari.

Paired with another younger driver, this time Charles Leclerc, Sainz was still searching for a first win as Hamilton vs Verstappen engrossed the rest of F1. In his first year at Ferrari, Sainz stepped on the podium at some of the more difficult races, second in Monaco and bronzes at Hungary, Russia and Abu Dhabi. Despite being a Ferrari rookie, Sainz actually out-scored Leclerc with both drivers very evenly matched, giving the team a dilemma of which driver to prioritise.

In 2022, Sainz stepped up with his first win in F1, taking the flag at Silverstone, but it wasn’t quite enough as Leclerc’s form meant Ferrari had made their decision. Sainz was a worthy challenger, but Leclerc was still The Chosen One. It was the most points scored by Sainz in a single season, even outscoring Hamilton, but the signs had started to emerge, as well as a couple of bad results early in the season.

Sainz got outscored by Hamilton and Leclerc, despite being the only non-Red Bull driver to win a race in 2023. The Ferrari was somewhat successful in the second half of last season, with Leclerc and Sainz finishing in the top six at most races, and there were positive sounds about their hopes for 2024. So to blow up everything about the team with the expectation that everyone is all in from 2026 (if not 2025) shows that Ferrari are willing to roll the dice.

So why wouldn’t a team do the same with Sainz? Could he truly be a title contender at Mercedes in what would be a straight swap for Hamilton? Could he replace Alonso for the second time and step in as the team leader at Aston Martin? Would he be the best driver to take a year out of F1 and return to Sauber/Audi in 2026 and continue his family name with the German manufacturer?

That first question feels like the biggest one. Could Carlos Sainz truly compete for an F1 World Championship? The physical and mental demands of a 24-race season and the spotlight contending for a championship brings. It was enough for the ultra-focused Nico Rosberg to win and retire, for example, and it might need yet another step up for the light-hearted Sainz to take. There is a huge difference between being one of the 11 race winners on the grid, to being one of three World Champions on it, and despite his strengths at Ferrari and McLaren, this would still be the biggest question left for Sainz to answer.

There are not many open doors for Sainz, and - with the possible exception of the World Endurance Championship - it’s difficult to see what his next move would be. But with another podium - and being the most successful driver not in a Red Bull, perhaps as one door closes, his performances in the 2024 Ferrari will unlock a few opportunities that 12 months ago, Sainz would not have thought possible.

F1 is back, and thank you for subscribing to this - my silly little blog. The second race of the season sees the circus move to Jeddah, where there seems to be a defined order of Red Bull, then a huge gap to Ferrari, then a smaller gap to Mercedes and McLaren and then a gap to the Aston Martin pairing. Any team that breaks into the top 10 will have to be perfect - perhaps better than that - with the top-five outfits in danger of truly cutting off the rest.

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