Why 2017 will be the year of Carlos Sainz

Michael Lamonato Columnist

By Michael Lamonato, Michael Lamonato is a Roar Expert

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    Max Verstappen and Carlos Sainz was the last productive driver pairing for Toro Rosso. (Photo by Charles Coates/Getty Images)

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    It goes without saying that Formula One, the pinnacle of motor racing, is an almost infinitely complicated sport.

    Thousands of exactingly designed parts are coaxed by the complex mind of an elite athlete to propel a prototype car around a circuit at speeds in excess of 300 kilometres per hour.

    The variables on any given day, never mind across an entire season, are limitless, so to make a prediction today, more than a month away from the first race and weeks away from preseason testing, is almost impossible.

    On the other hand, there’s no time like the present.

    So forget the fight at the front, worry not about how badly Ferrari will underperform, and push Max Verstappen’s ascendency from your mind, because the story of 2017 will be Carlos Sainz.

    Carlos Sainz – the son of a rally double-champion and the man overlooked by the political machinations of the Red Bull driver program last year – this season not only holds his career in his hands, but he could prove a front-runner linchpin.

    First, he has the talent – his admission into the Red Bull junior driver programme and early contract renewal last season prove as much.

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    There are those who would deny his abilities after an under-the-radar maiden season in the shadow of his teenage teammate Max Verstappen and a sophomore year with a broken Daniil Kvyat as his near exclusive bar, but their reasons for doubting are greatly exaggerated.

    Unaccounted for in Verstappen’s undoubtedly impressive debut season was Sainz’s string of unreliability from the season’s halfway point, when the Toro Rosso was scoring most heavily.

    Neglected too is the effect it had on Spaniard’s ability to build momentum in his first campaign.

    In 2016, Sainz made good on any unfulfilled promise, and he did so in the style of his idol and friend Fernando Alonso – he consistently outperformed his car.

    Max Verstappen and Carlos Sainz of Scuderia Toro Rosso

    He scored 46 points – three shy of Verstappen’s total in 2015 – despite the car’s year-old Ferrari power unit leaving the team woefully off the pace.

    Second, Sainz has the temperament – that prized asset of all top-line drivers and the key to his outstanding second season.

    “When Max Verstappen was promoted to Red Bull, people tend to forget that was also a tough period for me, not only for Daniil Kvyat. For me it was difficult to understand not being the chosen one,” Sainz told James Allen on F1.

    “The next three events were the three best races of my life in Formula One straight after a bad moment, which was also important for me, and since then I’ve built momentum and developed it into a situation that is helping me a lot.”

    Compare this to Toro Rosso’s previous second-year pairing of Daniel Ricciardo and Jean-Eric Vergne. After Ricciardo earnt the nod to replace Mark Webber at Red Bull Racing, Vergne became consumed by his mental weaknesses.

    Ricciardo, similarly, remains an archetype of the Red Bull programme not because he blew his opponents out of the water but because he showed aptitude for improvement in the face of adversity. Sainz fits this mould hand-in-glove.

    Formula One’s history is replete with talented journeymen – the Heidfelds, or (possibly) the Hulkenbergs of the world – but the matching of Sainz’s ability and mentality stand him in good stead to better himself in 2017.

    And there could be no better year for the Toro Rosso driver to find his next gear, because in 2017 the Formula One world will be almost completely open to such a talented individual.

    Even in 2016 manufacturers were courting Carlos. Renault was obviously keen, but Helmut Marko forbade it, knowing the talented Spaniard’s contract could be handy insurance should a Ricciardo versus Verstappen title fight turn sour in 2017.

    Renault’s attraction was limited in any case – both Sergio Perez and Kevin Magnussen saw little reason for optimism in the project infamously plagued by hierarchical infighting – but could Marko realistically hope to hold onto Sainz should more powerful suitors come knocking?

    Mercedes, Ferrari, McLaren, Williams, and Renault – all championship-winning teams – will have seats up for grabs at the end of 2017, and each of them present a stronger path for Carlos’s career than Toro Rosso, which will never be allowed to vie for the title.

    Carlos Sainz of Scuderia Toro Rosso

    The permutations of such a move are vast. Any of Kimi Räikkönen, Valtteri Bottas, Fernando Alonso, Stoffel Vandoorne, Felipe Massa, Lance Stroll, or Jolyon Palmer – or even Sebastian Vettel – could be turfed by an ascendant Sainz, rearranging the dynamic of the leading teams when, fingers crossed, as many as four constructors are shaping up to compete for the championship.

    It is clear that an upwardly mobile, growing-in-confidence Carlos Sainz could become a key player at F1’s pointy end in the immediate future.

    How devastating an impact he can have is up to him and his next 20 races.

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    The Crowd Says (10)

    • Roar Guru

      February 14th 2017 @ 3:27pm
      Bayden Westerweller said | February 14th 2017 @ 3:27pm | ! Report

      Williams looms as a logical progression for Sainz, not least in creating a lineage to Mercedes, unless the French politicking at Renault ceases in coming months – in which case, he’d be a perfect fit alongside Hulkenberg at Enstone.

      By the turn of the decade, he’ll be ideally equipped if McLaren or Ferrari come knocking, though he should be wary of jumping in any earlier having witnessed the ruthless treatment received by Perez and Magnussen at the former. The Spaniard has plenty of time on his side to easy his way up the grid.

      It could yet come to pass that a disgruntled Vettel moves on from Ferrari at the conclusion of ’17 and Ricciardo for one takes the Maranello carrot, creating a vacancy at Red Bull which would have Sainz’s name on it should he continue his 2016 trajectory, allowing his hostile dynamic with Verstappen established at Toro Rosso to resume.

    • Columnist

      February 14th 2017 @ 6:17pm
      Michael Lamonato said | February 14th 2017 @ 6:17pm | ! Report

      At the end of last year I’d have tipped him to move to Ferrari, but the place is so tumultuous at the moment it’d be far too big a risk to take. If the Italians can get their house in order, I’d love to see him get there. I think RBR’s more likely to let Sainz move to a major rival than Daniel Ricciardo — notwithstanding any bitterness in his Verstappen rivalry that might crop up this year.

      The all-new McLaren could also prove a nice fit, though, and there’s something poetic about Sainz maturing into a driver of sufficient calibre tor replace his idol, Fernando Alonso…

      • February 15th 2017 @ 2:54am
        Dexter The Hamster said | February 15th 2017 @ 2:54am | ! Report

        I wouldn’t discount a Verstappen move to Ferrari if any bitterness arises at RBR. I sense the Verstappen clan can smell blood in the water and will move heaven and earth to get to the right team at the right time. Of course that means Ferrari would have to be a front runner, but if that happens, I would bet good money that both Verstappen and the Scuderia would make it happen, whatever the cost.

        • Columnist

          February 15th 2017 @ 8:56am
          Michael Lamonato said | February 15th 2017 @ 8:56am | ! Report

          It’d definitely be worth thinking about, but Ferrari has a historical aversion to hiring young drivers — even if Verstappen’s an obviously proven talent. I think the test of this will be how Ferrari handles Antonio Giovinazzi and Charles Leclerc. Giovinazzi will apparently be driving in some Friday practice sessions this year, so this could be a sign things are changing.

    • Roar Guru

      February 14th 2017 @ 6:47pm
      Bayden Westerweller said | February 14th 2017 @ 6:47pm | ! Report

      Maranello is certainly an undesirable place at the moment, who knows whether this will change across the course of 2017, though it’s likely to be another few seasons at this rate. Ricciardo is gold from a marketing perspective, thus Red Bull will force him to honour the balance of his contract unless Ferrari offered something priceless. It’d be a shame if they were deterred from promoting Sainz if the opportunity arose purely based on his history with Verstappen.

      Sainz to McLaren could depend when Alonso decides to ride into the sunset (or move to Mercedes), it’d be a ruthless call if Vandoorne was ditched so soon in favour of an all Spanish line-up, yet he does loom as his natural successor wherever he surfaces. Renault would have ties to Alonso’s titles, Ferrari to achieve what he couldn’t. As you say, his actions across 2017 will determine how soon he’s on the big four’s radars.

      • Columnist

        February 15th 2017 @ 9:01am
        Michael Lamonato said | February 15th 2017 @ 9:01am | ! Report

        As to the decision to pair Verstappen and Sainz again, it would depend on how bad that blood was in the first place. I think a lot of it arose from tension between Verstappen’s management/Jos and their desire to be treated preferentially with a view to early promotion — which obviously delivered! So perhaps a reunion at RBR wouldn’t result in a repeated ugly tension given it’d be a ‘purer’ rivalry, if you like.

        You’re right, there are plenty of way for Sainz to truly be the *next* Alonso — hopefully by being more successful during all his mid-career ventures!

    • February 14th 2017 @ 7:59pm
      Simoc said | February 14th 2017 @ 7:59pm | ! Report

      I would think Sainz is highly regarded right across F1. But Williams are not progressing anywhere and haven’t been for many years. McLaren have the potential to go forward so outside the top three that would be his only option should he fancy winning a WDC. Unless Renault improve their car dramatically.

      • Columnist

        February 15th 2017 @ 9:04am
        Michael Lamonato said | February 15th 2017 @ 9:04am | ! Report

        Correct — I think this season and 2018 will be another big test for Williams and its credibility as a returned power. Not winning in this first part of the hybrid era was a disappointment and a sign that progression has been minimal since its leap up in 2014.

        McLaren, though I’m increasingly thinking that it could be a pretty good fit under new management, does seem difficult to imagine purely because (a) if the car is good enough, Fernando will surely stay to find that third title and (b) if the car isn’t good enough, there’s not point moving there.

        Renault? Similar thing, I suppose. They still have to prove the team can move forward — it’s isn’t a givenn, in the same way Honda obviously hasn’t yet delivered despite assumptions.

    • February 15th 2017 @ 3:00am
      Dexter The Hamster said | February 15th 2017 @ 3:00am | ! Report

      Michael, I just have to say I cannot wait for this season to kick off. The changes have me excited that any team (within reason) can be the champions this year. I’m nervous that it wont amount to much and it will be 1) Mercedes 2) RBR 3) Ferrari etc etc, but also excited that the grid might be turned on its head (within reason) and anything could happen.

      The sad thing is that Sainz will be in a team where again the best he can do is “outperform his car”. He deserves a real shot at it, hopefully it will come in time.

      • Columnist

        February 15th 2017 @ 9:07am
        Michael Lamonato said | February 15th 2017 @ 9:07am | ! Report

        Yes, the off-season has definitely worn off for me! I’m ready for F1 to start again, and I’m keen to see if anyone can beat Mercedes. I think Mercedes-RBR-Ferrari — though I’m not getting my hopes up for Ferrari… — isn’t necessarily a bad thing so long as they’re close enough to threaten each other at each race.

        At very least the Toro Rosso will be much improved compared to last year given its updated engine, and now that RBR and STR are running the same power unit, I think we’ll see more RBR parts appearing on that junior car, which should make it more competitive and give Carlos a chance to play a bigger role in the top 10, at very least. And if the midfield is still close this season, that’s a recipe for some great racing nonetheless.

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