Written by Ishani Aziz, Edited by Alexandra Campos
Carlos Sainz Jr. has had 147 Formula 1 starts since his debut in 2015, including 11 podiums as of the Canadian Grand Prix in June, but rather famously; no wins. There is no doubt he is talented, as Mattia Binotto himself said last year, “He has proved to have the talent we expected from him, delivering impressive results”. Unfortunately, Sainz, unlike his nickname, hasn't had the smoothest of starts to the 2022 season; with three DNFs only nine races in. Peter Windsor theorised that the 2022 regulations would help drivers with overtaking due to a smaller loss of downforce. A less aggressive driver like Sainz should have been helped by these regs. This should have been the season to earn his first win, but instead he’s slipped to fifth in the standings. So what’s happened? Let’s examine Sainz’s journey in past years, the current year, and what he needs to fix.
The story so far: From the STR10 to the F1-75
To rate Sainz’s performances, we need his driving skills and machinery to be on some relative scale. To do this I’ve taken the points Sainz has scored in the driver standings relative to the world champion in a given year (e.g Lewis Hamilton is 100% of the points in 2015), and the points his team has scored in the constructors (e.g Mercedes would be 100% of the points in 2015), across Carlos’ career. While these measures don’t account for bad luck, or DNFs, they can roughly indicate how much Sainz has done with a less competitive car than he currently has. It shows us how well the car and his teammate did (hence the car contribution percentage), and how well Carlos actually did (driver contribution percentage).
For example, in Carlos’ debut, the car was not dominant, but he still didn’t contribute as many points as he proportionately should have (as he placed 12th that year, but Renault 7th as a team). 2016 and 2017 show that Sainz contributes significantly more to his own standings with a car of the same dominance. His McLaren years with Lando Norris seem quite harmonious, with both his driving and the team seeming well-matched. This seems to apply to the 2021 season with Ferrari, and the 2022 season so far. The only difference is this year the expectation is different. Placing fifth in the driver standings with McLaren being 3rd in the constructors was a relative win for a mid-field team. With the SF21 Ferrari, fifth was adequate, but this season, Sainz is expected to be exactly on par with his machinery (being second in the constructors).
Let’s apply the ratio of the driver contribution to car contribution to the top 10 in the driver standings between 2015-2021 (Sainz placed 15th in 2015, then 12th, and entered the top 10 in 2017), where a ratio of above one suggests that the driver is extracting the most out of a car that ranks below the world champion’s, and vice versa. All retired drivers that were not Sainz’s teammates were excluded, as well as Magnussen and Ocon who only placed within the 10 ten once in 2018 and 2017 respectively. When we do that, Lewis Hamilton essentially acts as a baseline, almost consistently having a ratio of one (his points representing 100% of those available that season, and his car as well).
These ratios don’t show us wins, but for instance that Pierre Gasly in 2019, had a ratio of 2.0, so the points he contributed to his own standings were two times more than his car (given how it ranked in the constructors) was expected to. Using that ratio we see that Carlos outperforms his teammate with just two exceptions: Verstappen in 2015, and Hulkenberg in 2017. In his McLaren years (where the team did well in the constructors) he was able to extract more from the MCL34 and MCL35 than Norris did. Interestingly, after Charles Leclerc entered in 2018, Leclerc was in a less dominant Sauber but managed to contribute more to his points with a 1.25 ratio, whereas Sainz, in the more capable Renault, had 0.75. In the same machinery by 2021, Sainz out-ranked Leclerc by just a handful of points which manifested itself in the plot (the purple line being just a shadow below the pink line). This year, we don’t know the full picture yet, but we do know that Leclerc is outperforming Sainz by 24 points as of the Canadian Grand Prix. What could Sainz be doing wrong given that we know he’s a fairly capable driver?
Impatience and frustration
There are three main things that are potentially getting in the way of Sainz’s success this season. Uncharacteristically, the first is impatience. He displayed this in Melbourne before his first DNF, which was arguably his biggest setback. Sainz himself admits it was mostly his fault (more on the car later). After a disastrous qualifying, Sainz placed 9th, starting the opening lap with an unsuccessful overtake on Yuki Tsunoda, losing yet another position to Mick Schumacher. The next lap, he went deep on the brakes and lost control of the car, running out into the gravel. Jolyon Palmer’s analysis of the race concludes that Sainz lost some crucial points that day, and on a full fuel load with hard tyres, Carlos should have just waited the aggressive midfielders out and escaped. Leclerc demonstrated that patience in Montreal, securing 5th place from the back of the grid by weaving through the midfield. If Sainz can avoid impatience after a bad quali in the future, the fallout would certainly be less drastic.
Bad luck and unreliability
Most of the remaining DNFs so far have been down to bad luck. Although the Melbourne Sunday was mostly Sainz’s own doing, the quali was ruined by happenstance. Sainz and Leclerc were evenly matched up to Q2, but in Q3, Fernando Alonso’s incident meant that Sainz’s time didn’t count. He had to run a scrappy lap with cooler tires than he wanted resulting in that 9th place. Trouble trickled into race day, when the brake balance button on the steering wheel wasn’t working, causing the wheel to be replaced last minute, with the wrong start map setting. Sainz had a poor start as the car went into anti stall, dropping him to 13th, and Sainz’s frustration got the better of him in lap three.
Despite an impressive sprint performance in Imola from P10 (after a poor quali) to P4, luck ran out for Sainz again. The crash with Daniel Ricciardo’s McLaren in Turn 2 of the opening lap of the race was in Ricciardo’s hands, as he himself admits. Baku was even more unfortunate, where a hydraulics issue ended his race. Sometimes it is just poor luck, which Leclerc knows well from 2021.
Driving style and ease with the car
The final and most important obstacle to Sainz’s performance this season is his adaptability to the F1-75. He himself has admitted; “It’s not been easy”, “I’m struggling quite a bit to drive this car … it’s a bit too pointy for my liking”. Sainz has said this since Bahrain, and it’s been evident ever since. In Saudi Arabia where he and Leclerc were both on softs but he could not extract the same from the car, in the Imola where he spun off in Q2, and in Barcelona, he has suffered largely in part because of this clash between his driving and the new car.
Leclerc on the other hand, due to a combination of his talent and ease in a car that is largely tailored to his driving style, has thrived. Charles knows Ferrari inside out as a product of their academy, which could explain why he finds the car easily manageable. Leclerc also drives drastically differently to Sainz, in particular in his braking style. Leclerc can hit the turns and also keep the rear end stable, carrying more speed into most corners and getting on the throttle earlier. Sainz turns more smoothly but also more cautiously which means he scrubs off less time. It could be that the F1-75 demands less from the tires and is more of a battling car than the previous SF21.
Sainz often lets opportunities pass him by, letting the car get the better of him when it matters. Leclerc was out of the picture in the Canadian Grand Prix, and Carlos could realistically have secured his first win, having led the race for some time. His strategy was effective, staying out on mediums for 20 laps while Max pitted under the first virtual safety car. After a slightly slow (but not disastrous) pit stop, Verstappen overtook him. Instead of the used mediums, Sainz pitted on hards, but still managed to mount a relatively good attack, charging the engine beautifully and easing into the DRS zones. He secured a well-deserved second finish, but with that significant speed and grip advantage over Red Bull (with tires that were 6 laps newer than Verstappen’s), he missed his maiden victory by a tantalising amount. With everything in his favour, he was too gingerly in the F1-75, not overtaking the way we know he can.
Light at the end of the tunnel
The cocktail of slow adaptation, impatience and some bad luck has cost Sainz a good number of points this year. While Binotto has repeatedly stated that he is confident Sainz will feel at ease in the car soon, driving styles take time to unlearn. We can only hope Carlos learns to be more patient, and catches less bad luck in the meantime. It’s not as if it has been disastrous either, with Sainz’s “save of the season”, and spectacular tyre call in Monaco. Carlos has undeniable talent, he just needs to break the car in, and hopefully with time he can prove himself and avoid the wrath of the Tifosi.