Ferrari-bound Carlos Sainz soon gets his chance to prove there is more to F1's nearly man

Spaniard's appointment as Vettel's successor raised a few eyebrows but a deep dive into his career suggests there could be more to him than his scant CV

BAHRAIN, BAHRAIN - DECEMBER 05: Carlos Sainz of Spain and McLaren F1 looks on as he walks in parc ferme after qualifying ahead of the F1 Grand Prix of Sakhir at Bahrain International Circuit on December 05, 2020 in Bahrain, Bahrain. (Photo by Tolga Bozoglu - Pool/Getty Images)

At first sight it appears utter recklessness.

Ferrari have axed four-time champion Sebastian Vettel for an unknown Spaniard who has only made the podium twice in six years.

And they have dispensed with the German’s vast experience when they need it most – coming off the back of Maranello’s worst season in 40 years.

If he wasn’t the son of a legendary rally champion of the same name it would be fair to say 26-year-old Carlos Sainz has risen practically without trace.

He is F1's nearly man. Nearly on the podium again at the last round in Bahrain, so nearly won in Monza too.

His performances often close to the podium last year with McLaren got so little airtime even his own father joked sarcastically about “the invisible man”.

Sainz signs off from McLaren on Sunday at the Etihad Airways Formula One Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, the 118th Grand Prix of his career, and begins preparing for life in one of the most sought-after seats in F1 alongside Maranello’s golden boy Charles Leclerc.

A superficial glance down the grid would suggest a handful of names have better credentials: Lewis Hamilton, Fernando Alonso, Daniel Ricciardo, Sergio Perez, Nico Hulkenberg, Kimi Raikkonen and Max Verstappen for starters.

So how did Sainz leapfrog the queue?

Ex-boss Trevor Carlin believes he has the answer. Carlin has had many of the world’s top drivers in his cars as they scaled the lower formula aiming at F1.

Sainz was a Red Bull Academy driver in 2014.

“The one thing you could rely on with Carlos was that if there was any moisture in the air, any rain, he will be at the front,” Carlin told Sky Sports. “He won his first race at Monza [in Formula 3] in torrential rain. He dominated it.”

But Carlin believes the budding F1 racer felt the pressure of his famous name in those early years.

“It’s the legacy of being Carlos’ son, of being a Red Bull driver and the pressure from Helmut [Marko, Red Bull boss]. It was tough.

“[At Red Bull] he struggled with the pressure. Now he is relaxed and is driving naturally and normally. It’s been brilliant. What it will be at Ferrari is a different kettle of fish but then the expectations aren’t on him, they are on Charles so maybe it will play into Carlos’ hands.”

A deep dive into his career suggests there could be more to Sainz than his scant CV. At Toro Rosso in 2015 he was only a fraction slower than the mighty Max Verstappen and in the first four races of 2016 he shaded the Belgian by a fraction before he left.

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The problem for many is that the Spaniard looks pedestrian beside the cavalier cut and thrust of Verstappen. And he failed to shine in the ensuing two years at Renault or the two that followed at McLaren.

Financially, though, the move makes sense. Sebastian Vettel earns close to $35 million. Ricciardo would have demanded over $20m, Alonso too. Sainz will be lucky to be getting $5m. Besides them Sainz looks a snip.

Ferrari, though, have always been able to rely on Fiat’s deep pockets. After all, why fork out $20m when no amount of talent is going to make a difference until you get the car sorted?

Boss Mattia Binotto has made it plain Ferrari are, for once, thinking long term in a bid to end decades of boom and bust.

Sainz has the additional marginal benefit of speaking fluent Italian – never a critical factor but one not to be discarded when you are not only a racer but also a crusader carrying the machismo of an entire nation.

Even so, the absence of an experienced world champion for the first time since 1995 seems like an unnecessary gamble.

Some speculate Sainz is only a one year stop-gap until Ferrari unveils a bigger name already on the hook for the new era starting 2022. And that could only mean Hamilton or Verstappen.

Others believe Sainz has appeal as an uncomplicated, controllable No 2 to Leclerc. Perhaps Ferrari’s Valtteri Bottas? Good enough to deliver if they are in the hunt for the constructor’s championship but not fast enough to disturb the Frenchman’s mojo.

Carlin gives short shrift to the idea Sainz will be content to be a timid No 2.

“No chance. That’s not going to happen. I think he’s going to shock people with how quick he is.”