Carlos Sainz reaching potential with McLaren as he enjoys superb 2019
From Red Bull's junior ranks to McLaren's team leader, Carlos Sainz is enjoying his best F1 season in 2019; In a fascinating column, Sky F1's Mark Hughes analyses the Spaniard's impressive breakout year
Last Updated: 23/10/19 6:03pm
If there was a world championship for the 'Class B' part of the field, behind the big three teams, it would be led convincingly by McLaren's Carlos Sainz.
In this hyper-competitive part of the grid, he has taken the flag best of the rest six times so far, which is twice as often as the next best (team-mate Lando Norris and Renault's Daniel Ricciardo on three-apiece).
Because this part of the competition is invariably a long way behind the Mercedes/Ferrari/Red Bull contest, Sainz's performances have rather fallen under the radar but his first season with McLaren has been quite superb. His natural speed and exuberance have been allied to five seasons-worth of experience, allowing him to deliver pretty much every time he has got into the car.
The making of Carlos Sainz
This is the man who gave virtually nothing away to Max Verstappen when they were Toro Rosso team-mates in their rookie seasons but for whom a slot in the senior team never opened up. Put out on loan to Renault, it took him a little while to adapt to a very different car but over the course of last season his qualifying average was within hundredths of Nico Hulkenberg.
Furthermore, he's invariably fantastic in wet or changeable conditions but, surprisingly, Red Bull chose not to take up its option on him when a vacancy finally arose in the senior team as Daniel Ricciardo left, instead promoting Pierre Gasly.
Although this contractually released Sainz from his Red Bull strings, it looked like the move to McLaren was a damage-limitation exercise. Instead, it's proved the making of him.
Why Sainz is an F1 2019 star
Even with the starring rookie Norris alongside him, Sainz has emerged as the team leader - though an early string of bad luck disguised that, notably his unfortunate habit of being caught out by yellow flags in qualifying at the crucial moment. This happened twice in the first five races, giving the statistical advantage to Norris. But in the sessions where both drivers got representative laps, Sainz narrowly heads the match-up six to five.
But it's in the races where he's really shone, with a relentless and polished delivery that's brought a steady haul of points. And although unofficial class wins are well short of McLaren's ultimate aspirations, they are a measure of the team's progress in what has been a very difficult transition from its second (Ron Dennis) to third (Zak Brown and Andreas Seidl) evolutions.
Sainz's six 'wins' plus the three of Norris compare to the one of Fernando Alonso in 2018. Sainz and Norris are the post-Alonso representations of the team's new energy and together bring a great competitive positivity to it. It's a much more harmonious place now and the friendly but competitive dynamic between the drivers is a big part of that. Away from the Red Bull strings, Sainz is flowering as a driver and personality - and is backing that up with his on-track performances.
Aside from his six 'class wins' (at Monaco, Paul Ricard, Silverstone, Budapest, Sochi and Suzuka), his highlights include fighting hard over fourth place with the Red Bull of former nemesis Verstappen in Bahrain. It ended in a collision as Verstappen refused to surrender to Sainz's passing move, but the point was that a McLaren was fighting a Red Bull on merit. That sort of performance Alonso could only have dreamt of in his four years there.
Other highlights include his passing around the outside of both Toro Rossos at Massenet-Casino on the first lap of Monaco, the foundation to his 'class-winning' sixth-place there. Then there was his drive from the back of the grid (because of an engine change) in Austria to be challenging for the midfield win. Only a partial wing failure in the late laps prevented him challenging Gasly's Red Bull and team-mate Norris. Up until that point he had been absolutely flying, vying with Verstappen as the fastest man on track as they both enjoyed the fresh rubber benefits of late pit stops.
Regardless, a McLaren lapping in Red Bull-comparable times gave some perspective to the level of Sainz's driving that day. In the rain-affected race of attrition that was the German Grand Prix, Sainz took a good fifth place and was dicing with Lewis Hamilton's Mercedes for a time. But were it not for the late 'nothing to lose' pit stop gambles onto slicks of Daniil Kvyat and Lance Stroll, Sainz would have stood on the Hockenheim podium. That would have been the merited order behind Verstappen and Vettel.
His 'class pole' in Sochi (sixth on the grid) was one of the qualifying laps of the year from anyone (as Sky's Paul Di Resta will confirm).
Regardless of how often Sainz's exploits have been seen on screen, he is one of the stars of the season.