All eyes around the world were on the earth-shattering performance by young Max Verstappen on his stunning debut for Red Bull Racing at the Spanish Grand Prix, as he took his first victory. However, under the radar, Carlos Sainz – son of the legendary rallying champion who goes under the same name, delivered his strongest race result to date, finishing in a very strong sixth place, behind only the two Red Bulls, the two Ferraris and Valtteri Bottas’ Williams. This exceptional performance, combined with Verstappen’s brilliant drive has seen Sainz’s reputation soar almost overnight, yet he still remains very much underrated. Red Bull has four potential World Champions in their four cars, and Sainz is perhaps the most underrated of the four.
Sainz did not have the easiest of paths into Formula 1. However, he came across his new team mate Daniil Kvyat in three seasons of competition on the route to the top. Sainz had the edge in the 2010 Formula BMW and 2011 Formula Renault Eurocup campaigns (in which both were rookies on both occasions). Formula Three in 2012 led to a few podiums, but no championship success. Sainz came across his Russian rival again in 2013 but crucially Kvyat calmly took the GP3 title, which led to his Toro Rosso promotion for 2014. This left Sainz in the Formula Renault 3.5 series where he was not classed as a rookie as he competed in half the season in 2013, with little success. He was able to resist pressure from former DTM driver Roberto Merhi, Britain’s Oliver Rowland and fellow Red Bull stablemate Pierre Gasly to secure the title that year – with seven wins, including two wins at Spa and at Le Castellet.
The reward was a fair one – replacing Red Bull-bound Kvyat at Toro Rosso, alongside the teenage sensation Verstappen. For much of the year, the eyes were on Verstappen as he became not only the youngest driver in F1, but very much revered for his brave overtaking abilities and for his record-breaking drives. However, quietly, Sainz was getting the job done at Toro Rosso too. Ninth on his debut despite a botched pit stop, following that up with eighth next time out at Malaysia were instant rewards for strong drives. At his home race in Spain, he qualified an absolutely astounding fifth, the fastest of all four of the Red Bull cars, and brought the car home in ninth ahead of Verstappen. Sainz would also score points at Monaco, Singapore, Japan and in the wet at Austin but his points tally was not much more than a third of Verstappen’s tally. However what many forget was the fact that Sainz was faster than Verstappen across the season on Saturdays, and that he suffered more retirements through no fault of his own than any other driver – including the Honda-equipped McLaren drivers.
Sainz didn’t seem to receive the sort of praise Verstappen received in 2015, and on paper it looked as if the Flying Dutchman thwarted his Spanish team mate but the statistics simply do not support it. Yes, Verstappen scored more points (49-18) and had a higher best finish (fourth compared to seventh), but Sainz had some absolutely stunning performances and moments (passing three cars in a single corner at Abu Dhabi springs to mind) and it was very close in terms of finishing ahead of his team mate (5-4 in Verstappen’s favour when both were running at the end). Unsurprisingly, Sainz was given another shot against Verstappen for 2016.
After four races, it was swinging a bit more in the favour of Verstappen – 3-1 in qualifying, 110-65 in laps ahead and 1-1 in finishing ahead (although Verstappen had a botched stop in Australia) left the Dutchman with a 13-4 point advantage over his team mate. When Kvyat’s struggles really came apparent at the Russian Grand Prix, whilst it was surprising that Red Bull dropped the Russian back to Toro Rosso, the fact that Helmut Marko picked Verstappen over Sainz was not so surprising. Marko always seemed desperate to get Verstappen in a Red Bull as quickly as possible to mount an assault on ex-Red Bull driver Sebastian Vettel’s ‘youngest ever’ records, of which Verstappen has already quashed a fair few.
Sainz might be past the stage of breaking such records, but the Spaniard will hopefully get his chance in a top car soon, and then we will see how he too, along with Verstappen, Kvyat and Daniel Ricciardo, are all potential World Champions in the future. Sainz was able to match Verstappen at Toro Rosso, albeit perhaps with a smoother style, but as Verstappen is one of the ‘next big things’, Sainz is one of those as well.