RACE DEBRIEF

    This has been a season of extreme highs and lows for Carlos Sainz so far. It’s no wonder he says it’s been “exhausting”.

    The Spaniard won his first Grand Prix at the 150th attempt at the British Grand Prix, a peak in a year that could have had so many more had it not been for misfortune, unreliability and a couple of uncharacteristic mistakes as Sainz battled to get to grips with the 2022-spec Ferrari F1-75.

    He spun out of Australia on Lap 1 after trying to make up lost ground off the start and then was knocked out of Imola after being hit by Daniel Ricciardo, meaning he went two Grands Prix completing just one racing lap – having just finished a streak of 31 races. That hurt his confidence and slowed progress in trying to understand the car.

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    A trip across the gravel on home soil in Spain cost him a shot at the podium, as did PU issues in Azerbaijan and Austria. He had the pace to contend for the win in France, but was robbed of the chance to show it courtesy of a suite of engine component changes that triggered a back-of-the-grid start (from which he impressively recovered to fifth).

    Of the nine races he’s finished, he’s stood on the podium six times. That’s a higher tally than Leclerc by one – and while he trails significantly in the qualifying head-to-head (10-3), his race performance is better, with an average finishing position of 2.89 (Leclerc’s is 3.20).

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    Sainz has endured a "rollercoaster" season that has also seen him win his first ever Grand Prix at Silverstone last month

    “It’s been a rollercoaster season, especially the beginning,” says Sainz when we chat in blazing sunshine outside the Ferrari motorhome in Hungary. “It’s been tough with this car. Two consecutive DNFs at the beginning dropped me out of the championship fight very early. Then I had a high peak with [fighting for the win in] Canada and [winning at] Silverstone, then a low, then a high. But I’d much rather have the rollercoaster being as competitive as I am now than at the beginning.”

    The retirement in Austria really hurt because it was damaging on several levels. Firstly, it cost him a comfortable podium – mostly likely P2. Secondly, it stalled the momentum he had built in Canada and Silverstone. Thirdly, he was struck with a host of engine component changes that triggered a back-of-the-grid start in France.

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    Throughout the difficult times, Ferrari have publicly backed him. “[That support] was important, especially after Austria, which was hard to digest because I know I haven’t had the easiest start of the season, but my season was starting to come together with a strong result in Canada and a win in Silverstone; I was about to finish in the top-two again for the third consecutive race and then a DNF sent my championship hopes and a lot of points to the bin,” he says.

    Sainz admits his lack of consistency “threw me off a lot” as it’s never been like that in his career. But it was his previous experience of getting on top of cars and going on a run of strong results – last year he ended the season with 15 straight finishes in the points, while the year before at McLaren he had seven points finishes to end the season – that gave him the belief he would crack it.

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    Sainz has continued to defend Ferrari's strategy calls, insisting his team is performing at a high level

    “If anything, everyone [in Ferrari] is happy [with my results],” he says. ”If I am competitive, the team is going to be happy. They have seen the progress we have done with the car. I’m not saying it’s done, or I don’t still need to progress and keep making myself comfortable and strong, but it’s definitely helped the way I approach the weekend. My mindset into the weekend now is more focused on maximising the weekend, instead of every session trying to find something in the car to click.”

    As Ferrari have defended Sainz, so has Sainz defended Ferrari, particularly when it’s come to the team’s strategy, which has been called into question on several occasions this season. Sainz isn’t having any of it.

    “The team is performing at a very high level,” he says. “We’re up against a very strong team like Red Bull which makes things complicated and we need to perform at a high level to match them. The team has progressed a lot these last two years.

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    “Strategy is always a talking point in Ferrari. I don’t know why everyone looks at our strategy and over-analyses what we should have done. I guess it’s part of being Ferrari. There is over-analysis of our radio too. All our radio messages get broadcast. Maybe this gives an impression of chaos.

    "But my conversations on radio are always the same, it doesn’t matter if it’s a calm race or not, or a strategy-dependent race or not, we’re always having these conversations you’re hearing on the broadcast and I find them extremely important to take the right decisions. I’d much rather have them than not have them, trust me.”

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    Sainz says working with team mate Leclerc has made him a better driver

    In campaigns where there is a championship on the line, tensions can rise between team mates – especially if they are both in the mix to regularly challenge for podiums and wins. But there’s been no such tension at Ferrari – at least not yet – with Leclerc and Sainz continuing to get on very well, both on and off-track. If anything, Sainz believes competing against Leclerc is pushing him to be better.

    “Charles always produces extremely good laps through practice into qualifying, and this year also very good race pace,” he says. “He’s always a great reference to have in the team, a great guy to get on with, a guy that I really have learned a lot from in the past few years and a guy who I look forward to having as a team mate for the future, because we get on well and create a good partnership.

    “We get to spend a lot of time together both at Maranello and at the track and normally have similar opinions about a lot of stuff. Apart from that, when it’s time to have fun, we can have fun, play some sports. Not everything is super serious and team-dependent. I hope we can keep it that way.”

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    And that strong relationship extends to boss Mattia Binotto, who pushed hard for Sainz to replace Sebastian Vettel from last season onwards and who was keen to extend the Spaniard's stay beyond an initial two-year deal when he performed so strongly last year, ending a career-best fifth in the drivers' standings.

    “Mattia has been for me a very important piece of the puzzle,” he says. “When joining Ferrari, he was the one who trusted me probably more than anyone, when signing me, and I had to be there to prove him right. I had to be there in 2021 to produce results he and Ferrari expected from me. Since then, my relationship has been great, I think he’s a great team leader. I think the appreciation and respect he has inside the team is huge and he’s leading us in the right direction for sure.”

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    Sainz still has his eye on catching championship leader Max Verstappen despite the 102-point deficit in the championship

    There are still nine races to go this year, a triple European leg before the long-haul end to the campaign. He's 102 points behind Verstappen, making a title challenge unlikely, but given the erratic nature of the season so far, Sainz is optimistic about the opportunities ahead.

    "Statistically, anything is possible. That’s why my intention hasn’t changed," he says. "I'm still going into every weekend trying to win the race. It’s a crazy year we are doing. If you see how consistently the top-two teams are on top, it should be an easy championship where one wins, one finishes second, but it’s not like that.

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    "There are a lot of points swings, which makes me believe everything is possible. It’s a very different year to anything before as the racing is better, more things happening in the race, and I’m going to believe that until it’s over."

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    Sainz believes that he can one day win a World Championship if he has the car to do so

    With a win now under his belt, respect for the job he's doing at Ferrari and the growing consistency this year that has characterised his career to date, Sainz is putting himself in the mix.

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    Does he think he can win the World Championship in the future, if he has a car to do so? "I think so," he says. "This year, my start of the season put me 50 points behind straight away and it’s difficult to make yourself look like a championship contender when you are minus-50.

    "But if you look closely at the last few races, I am performing at a very similar level to the top guys. I feel like I’m there. It’s just that price I paid at the beginning of the season is costing me this year."