“I wish now that I would have felt a bit more comfortable at the beginning of the season to make things a bit more complicated for Max.”
Things move so quickly in Formula 1 that it’s easy to forget that Carlos Sainz was having a tough time of it at the start of his second season with Ferrari.
Having stacked up well against Charles Leclerc during their first year together, he struggled to adapt to Ferrari’s race-winning car at the start of the 2022 season.
While Leclerc duelled with reigning champion Max Verstappen and won two of the opening three races, Sainz couldn’t get near them and spun out of the Australian GP.
This was followed by another crash in qualifying at Imola and a subsequent first-lap retirement in the race proper after he was shunted into the gravel by Daniel Ricciardo.
Sainz was “fighting to get it together” in the first half of the year but Silverstone provided something of a breakthrough as he outqualified team-mate Leclerc for the first time in 2022 (bar Montreal where Leclerc had a grid penalty) and took his maiden F1 pole.
He converted that into his first F1 win, even if that was in slightly fortuitous circumstances after a questionable late-race strategy call for Leclerc and after debris ruptured the floor on Verstappen’s Red Bull.
Sainz’s struggles were hardly over but he would continue to be closer to Leclerc in qualifying and the race across the second half of the season, with a brilliant comeback drive at Monza and poles at Spa and Austin the standouts.
Last weekend in Mexico City, Sainz led Ferrari’s muted charge after engine compromises confined it to a lonely weekend as the third-best team.
He was helped by Leclerc engine problems but Sainz has consistently been more of a match for Leclerc than he was at the start of the year.
Unfortunately for Sainz, it’s coincided with Ferrari’s drop in relative performance and Red Bull’s nine-race winning streak, making him “wish” he’d had this performance level at the start of the year so he could have “put a bit more of a fight” against Verstappen.
“Max has done an amazing season, he deserves it. I think they are dominant now,” Sainz said.
“The Red Bull is starting to become a dominant car but at the beginning of the season it wasn’t.
“That’s where he did a tremendous job, my target for next year is to start at the level that I am at now, which is a pretty decent level, and make things more complicated for Max.”
Sainz is now far more comfortable with the F1-75 and is proud of the progress he’s made even if back-to-back retirements at Suzuka and Austin (one as a result of driver error and the other collision damage that wasn’t his fault) have pegged him back to sixth in the drivers’ championship.
“I just know how to drive and it’s instinctive. I’m not thinking while driving anymore,” Sainz said when asked how his driving now compares to the start of the season.
“And you can see the laptimes are coming a lot easier and I’m back to a level that I should have been at the beginning of the year.
“Now that I’m at a good level the car is maybe not as good.
“It’s been a nightmare of a season to be honest, because of all these things, the DNFs, being slow when the car was quick, now I’m quick and we are not as quick as we used to be.
“It’s everything that has gone wrong this season that has gone wrong, but the positive side is that I am keeping my spirits up even on a horrible season or impossible-to-be-more-difficult season.
“And I’m still there with my engineers fighting, still finding laptime in this car. I think it could have been very easy to give up on it and let the year go away.
“But the pole in Austin and again being quick out here [in Mexico] I think it’s a good sign for us.”
Even though he finished almost a minute adrift of race winner Verstappen, Sainz believes there “wasn’t much more” in the Ferrari as he took the chequered flag ahead of Leclerc for the first time since his Spa pole-to-third – where Leclerc started 15th and climbed to sixth.
Sainz is optimistic that Ferrari can return to challenging Red Bull in 2023 despite not having won a race since July.
“It’s a new year, new car, new regs with the floor,” Sainz said of Ferrari’s 2023 chances.
“We have another chance and I fully trust the team will produce another car like the car we had this year and we will learn from the mistakes of this year.
“I will learn from the mistakes of this year and we will be more in the fight and ready to fight.”
His optimism is shared by team boss Mattia Binotto, who believes the fact Ferrari stopped developing its 2022 car some time ago – a claim that seems to go against the pervasive fan theory that Ferrari’s recent developments have taken the F1-75 towards Sainz at the expense of Leclerc – will give it an advantage for next year.
It remains to be seen whether Ferrari will deliver that, but Sainz is at least now looking more like a driver that the team can rely on if it can produce another title-challenging car.