The Toro Rosso machine just keeps on churning, producing one exciting talent after the other for Formula One’s big leagues, and it looks like Carlos Sainz is shaping up to be their latest star in the making.
The 22-year-old Spaniard, named after his two-time world rally championship-winning father, was destined for a career in motorsport and he’s been doing himself – and his family name – proud with some impressive work for Toro Rosso over the past six months.
Driving for the team which has helped launch the career of four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel, Sainz Jr is yet another example of how the Red Bull development system continues to be a success.
And while Red Bull’s senior team looks set for the next two years with Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen, there’s no denying that Sainz is showing signs that he is a talent not to be overlooked.
Following a “frustrating” 2015 rookie season which was marred by reliability issues, Sainz turned a new leaf in 2016, and hit his stride in May when he clinched a valuable sixth-place finish at his home grand prix in Barcelona.
He has finished in the points 10 times this season, including three P6’s – the last of which came two weeks ago in a stormy race at Interlagos in Brazil.
Although the Toro Rosso car became less competitive as the season went on, Sainz grew in confidence with each race. His progress coincided with the departure of his team-mate Verstappen, who was promoted to Red Bull Racing after the first four races of 2016, with Daniil Kvyat relegated down to Toro Rosso.
Did Verstappen’s team switch have anything to do with Sainz’s improvement?
“I know there’s a coincidence there, that Max left and suddenly I started to show up. But I still think nothing would have changed,” Sainz said in Abu Dhabi where he starts today’s race 21st on the grid.
“I still think P6, or P7 if Max would have finished in front, would have been possible in Spain. I still think I would have fought for a podium in Monaco like I did…China pit stop with Vettel slowing me down in the pit entry while I was P6, didn’t happen in Spain.
“It’s very small details that suddenly stopped happening to me from Spain onwards that have nothing to do with Max and suddenly I could show better results.”
In a year where the title battle between Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg has grabbed the headlines, and teenage sensation Verstappen has stolen the show, Sainz insists he has plenty to be proud of, having amassed 46 points to lie 12th in the Drivers’ Championship heading into today’s season-finale.
“I’m very happy with 2016 and the way it went and I also feel like a completely different driver compared to 2015 – both in terms of results and in terms of feeling,” added Sainz.
“In 2015 I was probably a very frustrated driver with a lot of reliability problems, not being able to show my full potential and I knew that 2016 it was time to show it and time to discover it to F1 people.
“All of a sudden in Spain it clicked, I stopped having problems, stopped having bad pit stops, stopped having just stuff that was not allowing me (to perform), and all of a sudden everything changed.
“My perception, also the perception of the team, everything changed towards a much more positive environment.”
Sainz produced a stellar drive in Brazil earlier this month but it took a backseat to the acrobatic show put on by Verstappen, who fought in the wet from P16 all the way to the podium.
It is perhaps unfair that Sainz’s exploits did not get the attention they deserved but the Madrileno does not need outside validation to feel good about his drive.
“Maybe towards the outside, towards the media, the fans (don’t realise what I did) but inside myself I know that I qualified two seconds off a Red Bull on the dry and I know that in the wet the Toro Rosso doesn’t pick up two seconds of lap-time per lap, I know the Toro Rosso is still off the pace in the wet as it was in the dry,” he explained.
“I also know in the last stint fighting against a Red Bull, a Force India, a Ferrari and another Red Bull. I was at the end of the life of my tyre and I had a Toro Rosso; not a Force India, not a Red Bull, not a Ferrari.
“I was extremely proud about that drive. No regrets, super happy about it, not just because a guy did a very good job like Max did, it made my result any less. I was feeling as good as I could feel at that point.”
At 22, Sainz’s maturity and level-headedness stands out the most and it’s not surprising when he mentions a crash in qualifying as the most valuable lesson he had in 2016.
“I think a big boost for me was for example the race of Canada where I think I made one of my only mistakes this year – that was to crash in qualifying in the famous ‘Wall of Champions’ but then suddenly on Sunday I came back with a completely different mind and made I think one of my best races of the season to come up P9 from 16 on the grid,” he says.
“And that moment there when you go through a very bad moment but you come back stronger and do a good result it gives you a bit of confidence that even if you make mistakes in the rest of the year you can come back and that gave me a boost for the rest of the season.”