When you think of drivers in Formula One who go beyond the ability of their car on a regular basis, you think of the same names every time. Fernando Alonso with his poorly powered McLaren-Honda car, Nico Hulkenberg with his Renault in a team rebuilding to become a force once more, and even Esteban Ocon in the Force India given his lack of experience at the pinnacle of motorsport. But one driver that doesn’t get nearly enough credit that he deserves in my opinion is Carlos Sainz, and let me explain why.
It’s often said that a driver’s main rival is the driver opposite him in the garage in his team-mate. With Sainz’s Toro Rosso team-mate in Daniil Kvyat, Sainz has comfortably come out ahead of him so far this season, with a number of brilliant performances including a 6th place in Monaco where he successfully held off Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton in the process.
In a team that should be amongst the least successful in the sport given the lack of performance Renault engines has compared to Mercedes power, Carlos Sainz has almost single-handedly carried Toro Rosso to a solid mid-table position in the constructor’s standings, even challenging Williams for 5th place. From a driver standing perspective, it looks even better from Sainz’s perspective. He is ahead of both Williams drivers in the championship, including F1 veteran Felipe Massa. He is only 6 points behind Esteban Ocon in the Force India and only 16 behind Max Verstappen in the senior Red Bull team!
It is obvious that Carlos Sainz has demonstrated his immense talent so far in his career, and many are saying he is ready for the step up into a top team challenging for podiums, wins and even championships. But this step up may not be as simple as first thought. Red Bull have chosen to promote from within for many years and it would be foolish to say that Sainz isn’t top of the list should there be the need to recruit a new driver. But the Red Bull pairing of Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen already have contracts for the 2018 season, so they’re not going anywhere soon unless Ferrari follow through with the rumours and try and pick up Ricciardo, although this is unlikely.
There have also been rumours of Ferrari going for Sainz. Again, this may prove difficult given Red Bull don’t want their rivals to take their top talents, but then again Ferrari may choose for someone more experienced to come into the team. While Valtteri Bottas may not be under contract at Mercedes next season, it would be expected that he would receive another deal given his solid performances so far in 2017. The only viable option of an “upgrade” would be for Sainz to go to the factory Renault outfit, but the competitiveness of the team next season would be guesswork at this stage.
I remember saying in a previous article of mine that Daniel Ricciardo’s career was at a crossroads in 2015, with greater clarity needed to show what direction his career was going. Carlos Sainz has exactly the same problem. While Sainz may have time on his hands (He only turns 23 in September), he has a golden opportunity to stake his claim as a future F1 great if he can forge the right career path. But as has been discussed, this won’t be easy by any stretch of the imagination. Unless Ricciardo decides to become team-mates again with Sebastian Vettel at Ferrari, the Red Bull door is firmly closed for the 2018 season.
Sainz doesn’t have to act immediately, but he would benefit massively if he was able to establish himself at the top of the sport before he tries to take it by the scruff of its neck. There is zero chance of him claiming any glory at Toro Rosso while he is there, but there may be the slightest chance if he pushes forward at a top team. Hopefully he will get the chance sooner rather than later, otherwise he may become another “What could’ve been”.