Is Carlos Sainz Jr actually good enough for the Ferrari deal he’s just signed?
That’s a question that broadly covers the split in responses to the news he will replace Sebastian Vettel from 2021. On the one hand, Sainz’s supporters point to his excellent 2019 season and the progress he has made across stints with Toro Rosso, Renault and now McLaren.
On the other hand, Sainz’s detractors can highlight one podium finish in more than 100 starts, and a 2019 season in which he wasn’t that much faster than a rookie in Lando Norris.
This is Formula 1 so the situation is not as simple as picking either of those sides. The reality is somewhere in between. Sainz looks like he could be an excellent support act to Charles Leclerc, potentially even more. But we won’t know until next year.
For a long time Sainz was just one of many good drivers aspiring to make it to F1. He won a title in Formula Renault but was unremarkable in Formula 3 and GP3. Then in Formula Renault 3.5 he shone, and thanks to the fallout of Vettel’s move from Red Bull to Ferrari for 2015 he ended up in F1 with Toro Rosso.
Now, thanks to Vettel’s next career move, Sainz gets his second big break. In between those two career milestones he has been rejected by Red Bull and rejected by Renault. His career has been topsy-turvy but his perseverance and determination has never waivered.
Sainz’s commitment to improving as a driver has played a big part in his development rate. It’s why, even in his fifth season, he was able to make such a big jump and finish best of the rest in the 2019 championship.
Last year was a very impressive campaign from Sainz, who shone in a new role as de facto team leader at McLaren. There were times where he and McLaren were not just the kings of Class B – they were threatening to bridge the gap to Mercedes, Red Bull and Ferrari.
Ferrari is impressed by Sainz. Team boss Mattia Binotto says he has the right attributes off-track and the skills on it to do the business. He called Sainz and Leclerc the best combination Ferrari could hope for. Daniel Ricciardo, on the other hand, is probably too good and too well established for Ferrari to be comfortable pairing with Leclerc.
Now Sainz has two seasons to prove he was the right choice. Like any driver stepping out of the midfield, all his promise and his development so far will count for nothing if he is not capable of making the final step.
But he will have everything he needs to make a success of it. Leclerc represents a really tough benchmark, as Vettel discovered, but Sainz will fancy his chances having compared well with Verstappen at Toro Rosso.
Binotto’s mentality and the shift in atmosphere at Ferrari, Leclerc’s demeanour, and the expectation that Sainz will initially play a number two role will all play a part in giving Sainz a good environment to acclimatise to.
Sooner rather than later he will need to start delivering results. Only then will we know if Sainz is good enough, or if Ferrari should have picked someone else.
As for Ricciardo, it’s a compliment that he’s probably too good to race for Ferrari. But he’s unlikely to take much comfort in that.
Ricciardo would have expected to either be preparing for a title bid with Renault in 2021 or moving to a big team to earn his maiden championship.
Instead, he’s moving sideways, to another team at the front of the midfield.
But switching to McLaren makes sense because Renault’s momentum has faltered and its commitment to F1 is a bit sketchy. McLaren’s in F1 to stay, and has a better structure than Renault.
If any team is going to break into the top three, McLaren’s a better bet than Renault. Ricciardo’s not got the switch he wanted, but it is at least a likely move forward.
Worst case scenario he revisits the decision at the end of 2022. Maybe by then it’ll be too late, but at least Ricciardo’s giving himself a chance – something Ferrari has, yet again, opted not to do.