The perception of Formula 1 – and especially of Toro Rosso – is that it is a pressure-cooker environment for drivers, with their ability and approach extensively analysed after every practice outing, qualifying session and race, a situation supposedly magnified for the youngsters desperate to prove their worth among the world’s elite.
The reality is often different.
During the first minute of our interview, Carlos Sainz Jr. brings up the word ‘happy’ three times, and it’s impossible not to believe the young Spaniard. Put simply, he’s loving his time in Formula 1.
Sainz’s path to Formula 1 could hardly be described as turbulent but his junior career had the usual peaks and troughs. Both he and fellow Red Bull youngster Daniil Kvyat were GP3 rookies in 2013 but whereas the Russian kicked on mid-season and clinched the title, earning a Toro Rosso promotion, Sainz finished a win-less tenth. However, he impressed during a mid-season test for Red Bull in Formula 1 and even had Sebastian Vettel taking a keen interest in the data.
Sainz switched to the Formula Renault 3.5 Series in 2014 and emerged as the title favourite and by mid-season had racked up five wins. However, Red Bull dropped a bombshell by announcing Max Verstappen as Kvyat’s 2015 Toro Rosso partner, leaving Sainz out in the cold. Nonetheless, he pressed on and when Sebastian Vettel’s Red Bull departure triggered Kvyat’s promotion, it opened up a Toro Rosso seat once more. Sainz responded with an emphatic performance at Paul Ricard before clinching the title at Jerez while a Formula 1 outing in Abu Dhabi sealed the deal for 2015.
“It was a tricky moment in my career,” says the amiable Sainz when reflecting on initially being overlooked for 2015. “Obviously it was a bit depressing at that point but I said ‘okay if I have been winning now in a special way through this whole season and I haven’t got the seat then I need to win again and the only thing that is going to give me the seat and prove to them I am ready for Formula 1 is by winning again, and doing it in a special way’.
“So then I turned up to Paul Ricard and I won back to back races in a very special way and finally there they saw that I could be a very good option for them.
“Red Bull knew I was quick in a tough moment – after not being announced…to win in Paul Ricard was very special, to win the Formula Renault 3.5 series was very special and then for me the test was just a confirmation of what they thought I had become. So they felt I had become a much better driver since 2013 [as] I had changed a lot so for them they needed to see it live in a test that I was much more mature, much more professional and had much more knowledge and as quick as ever.”
Fast forward eight months and Sainz sits 15th in the championship with four points finishes from the first nine races, including a top 10 result on his debut, an eye-catching fifth on the grid at home in Spain and a drive from the pits to the points in Monaco. Consequently, he sits just one point behind team-mate Max Verstappen, though Sainz holds a superior qualifying record (6-4). Both drivers have shown supreme flashes of speed and while reliability issues have hit the pair, Sainz is revelling in his position.
“So far, so good, as you say in English! It’s been a positive start to my Formula 1 career, also happily a bit unexpected, as we had a good start without expecting it to be such a good start, so I’m very happy with everything, I have a great group of people around me. I am learning a lot, I am enjoying a lot and in the end this is what is making me happy and makes me want to improve.”
One way of improving is working with team-mate Verstappen, who at 17 remains precociously young, even if at 20 Sainz can hardly be referred to as the senior driver. The spotlight naturally fell on Verstappen, a situation which Sainz wouldn’t have minded – “everyone speaks good about you and everyone thinks you are the best, no?” - but he doesn’t resent the focus on Verstappen, instead preferring, once again, to look at the positives.
“I think we had both so much to learn this year and we were learning a lot from past years and a lot from each other,” he said. “We are so close, always within a tenth of each other, it is so tight that you have one corner where he is quicker and another corner where I am quicker! Then he is two tenths quicker there, it is always like that and you learn a lot.”
Verstappen and Sainz have caught the eye this year but Toro Rosso sits eighth in the standings, ahead only of the beleaguered McLaren and the revived Manor Marussia team. Verstappen suggested at Silverstone that the STR10’s chassis is second only to Mercedes and Sainz agrees that the crew at Faenza have done a sterling job.
“If we don’t have the second [best chassis] then we have the third or fourth…but now we are standing eighth in the constructors but it is not the position of our chassis or our downforce,” he says. “It is simply that obviously we are struggling a bit with other things but I’m confident that with a better engine in the back we could be much more ahead.
“Mechanically there are two things – mechanical grip and aero grip. In terms of aero it could be that we are at the same level at Ferrari and Williams, or even a bit better than Williams and even a bit better than Ferrari but then mechanically in slow speed stuff maybe we are a bit behind Ferrari and Williams. There are still things to work on but clearly our strongest point is really high speed corners.”
Such praise of the chassis infers that Renault’s problems account for the shortfall – something which Red Bull has been vehemently vocal about – but Sainz genially dismisses suggestions that it is a frustrating situation.
“In the end, I am a very positive guy and I say ‘I have a hell of a race car in my first ever year of Formula 1, I am enjoying a lot, I have a great group of people around me, I just don’t have the engine’, but you cannot have everything you want in your first year of Formula 1,” he says.
“So I am just enjoying it so much and having so much fun, enjoying the car I’m driving. Yeah, I would like to have 60 horsepower more but at the moment they are not there and there is no point to criticise and say how bad it is. You just have to adapt to what it is and extract the maximum.”
Sainz’s position within motorsport has always been associated with his iconic eponymous rallying father. Naturally, they have had a Spanish connection with Fernando Alonso and Sainz says he owes a huge amount to the man 13 years his senior.
“He has helped me a lot - not only this year but all my career he has been supporting me,” he says.
“Every time he had a chance to say how good I was or to say I was the next Spanish driver to arrive [in Formula 1] he said it to the press so I am very thankful to him and I hope he goes back on top as he has always been my idol and my hero.” He adds that being ahead of Alonso in the standings is “very peculiar, very strange,” as if he is embarrassed by the situation.
Sainz adds that Toro Rosso has naturally “put a mark in the calendar at the circuits where you think your car would be better – Budapest, Singapore”, but prefers to focus on the present.
“I’m just enjoying my first season that it’s better not to think about it [the future]. Instead it’s better to stay focused and keep doing what I’m doing.”
And, no doubt, he’ll do it with a happy state of mind.