Carlos Sainz Jr. is in a reflective mood as the first Formula 1 test reaches its end point at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya. Sainz has enjoyed two constructive days in Toro Rosso’s new Ferrari-powered STR11 and racked up 161 laps of the Spanish Grand Prix venue the day before we meet, though any signs of potential fatigue are not visible. Sainz’s team-mate, Max Verstappen, is lapping in Faenza’s new machine; both drivers made their Formula 1 debuts in 2015 but it was the Dutchman who stole the headlines not only due to his age but also his precociously audacious overtakes. While Sainz is a gifted racing driver – and at 21 is still extremely young – he came to the attention of the wider world in unfortunate circumstances last October, during an otherwise non-descript practice session in Russia.
Sainz hit the wall on the inside of Turn 13 at the Sochi Autodrom and careered straight on before ploughing underneath the barriers. For 17 minutes, his condition was unknown, before he was successfully extricated from his STR10 and placed on a stretcher. A precautionary trip to the hospital followed, but he was permitted to race the following day. With Formula 1 planning to introduce increased head protection in 2017, a situation accelerated by the deaths of Jules Bianchi and IndyCar’s Justin Wilson, yet proposing faster cars, it’s an opportune time to discuss the matter with Sainz.
“Looking back to Sochi there’s a moment in those two seconds when you’re going towards the wall where you think ‘anything can happen’ for me, quite surely,” says Sainz, with an eloquence which belies his youth.
“Then after the accident I knew straight away nothing had happened so it was not such a big of a worry but you know, at that speed, if there had been something hard that hit my head, without protection, I would have been in big trouble.
“So having something protecting you is never a bad thing, because it can save a life and I’m sure Formula 1 incudes risk but even with head protection anything can happen to you in a Formula 1 car in those speeds.
“People shouldn’t worry, I think what Formula 1 must now consider talking about in making these cars much quicker is that they say ‘shit, these drivers are heroes, no-one else can drive that car at that speed like they do’ and this will create the heroic emphasis that maybe they had some years ago when the cars were a bit quicker.
“[But if you are] making the cars more dangerous, and at the end maybe [this] can create more heroics things, but this is not positive at the end as it is playing with lives. I think Formula 1 should focus on making the cars faster, but also safer. This will find the right compromise.”
A ‘halo’ concept is the leading proposal for increased head protection in 2017 and Sainz is overwhelmingly in favour of the change, irrespective of the aesthetics.
“In my opinion, I know it’s not very attractive for the eye, it’s not Formula 1’s essential [priority], but when you see an accident like Jules and you think that maybe with more head protection he would still be here with us today you say ‘why not’,” he explains.
“I would sacrifice a bit the looks of a Formula 1 car to have Jules here with us today. For me…even if it’s not attractive for everyone that is not going [to drive] a car I don’t mind, I just like to have the maximum safety as possible in the head, always respecting a bit the essentials [of the sport] and the good looking of Formula 1 cars, but without forgetting we are drivers that have lives, and they can be saved by that.”
Among other changes is a proposed new qualifying format which will see drivers eliminated during the three segments of the session, rather than at the end of the session. Sainz is wary that, as with the balance between safety and speed, Formula 1 must evaluate the potential for an increased spectacle against the complexity of a new regulation.
“I will look at it more precisely,” he says of the change. “I just know it’s a bit more complex to understand maybe. This can be positive as it can create more of a show on Saturday but it can be also negative as it can be difficult to explain to a fan to fully engage to Formula 1.
“My Grandfather, for example, maybe if you put him in front of Formula 1 he doesn’t understand anything! So we need to be careful with how complex we make the rules.”
As well as Saturday’s tweaks, Pirelli will have five dry tyre compounds in 2016, from which three will be taken to each race, with drivers given free compound choice regarding 10 of their allocated 13 sets. The alteration could spice up the racing, but couldn’t it also add to the confusion?
“Exactly. I think as long as it works and it spices things up, people will not mind. Obviously we need to find the right compromise to spice things up but understandably, I prefer something that is a bit complex and spices things up than something which is easy and doesn’t, so we will see.
“Hopefully the people are taking the right decisions and us drivers we will have to accept them.”
While the sport as a whole remains a talking point for the drivers, there is, of course, the matter of individual accolades in 2016. Toro Rosso endured a frantic winter of preparation, with its switch from Renault to 2015-specification Ferrari engines only made official in early December. Sainz, who never doubted that the team would be on the grid this year amid speculation over Red Bull’s future, is upbeat about 2016 prospects.
“For sure there are good impressions, [it's] positive,” says Sainz, having placed 15th in last year’s championship.
“I think everyone did a great effort to be here in these days, to be here in test one and everything went smoothly, it has progressed a lot through the four days of testing, I felt the progression especially with the reliability, and this is what we came for so at the moment everything is positive. [We have] a better engine, there is obviously more power, it’s just a lot easier to understand it and to handle it. I’m impressed with the job Ferrari is doing so far and they are helping us a lot and I hope it continues like this.”
Toro Rosso placed seventh in the 2015 standings but there remains the potential that McLaren, with Honda’s development, should make substantial progress, while new team Haas has already caught the eye. When put to Sainz that Toro Rosso’s main challengers may be the likes of the aforementioned operations, the youngster has other ideas.
“I feel [that for] our main position we should target Force India. They finished P5 last year and that’s the place we want to be. I can see them fighting again even stronger again for that third and fourth position so we should have them as a reference. We know that they will get the development of the Mercedes engine through the season and we will stand still with the 2015 Ferrari, which will not benefit us during the season, but we need to put high targets and high goals and that is the intention.”
But what about the improvements a driver can make in their sophomore seasons?
“For sure everywhere I can [improve]… in a rookie year you are not perfect in any of the areas, not even when you are 30 years old and you have been in Formula 1 14 years - you have to be always critical of yourself and improve in every area. Personally I would like to be more consistent, and be more of a driver that maybe top teams would like to have in the team so a consistent, fast driver. [I would like to] send three or four good messages, one of them being that you shine a lot and you catch the attention of the big teams, and apart from this three or four good shining days, for sure consistency, I think that’s what a top team looks at a young driver for.”