Sainz on life at Ferrari: Signing his contract in his pyjamas, nervous fans and his breakthrough

There can be few more iconic moments for a racing driver than putting pen to paper on a Ferrari Formula 1 contract.

Sainz on life at Ferrari: Signing his contract in his pyjamas, nervous fans and his breakthrough

But for Carlos Sainz Jr, who is the Prancing Horse's most recent hire, that point in time stands out for being just a little bit unusual.

Not for being a grand ceremony at Maranello and then a celebratory lunch with his new bosses.

Instead, he became an official Ferrari driver on what seemed to be a very normal morning when he got out of bed.

"It's actually a bit of a funny story because it had been a long negotiation period," said Sainz, speaking in an exclusive interview with Autosport about that moment when he first became a Ferrari driver.

"It was during COVID [lockdown], so talks were all done on Zoom and phone calls, which made everything a bit more tricky.

"We had to adapt to the situation and I signed it on the exact same table that I'm doing this interview now here in Madrid, in the little office that we have in the house.

"We had been spending all the lockdown together with the family, and then suddenly one day I wake up around 8am, and I'm still in my pyjamas.

"I come into this room, and I see that my dad is ready with a pen. He says: 'You need to sign here: it is the Ferrari contract. And it's done if you sign.'

"So I signed it in my pyjamas at 8am, just after waking up! I was like 'Okay, good morning to you too'."

Carlos Sainz Jr., Ferrari SF21

Carlos Sainz Jr., Ferrari SF21

Photo by: Andy Hone / Motorsport Images

Since that contract formally kicked in at the start of this year, Sainz hasn't looked back.

From his first test at Fiorano in a 2018 car earlier this year, when the turnout of tifosi to greet him proved an eye-opener, to the different experiences he has faced at the team, Sainz has embedded himself well.

Sure, like any F1 season, there have been some ups and downs and aspects of the car that he has not been entirely happy with, but life as a Ferrari driver has been good.

It's been a journey and, for someone as down to earth as the Spaniard, it has been a bit of an eye-opener about how others perceive him, especially when he meets the tifosi.

"It is true that the fans in Italy are super passionate, and super respectful in a way that I didn't expect," he explains.

"I mean even touching you, or shaking your hand, for them it is something super special. They really respect you, and they really have you on a pedestal for some reason, and it's quite impactful.

"They get super nervous when you're near them, and this is a feeling that I've never had before as a driver: just how nervous people become when you're close to them.

"I tap them on the back and say, 'come on, I'm a 27-year-old, like you, just relax and take the pictures'. But I often take the phone from them to take it myself.

"It is crazy and I love it. They are also super funny with the things that they say, so life has changed a bit, but at the same time I've managed to keep a good balance."

Carlos Sainz Jr., Ferrari

Carlos Sainz Jr., Ferrari

Photo by: Federico Basile / Motorsport Images

It's not just the fans who observe Sainz in a different way. Ferrari is under the media spotlight much more than other teams – especially in Italy – and that brings with it a change of behaviour.

Sainz knows that he now has to think before he speaks, for just one flippant remark can be enough to create a story spiralling out of control.

"It is an interesting thing about how little 'news' can become huge 'news' just because you are Ferrari, or part of Ferrari," he explains.

"In Italy, this happens a lot and it's something that I'm still learning how to handle.

"I'm still learning to know how to speak in some ways, to realise that maybe if I say things this way instead of saying it the other way, it can become a huge headline or not.

"As a driver, I'm in the process of trying to educate myself how to handle these kind of situations because it's not easy at all."

Carlos Sainz Jr., Ferrari SF21

Carlos Sainz Jr., Ferrari SF21

Photo by: Charles Coates / Motorsport Images

What the enhanced fan and media interest has shown Sainz is that driving for Ferrari brings with it something that does not exist in other teams: it's being a part of something much bigger.

"There is an extra responsibility that doesn't exist in other teams," he admits. "The fact that you are racing for a country is different, you know.

"It's like you're at the same time playing for Real Madrid and for Spain. Racing for Ferrari means you are racing for Ferrari and for Italy, and you need to be aware of that and have the responsibility that comes with it.

"But for me it is an honour. Italy is a country that I love and that I spend a lot of time in.

"When I was a kid, I grew up in Italy, racing go karts, so I grew up knowing the passion that there is in Italy for Ferrari, and I grew up knowing that a lot of these karters that I was racing against wanted to be a Ferrari driver.

"The fact that it turned out to be me, is a huge honour and a huge privilege. It's something that I'm very proud of."

Racing for Ferrari has also meant adapting to a new country, as Sainz has stepped away from a run with British teams, having most recently driven for Renault (Team Enstone) and McLaren.

Carlos Sainz Jr., Ferrari, 3rd position, lifts his trophy

Carlos Sainz Jr., Ferrari, 3rd position, lifts his trophy

Photo by: Andy Hone / Motorsport Images

And while a lot is often made of the culture at Ferrari being so different to everywhere else, Sainz says that actually most F1 teams now operate in a similar way.

"There's a different kind of culture, and different ways of doing things," he says. "But at the same time, modern F1 teams have nowadays converged a lot in terms of the work approach, the work ethic and the professionalism.

"It is true that now there's a lot of multicultural teams. Even Ferrari is full of English people, and Americans. Even in my group of engineers, we are an American, a Scottish, a Spanish and an Italian. That is my group that I go for dinner with every day.

"So it just shows that F1 has converged a lot. But, for sure, Ferrari has its own culture that you need to understand and its own way of doing things that you need to kind of adapt to and see how it works."

Despite life at Ferrari needing such change, what Sainz has shown this year is that the extra responsibilities and attention that come from being a Ferrari driver have not served to change him.

He remains one of the friendliest, intelligent, and articulate drivers on the grid, and his feet remain firmly on the ground.

And, while so few human beings in the course of history have ever been lucky enough to be Ferrari F1 driver, Sainz says that being one feels so natural to him.

"It does feel real, when you finally realise it, and you just live with it," he explains.

Carlos Sainz Jr., Ferrari SF21

Carlos Sainz Jr., Ferrari SF21

Photo by: Charles Coates / Motorsport Images

"It's a strange situation because one day you wake up saying: 'Okay I'm going to be a Ferrari driver.'

"So how does it feel? It's still the same Carlos. It is still the same guy. It is still the same driver, with the same passion, with the same talent, doing the job.

"It's just that you are doing it for Ferrari. That is such a huge responsibility, and especially when you drive in Italy. This is the biggest thing.

"When you go to Monza, then you suddenly realise what it is to be a Ferrari driver. You feel it all around the world.

"But when you go to Monza and when they opened up a bit there in Monza and the few events that we had there, then you suddenly realise, 'okay this is huge!'

"This is even bigger than what I imagine. But you're still the same Carlos, and nothing changes in that sense."

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