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Opinion

Why the signs were always evident that Sainz could cut it at the top

OPINION: In his first column for Autosport, the 2012 team boss of the yet-to-be-employed-for-2025 Ferrari star recalls his high-pressure season in Formula 3

Carlos Sainz (ESP) Carlin Dallara Volkswagen

Photo by: Ebrey / Motorsport Images

Having read Autosport almost all my life, I’m chuffed to have been given a regular column in a magazine/website that I respect. I am sure that I will return to what I know best before too long – running race teams – but for the moment, while I recharge my metaphorical racing batteries, I plan to tell a few stories about my 40-odd years in the sport.

I’m going to kick off with Carlos Sainz, who has had a rollercoaster start to 2024. In February he learned that his Ferrari drive would be taken by Lewis Hamilton in 2025, and in March he underwent appendix surgery, causing him to miss the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix. But, rather than moan about those two setbacks, his response was to win his comeback race in Melbourne, then to finish best of the rest behind the Red Bull 1-2 steamroller at Suzuka two weeks later.

So why do so many people seem to underrate him? It beats me. When in 2012 he joined us at Carlin as a Formula 3 driver, he was just 17, and he carried on his teenage shoulders the heavy weight of expectation that all Red Bull-backed drivers experience.

On top of that, the fact that his father was and is a motorsport legend – a double World Rally champion – inevitably piled extra pressure on him, especially in their native Spain, where sports fans can be passionate and unforgiving in equal measure. Worse, he had to cope with all of that despite not having the level of experience that previous Red Bull-backed drivers had been able to draw on.

Yet he showed remarkable mettle. Take Monza 2012, for example. The rain was torrential. We had three races that weekend, and I will never forget the first of them. All the cars went to the grid on slicks – and, as luck would have it, it began to rain on the parade lap, which meant that everyone had to dive into the pits straight away.

That year was the first season in which Dallara had fitted larger wheel-retaining nuts, meaning that the teams all had to use pneumatic wheelguns for the first time. Gary Bonnor, our team manager, had made our guys practise a few pitstops – which no other team did – and it paid off.

Carlin recalls Sainz's first win in British F3 in 2012 at Monza in wet conditions fondly

Carlin recalls Sainz's first win in British F3 in 2012 at Monza in wet conditions fondly

Photo by: Ebrey / Motorsport Images

We split the crew into two groups, since we were running five cars, and Carlos was the first Carlin car in. We did his wheel change in seven or eight seconds, which was brilliant for an unexpected last-minute-dot-com pitstop. Then Carlos finished the job – no one could compete with him in those conditions, and he won the race easily.

Since the 2023 Azerbaijan Grand Prix, which was won by Checo Perez 12 months ago, Carlos is the only driver not called Max Verstappen to have won a grand prix, and he has done it not once but twice. Yet, despite his abundant talent and fantastic recent form, he has no race drive lined up for 2025. He certainly deserves one – but one thing I’m certain of is that he will handle whatever comes his way extremely well.

When he was with us at Carlin, Helmut Marko was always giving him and his father a lot of stick. That is Helmut’s approach. He likes to apply motivation that way, and I’m not about to criticise him for it, but obviously it adds pressure not only to the driver concerned but also to the people around him. Yet, together, we handled it.

He works as hard as any driver I have ever known – and I’ve known a hell of a lot. That is a legacy from Carlos Sr, who was one of rallying’s great grafters

Carlos Sr is great in such circumstances, because of his huge amount of experience. However, I was particularly impressed with the way Carlos Jr coped, despite being so young. Like father, like son.

One of Carlos’s engineers that year was Jose Manuel Lopez Garcia. Racing is a small world – and, coincidentally, Jose ended up working with Lando Norris, also a former Carlin driver, when Carlos was his team-mate at McLaren. Jose is a brilliant performance engineer – and I think that Lando, who I also rate highly, had some of his best results when Jose was working with him.

All three of them – Carlos, Lando and Jose – benefited massively as a result of the time they spent at Carlin in the all-important grassroots of motorsport. In fact, that period boosted Carlos’s confidence in an important way, so much so that I don’t think he would have thrived at Ferrari in the way he has without having had that important confidence boost.

If Carlos is given the right car, he can be Formula 1 world champion. I firmly believe that. He works as hard as any driver I have ever known – and I’ve known a hell of a lot. That is a legacy from Carlos Sr, who was one of rallying’s great grafters.

This season Carlos Jr is very much following in his father’s footsteps, and he is proving that he has what it takes to be up there with the very best. If he carries on in his current form, he will be able to leave the talking to his very wise dad, who will surely be able to negotiate and secure for him a top F1 drive for 2025.

Sainz is the only non-Red Bull driver to have won a grand prix since 2023 began, and has all the credentials to shine when he moves on from Ferrari

Sainz is the only non-Red Bull driver to have won a grand prix since 2023 began, and has all the credentials to shine when he moves on from Ferrari

Photo by: Zak Mauger / Motorsport Images

Watch: Is Ferrari's F1 Revolution Closing the Gap to Red Bull?

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