Sainz has been a classy performer in Formula 1 since his debut season in 2015, but his move to McLaren for this year coincided in a massive step forward that has made him into a formidable force.
Not only was he the standout in the midfield, winning the unofficial ‘Class B’ championship with two races to spare, but he also established himself as a focal point for McLaren with his input on development direction clear from the moment he notched up 150 laps in the 2018 car in the post-season Abu Dhabi test last year.
The impact of finding a home, perhaps for the first time in F1, at McLaren can’t be underestimated. Frustrated in the past by never really having stability in his career where he often couldn’t be sure what he’d be doing the following season, McLaren’s backing helped bring out the best in him.
Sainz’s qualifying performances were strong without being earth-shattering and Lando Norris actually shaded the head-to-head, but he delivered consistently well. But Sundays were where Sainz excelled, delivering race drives that exhibited the relentlessness of the man he replaced, Fernando Alonso. His experience also shone through there, usually picking the right spot at the start and only occasionally being caught out - such as when he was squeezed wide at at Austin - and minimising the mistakes.
There were collisions with Max Verstappen in Bahrain and with Alex Albon at Monza that Sainz had a hand in, although getting involved in the odd racing incident in the midfield is unavoidable. There were also moments of magic. He picked off Romain Grosjean and Daniel Ricciardo on his way to ninth in Spain, passed both Toro Rossos on the first lap in Monaco to lay the foundations for a sixth place, and was so fast at Suzuka that Charles Leclerc gave up his chase of fourth place.
Then there was Interlagos, where he came through to third from the back of the grid, sensationally holding position at the final restart on shot rubber.
It’s also important to remember Sainz came into the 2019 season of the back of bitter disappointment. Rejected by both Red Bull and Renault, McLaren was his only realistic option and it might have proved to be a career-ending move. Instead, it was one that reminded everyone how classy a driver Sainz is and allowed him to reach new heights. And at 25, he’s only going to get better.
When you initially signed for McLaren, there must have been some kind of trepidation but it seems to have flowed well after that initial stuttering start where you just kept having bad luck?
Definitely. It wasn’t an easy start to the year and it wasn’t an easy start to the second half of the year but somehow, thanks to good self-confidence, thanks to knowing that the things we were doing back at the factory and at the track were in the right direction, you keep smiling and waiting for the result to come.
Once that result clicked, in Baku, everything started coming a lot easier. I was not coming from a very easy year with Renault. Coming into the team, I knew my capabilities, how much I can help to develop a car, to develop a team in the right direction, but obviously you step in and you don’t know what’s going to happen. But it worked out very well since winter testing, and I’ve been on top of my game the whole year.
Last year was, relative to expectations, probably your weakest year and with Renault and Red Bull both deciding not to keep you it was probably quite a low moment. But that seems to have put you in a surprisingly good position with a team that’s now on the up?
Joining McLaren at the end of last year was probably the best thing that could happen to me as a driver, for me to finally find a place to stay for a couple of years and find a bit of stability because my career up until then had been a bit of chaos. It also gave me a lot of drive, not to prove people wrong, but to show what I’m capable of once you give me a bit of stability and you give me a bit of time to build a team around me and to show my talent.
I came into McLaren very hungry - honestly, I’ve never been so hungry for results. I moved next to the team factory, I spent a lot of time in the winter driving the simulator and after the first three races went bad I was getting even more hungry. Suddenly, when it clicked I was enjoying my time in Formula 1 more than ever.
How does it feel to be the unofficial ‘Class B’ champion?
As a driver, you always look at it because honestly there’s not much more than you can look at in the midfield - just comparing yourself against the Renault drivers, Checo [Perez] is always on good form and your team-mate. Everyone in the midfield had good chances throughout the year to score big points and I know how far ahead I am from the rest of the midfield. But to be in that position makes me feel proud, it must mean that we’ve been consistent and we’ve been executing things very well on Sunday.