A two-time Grand Prix winner and the only driver outside of Red Bull to win a race in 2023, and yet Carlos Sainz is not the driver Ferrari prioritised in their pre-season negotiations.
Days after Charles Leclerc’s long-term confirmation, F1 is still waiting not so much to hear if Sainz will be given a new contract, but the duration, too, as that implies the driver’s worth to the team.
After all, Carlos Sainz Jr. is the most-wanted unwanted driver on the Formula 1 grid.
Carlos Sainz: Number one, or the driver to make the team number one?
Heading into 2024’s pre-season with Leclerc and Sainz in the final year of their contracts, Ferrari announced on January 25 that Leclerc had re-signed.
Putting pen to paper on an extension “beyond” the 2024 season, Leclerc revealed his new deal would run for “several more seasons to come” with Gazzetta dello Sport talking about a five-year contract through to 2029 with a 2025 salary of €25million that will increase to €50m in the final year.
As the song goes, ‘nice work if you can get it, and if you get it, won’t you tell me how’. Don’t be surprised if you hear Sainz humming the George Gershwin tune to his team-mate during Ferrari’s Feb 13 launch.
Because for Sainz being a driver on the multi-multi-year contract would be a nice change of pace, just ask Mr. One-Year Valtteri Bottas.
It’s something Sainz has made very clear he wants, telling the media “not just two” is the goal. “My priority is to stay at Ferrari for many more years. I’m very happy, both parties are very happy and the objective is to continue, but we have to agree,” he added.
But it’s in the agreeing where F1’s most-wanted unwanted driver has fallen short all too often.
Sainz joined Toro Rosso, Red Bull’s junior team, back in 2015 and found himself up against 17-year-old Max Verstappen. Although the Spaniard showed promise, he would ultimately fall short in a career path that would decide the future of the F1 debutants.
“Sainz is, without a doubt, a great driver. He was almost on par with Max in Toro Rosso,” Red Bull motorsport advisor Helmut Marko explained to Marca. “The bad thing for him is that he was unlucky to have Verstappen as a team-mate.”
“Sainz,” the Austrian added, “was almost at the same level as Max Verstappen… almost. But when we had to choose between Max and Carlos, it was clear what we should do.”
And so Marko and Red Bull set into play the tale of Sainz’s Formula 1 journey. Loved, but not quite loved enough. Wanted, but not wanted enough. Because it all boils down to good, but is he good enough?
He stayed with Toro Rosso after Verstappen’s Red Bull promotion but, on mutual terms, left the Red Bull junior team late into the 2017 season to replace Jolyon Palmer at Renault.
Scoring 53 to 69 points to Nico Hulkenberg in 2018, their one full season together, Sainz by no means embarrassed himself but once again when a team had to make a choice he found himself coming off second best with Renault opting to retain Hulkenberg and bring then seven-time Grand Prix winner Daniel Ricciardo in as his new team-mate.
Signing with McLaren, Sainz then spent two years with the Woking team but as momentum swung toward teenage star Lando Norris, who was being hailed as the team’s future World Champion, he left Woking for Ferrari.
Sainz billed that move as the “dream” of racing for Ferrari but questions about the threat of Norris’ growing popularity, within the team and amongst F1 fans, lingered.
And so onto Ferrari he went where he was almost immediately labelled by some factions of the media as Leclerc’s number two. Sainz put them straight on that, or did he?
He beat Leclerc in 2021 and came to within six points of him again in 2023, was the preferred driver strategy-wise in both his 2022 British Grand Prix and 2023 Singapore Grand Prix wins, and yet, here he waits for a Ferrari contract as the Scuderia, it has been widely reported, want to keep their options open.
Despite beating Leclerc in their first season together in the Drivers’ standings and running him close in both others, and being the only non-Red Bull driver to win a Grand Prix in 2023, it’s Sainz who still remarkably has a question mark hanging over his future.
The Spaniard wants a long-term future with Ferrari and by that he means three or more years, a deal that runs through to the end of 2027, but Ferrari aren’t biting.
They have reportedly put a one-year deal on the table, maybe two, but that’s it. There is no 2027 extension for Sainz. Apparently not even an option.
The Scuderia want to see, at least when it comes to Sainz’s seat, what comes next as they have locked in “future World Champion” Leclerc. They now need a driver who can support him in that quest. Alex Albon, Oliver Bearman and even Charles’ brother Arthur Leclerc on the list of possible possibilities.
Sainz is not that support driver, at least he doesn’t want to be.
His performances on the track, with his Singapore GP win billed by many a pundit as one of the most calculating and cutting wins in recent years, suggest he is more than just a support act.
But already racing for his fourth team in less than a decade also suggests he’s not a number one that a team can build a title-tilt behind.
It’s a conundrum Sainz and his next team will have to figure out. Is he their number one, or is he on hand to make the team number one?