Carlos Sainz Jr. Is Ready For F1’s Big Stage

The news that Spanish Red Bull junior driver Carlos Sainz Jr., the son of the legendary former World Rally Champion of the same name, could be brought into Formula 1 via the Caterham F1 team as early as sometime later in 2014, is one of the early talking points of an F1 Silly Season that has yet to really take shape, at least not until we get to the mid-season summer break in-between the Hungarian and Belgian Formula One Grands Prix.

A mid-2014 promotion to Caterham for the 19-year-old Sainz would replicate the Formula 1 arrival of Daniel Ricciardo, whose first drive did not come with Red Bull’s “junior squad” Scuderia Toro Rosso, but with bottom-ranked Hispania Racing Team, where he participated in the final 11 of 19 rounds of the 2011 season with the backmarker organization. There, without any real pressure to score points right off the bat, he had a capable benchmark in another former Red Bull junior driver, Vitantonio Liuzzi (save for the Indian GP where Narain Karthikeyan was subbed in for Liuzzi), and Ricciardo performed admirably given the experience gap between himself, a rookie fresh out of Formula Renault 3.5 Series, and the tandem of veteran drivers who had made their F1 debuts six years earlier. Sainz would be in a similar predicament, as the Caterham team and their CT05 chassis ranks dead last among all eleven Formula 1 teams in terms of raw pace, and they are unlikely to score their first championship points this year unless there is a repeat of the attrition-packed Monaco Grand Prix from this May. In an interesting tie-in to the Ricciardo scenario from three years ago, Caterham was just sold before the British Grand Prix to a consortium of businessmen that included Colin Kolles, who ran HRT back in 2011.

So what exactly does the heir to the Sainz racing legacy bring to the table? Right now, he is leading the Formula Renault 3.5 Series championship with 132 points after 9 races, 33 points clear of 2nd placed Pierre Gasly, the reigning Eurocup Formula Renault 2.0 champion (and another Red Bull junior). In those 9 races, he has 4 wins, 5 pole positions, and has recorded 4 fastest laps. Driving for the French superteam DAMS, he has amassed just one point fewer than McLaren driver Kevin Magnussen did after nine races last year, driving for the same team. By this point in the 2013 season, Magnussen had just 2 wins, 3 poles, and 2 fastest laps – but also 6 podium finishes compared to Sainz’s 4 in 2014, and all of Sainz’s podium finishes to date have been his race wins. Sainz has been a much more dominant performer than Magnussen halfway into the season, converting all but one of his pole positions into race victories – and the outlier, Monza Race 1, was only conceded due to a late start that put Sainz well out of contention before he could get on track. Perhaps a better comparison for Sainz from the 2013 FR3.5 season would be McLaren’s other young stud, Stoffel Vandoorne, who amassed 4 wins, 3 poles, 2 fastest laps and 136 points halfway into a stellar rookie season where he’d finish 2nd in the championship to Magnussen in a hard-fought battle for the title. Below is a table comparing the numbers of Sainz, and 2nd placed Gasly, compared to those of the 2012-13 championship winners and the runners-up:

FORMULA RENAULT 3.5 SERIES – DRIVER RECORDS THROUGH FIRST 9 RACES
*2014 season in progress
Driver (Yr) Team Wins Poles Podiums FL Points
SAINZ (’14) DAMS 4 5 4 4 132
GASLY (’14) Arden 0 0 4 0 99
VANDOORNE (’13) Fortec 4 3 6 2 138
MAGNUSSEN (’13) DAMS 2 3 6 2 133
FRIJNS (’12) Fortec 2 2 5 1 111
BIANCHI (’12) Tech 1 1 1 4 5 85

(italics denotes a driver currently in Formula 1)

Sainz’s numbers heading into the upcoming World Series by Renault round at the Nurburgring are incredible, almost as incredible as the fact that despite the Red Bull junior driver programme being largely responsible for the rise of Formula Renault 3.5 Series as arguably the top Tier 1 junior category in single-seater racing ahead of the GP2 Series, the only Red Bull driver to win the FR3.5 Series crown was the talented Canadian Robert Wickens in 2011, the same Robert Wickens who is now racing in his third season in the Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters series after being cut by Red Bull’s junior programme in the weeks following his championship season. Sainz does not appear to be in any imminent danger of being cut loose in such a fashion, though. But then again, nobody foresaw Jaime Alguersuari being cut from Toro Rosso for 2012 when it seemed like his place at the team was secure (I know I didn’t), nor did they foresee Antonio Felix da Costa, a year removed from a dominant half-season in FR3.5 that had Will Buxton declaring him a stone cold lock for a 2013 Toro Rosso drive, following it up with a luckless 2013 campaign and losing out on the F1 promotion to Daniil Kvyat.

Sainz has produced at a high level in 2014, rivaling the performances of McLaren young stars Magnussen and Vandoorne a year ago

Avid followers of the junior formula championships will be quick to point out Sainz’s struggles in the lower categories prior to his stellar 2014 season to date as perhaps a base to argue that Sainz’s place in Formula 1 would be earned by way of nepotism and financial security instead of raw talent and results. He never won a title in Formula 3 in a triple campaign in 2012, split between the inaugural European F3 Championship, the last F3 Euro Series season, and a British F3 campaign in which the series’ credibility was starting to descend into freefall. He never won the Macau Grand Prix in two tries, nor his only start at the Zandvoort Masters of Formula 3 race. His only junior series title to date was the 2011 Formula Renault 2.0 NEC championship, where he is still the youngest winner of that championship, having just turned 17. He endured a miserable 2013 GP3 Series season, finishing 10th with only two podiums and one pole position, while fellow Arden driver, rookie, and Red Bull junior Daniil Kvyat won the series championship en route to the Toro Rosso drive in 2014, where he has been a very capable match for third-year teammate Jean-Eric Vergne. A half-season of FR3.5 with the mid-grade Zeta Corse squad yielded just 22 points in 9 races and a best finish of 6th, where even in his limited appearances, he was outshone by co-driver William Buller in the final 3 rounds of the season.

CARLOS SAINZ JR. – STATISTICS, 2011-2013
*excludes Macau & Zandvoort F3 events & other one-offs
Year/Age Series Team Races Wins Podiums Poles FL Points Standing
2013
18 y/o
GP3 MW Arden 16 0 2 1 2 66 10th
FR3.5 Zeta Corse 9 0 0 0 1 22 19th
2012
17 y/o
European F3 Carlin 20 1 5 2 2 161 5th
British F3 26 4 9 1 2 224 6th
F3 Euro Series 24 0 2 2 1 112 9th
2011
16/yo
FR2.0 NEC Koiranen 20 8 17 10 12 489 1st
FR2.0 Eurocup 14 2 10 4 5 200 2nd

Perhaps the only positive result in his 2013 double campaign was a strong showing in the Silverstone Young Driver Test, where he set the third and seventh-fastest laptimes of all in a Toro Rosso and a Red Bull, respectively. Most important was the fact that his times were comparable to those of Daniel Ricciardo in the same chassis, and he was quicker than both higher-ranked prospect Da Costa in the Red Bull, and Vergne in the Toro Rosso. Below is a comparison of times set by Red Bull and Toro Rosso drivers during the three days of the 2013 Silverstone YDT:

Driver Team Best Time (Day) Total Ranking
VETTEL Red Bull 1:32.894 (Fr) 1st
RICCIARDO Toro Rosso 1:32.972 (Th) 2nd
SAINZ Toro Rosso 1:33.016 (Th) 3rd
RICCIARDO Red Bull 1:33.187 (Th) 4th
SAINZ Red Bull 1:33.546 (Fr) 7th
VERGNE Toro Rosso 1:33.647 (Fr) 12th
DA COSTA Red Bull 1:33.821 (We) 14th
CECOTTO Toro Rosso 1:34.193 (We) 19th

It would be nonsense, however, to suggest that Sainz has not fought to keep his place in the Red Bull system, and is not worthy of an F1 promotion. He has progressed from a single-seater novice in 2010, to the verge of an F1 race seat in the span of four years. Something else to consider, that I feel is glossed over whenever the subject of Sainz’s struggles in 2012 and 2013 come up: His age. Sainz does not turn 20 until September. In his half-year of Formula Renault 3.5 as a rookie, he was the second-youngest regular competitor behind Sergey Sirotkin (remember him?). As mentioned earlier, he’s the youngest winner of the FR2.0 NEC championship by a margin of a few months over the next-youngest champion. Two months shy of his 20th birthday, he is younger than Daniil Kvyat, younger than Caterham’s reserve drivers Robin Frijns, Will Stevens, and Alexander Rossi, who will all be 23 by September; he’s younger than Red Bull GP3 star Alex Lynn (21 in September), and younger than highly-touted Formula Renault 3.5 rookies Oliver Rowland (22) and Roberto Merhi (23). If he were to make his debut before the Italian Grand Prix, he’d be a 19 year-old F1 rookie, the same age as Vettel, Kvyat, and Jaime Alguersuari when they debuted in F1, Alguersuari the youngest of the group by a few months. He would, by far, be the youngest driver to race for Caterham/Lotus II in their brief existence. He does not have the reputation of being a fast-rising phenom like Frijns, Vandoorne (22 years old), or the 16-year-old rookie phenom of Formula 3, Max Verstappen – but he has progressed quickly enough up the ladder despite a lack of outright success, and has competed against stiff competition at a very young age compared to his peers. His track record reminds me of another young phenom whose numbers in Formula 3 weren’t all that great, but he did significantly better in Formula Renault 3.5 and rose through the ladder at a very rapid pace – that young man being the reigning four-time World Driver’s Champion, Sebastian Vettel. Yes, comparing a 19-year-old rookie prospect to the most successful driver of the current generation seems far fetched, but a glance at Vettel’s numbers pre-Formula 1 show that the comparison is not too far off.

Carlos Sainz Jr. straps into the Red Bull RB9 during the Silverston Young Driver Test that proved pivotal to the Spaniard’s future F1 prospects

Carlos Sainz Jr. would be a fantastic addition to Caterham, to strengthen their ties with the Red Bull Racing organization – perhaps to set them up as a “B” junior team to Toro Rosso going forward. He brings more upside than either Kamui Kobayashi, the popular veteran whose outrageously aggressive overtaking abilities have been neutralized in a woefully slow car, or Marcus Ericsson, whose development stagnated in GP2 over the dreaded “four seasons or more” timeframe, and, despite scoring the team’s best finish (11th at Monaco) Ericsson is getting thrashed in the head-to-head categories. It also gives Sainz a chance to gain experience in a low-pressure environment before, perhaps, moving on to Toro Rosso to replace Vergne in 2015. Or, Caterham could perhaps designate him as the “franchise player” of the team, ala Jules Bianchi at Marussia, and use him as the centerpiece of their latest attempt to rebuild from a struggling backmarker to a competent mid-field organization from 2015 onward. Sainz still has to win the Formula Renault 3.5 Series championship to solidify his credentials (I certainly hope he doesn’t “Stefano Coletti” his title challenge), but with 8 races to go and no clashes with the F1 calendar before the season ends in mid-September in Jerez, Red Bull would be wise to turn Sainz loose on the Formula One circus to close out the 2014 season, and see how he fares against the established benchmarks that Caterham have in Kobayashi or Ericsson, rather than wait it out until 2015.

The heir to the family legacy has earned his place in the court of kings that is Formula 1. All he needs now is the formal coronation.

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