At the home of Real Madrid CF we learn why 2017 is a make-or-break sea­son for the Toro Rosso ace


The vast 81,000-seater ed­i­fice casts a long and chilly shadow on an early spring morn­ing, and those hus­tling within that shade have too many other things on their mind – for the most part, buy­ing or sell­ing tick­ets for tonight’s Cham­pi­ons’ League match – to no­tice a VW with scuffed al­loys turn­ing left into the car park and paus­ing briefly for in­ter­ro­ga­tion by a se­cu­rity guard.

To­day, in­deed, Car­los is but one of many sup­pli­cants com­ing to wor­ship at this shrine to money-no-ob­ject in­ter­na­tional foot­ball.

But for a quirk of fate, Car­los might have been the son of a foot­baller. Sainz Sr caught the at­ten­tion of Real Madrid’s tal­ent scouts in his teens and was called up for a trial, but by then he was al­ready on course for a ca­reer be­hind the wheel. Foot­ball – and Real Madrid in par­tic­u­lar – re­mains a pas­sion for the Sainz fam­ily, padre e hijo, and to­day’s be­hind-the-scenes tour at the sta­dium has been wan­gled ex­pertly by Car­los’s re­cently ap­pointed man­ager, Car­los Oñoro, who also hap­pens to be a cousin. Fam­ily, you get the im­pres­sion, is a very im­por­tant el­e­ment of the Sainz setup (co­in­ci­den­tally, Car­los’s per­for­mance coach, also present to­day, is Ru­pert Man­war­ing, son of the vet­eran Brab­ham-lo­tus-tyrrell-bar F1 team man­ager also known as Ru­pert).

“I grew up on the out­skirts of Madrid, but ev­ery­thing here is pretty close,” says Car­los. “I can drive here [the Bern­abéu] from my house in 20 min­utes. Maybe 30 or 40 on a foot­ball day…”

It is per­haps telling that Car­los doesn’t live in Monaco, in­stead split­ting his time be­tween Madrid, Toro Rosso’s fac­tory in Faenza, and Lon­don, where he main­tains a flat in Chelsea as a lo­cal base for when he’s us­ing the Red Bull sim­u­la­tor in Mil­ton Keynes. The fast rail link to Lon­don has pushed up prop­erty prices in MK to the ex­tent that you may as well live in the cap­i­tal, he reck­ons, even though he doesn’t have much of a net­work of friends and fam­ily there.

“I don’t know if I could live in Monaco,” he says. “There’s not much… dis­con­nec­tion from F1. Danny Ric­cia­rdo says he sees Max Ver­stap­pen ev­ery day in the gym! So al­though when I’m in my flat in Lon­don I don’t re­ally know any­body there, I’ve still got my man­ager, who’s also my cousin, my trainer – and my girl­friend comes to visit me as well. It’s ac­tu­ally quite nice when you get back from a race to do ab­so­lutely noth­ing for a day. Then, lit­tle by lit­tle, you get back into the rou­tine. If I get a week­end off and I can be in Spain and play a game of golf, per­fect. If not, well, no­body recog­nises me in Lon­don, so it can be a calmer place than Madrid.”

From the vast­ness of the sub­ter­ranean car park, which is sub­stan­tial enough to swal­low both team buses and the sort of ve­hi­cles driven by those who earn mil­lions of Eu­ros per year to kick a foot­ball around, we’re ush­ered through a suc­ces­sion of neatly ap­pointed con­crete cor­ri­dors into the heart of the sta­dium. Our num­ber grad­u­ally in­creases to ac­com­mo­date PR han­dlers, loi­ter­ing at a po­lite dis­tance, and a small cam­era crew. This is a sport with such an enor­mous global fol­low­ing that a team of Real Madrid’s stand­ing have their own TV chan­nel.

We’re shown into the home chang­ing room, the in­ner sanctum, where Car­los is de­lighted to be stand­ing amongst the neatly piled kit of this mi­lieu’s hero fig­ures: Ron­aldo, Ro­dríguez, Bale, Pepe, et al. The shoe rack is home to a ver­i­ta­ble rain­bow of boots. To one side, near the show­ers, Jacuzzi and plunge pool, is a white­board – cur­rently blank – on which man­ager Zine­dine Zi­dane will, in a few hours, ad­um­brate tonight’s tac­tics. Car­los is handed a replica shirt bear­ing the name of team cap­tain Ser­gio Ramos and ea­gerly slips it over his head to pose for pic­tures.

“That’s it,” says Man­war­ing. “He’ll want to wear that all day now.”

We ad­journ to the side of the pitch, where the hal­lowed turf is be­ing rolled and marked out. The sta­dium has grown up­wards rather than out­wards over the years as new lay­ers of seat­ing have been added, giv­ing it the feel of a glad­i­a­to­rial arena. The at­mos­phere on match day must be both im­pos­ing and elec­tri­fy­ing. Car­los and his fa­ther have seats here and come as of­ten as they can, travel per­mit­ting; Sainz Sr has still not quite re­tired from mo­tor­sport, al­though his travel sched­ule isn’t quite as in­ten­sive as it was in the past. Car­los re­calls teach­ing him­self to slide a lit­tle elec­tric car around while his fa­ther was off on the world rally cir­cuit; that era not only gave him an in­sight into car con­trol, but also the sac­ri­fices re­quired to win a cham­pi­onship.

“There are some videos of me slid­ing this bat­tery car when I wasn’t even three years old,” he says. “The most in­ter­est­ing part is that my dad was never home then, he was away maybe


300 days a year so he couldn’t teach me how to do it. I was try­ing to learn by my­self – donuts, slid­ing, the Scan­di­na­vian flick. When he got back he was im­pressed that I had all this in­side me.

“There were fewer ral­lies than there are GPS, but test­ing was free so they did it all the time. They’d go to a rally lo­ca­tion two weeks early to learn the stages. To win took a lot of ded­i­ca­tion.”

Car­los must ex­cuse him­self for a pre-lunch strength train­ing ses­sion with Man­war­ing. Like all his ri­vals, Car­los has had to add some mus­cle bulk, mostly around the neck and shoul­ders, dur­ing the off-sea­son in an­tic­i­pa­tion of this year’s cars be­ing con­sid­er­ably more phys­i­cally de­mand­ing. The trans­for­ma­tive ef­fects of all this iron-pump­ing has per­haps been ex­ag­ger­ated, since none of the driv­ers emerged from the win­ter with a neck like Henry Rollins in his pomp, and later, over lunch back at the Bern­abéu, F1 Rac­ing asks Car­los if he’s had to make any changes in his out­look, be­yond the gym, this be­ing a piv­otal sea­son in his ca­reer.

“Men­tally, for me, it’s one year more – I want to keep per­form­ing the way I did in 2016. There

are one or two things I know I need to im­prove, and, from there on, the aim is to keep en­joy­ing it. Be­cause I am en­joy­ing ev­ery mo­ment in F1.

“I haven’t changed my ap­proach since 2014. The pre­vi­ous year was tough – I didn’t win GP3, and Daniil Kvyat got pro­moted to F1 while I had to go to World Se­ries. At that point I changed many things in my prepa­ra­tion and men­tal­ity, and I won World Se­ries. Since then I’ve fol­lowed the same meth­ods, the same way of be­hav­ing on- and off-track. It’s worked re­ally well.

“Last year was just… strange things stopped hap­pen­ing to me. I al­ways give the ex­am­ple of Rus­sia [the fourth race of last sea­son] – a piece of front wing from Kvyat’s car, af­ter he crashed into Vet­tel, went into my side­pod, and I lost 100bhp and 30 points of down­force. There’s noth­ing you can do when that hap­pens. Then from Barcelona on the sys­tem kicked in, and peo­ple could see the real Car­los Sainz that maybe they hadn’t seen in 2015 be­cause of the re­li­a­bil­ity prob­lems and the is­sues we had in the team.”

This is per­haps an oblique al­lu­sion to some key per­son­nel changes, be­lieved to have been in­sti­gated at the be­hest of Hel­mut Marko, Red Bull’s in­flu­en­tial min­is­ter-with­out-port­fo­lio, be­tween Sochi and Barcelona last year. It was ru­moured at the time that re­la­tions be­tween the two sides of the Toro Rosso garage had fallen into sham­bolic dys­func­tion, and along with the much-pub­li­cised swap­ping of Max Ver­stap­pen and Kvyat, Ver­stap­pen’s chief race en­gi­neer Xevi Pu­jo­lar was shown the door and for­mer Manor boss John Booth in­stalled as race direc­tor.

“This was a time of the year that peo­ple thought would be very easy for me – they thought Kvyat had been let down by Red Bull so it would be very easy to beat him. But – I’ve al­ways thought I’m good at this, at least good enough to try to be the cham­pion. So when they pro­moted Max it was dif­fi­cult to take in. As tough as it was for Kvyat to go down, it was tough for me to be over­looked.

“All of this just two weeks be­fore my home grand prix, where I ex­pected a lot of me­dia at­ten­tion. But then… I had the best per­for­mance of my F1 ca­reer – the best qual­i­fy­ing, the best start, I was in P3 on the first lap and ahead of the Fer­raris for six laps. It was like I was say­ing to Red Bull: ‘Okay, maybe you were right, be­cause Max won, but I’m here when­ever you need me.’”

Re­sults gen­er­ally fol­lowed an up­ward curve af­ter that, in spite of Toro Rosso us­ing an old­spec Fer­rari en­gine, and Car­los’s per­for­mances drew the at­ten­tion of other teams – in­clud­ing Wil­liams. It’s telling that when F1 Rac­ing spoke to se­nior Wil­liams en­gi­neer Rob Smed­ley in con­nec­tion with the Lance Stroll story last is­sue, Car­los’s name sprang un­prompted to Rob’s lips when he listed the cur­rent F1 driv­ers he be­lieved had im­pres­sive men­tal agility as well as great speed when driv­ing at the limit.

This sea­son, then, is cru­cial to Car­los’s ca­reer de­vel­op­ment. No driver has done more than three sea­sons with Toro Rosso, and this is his third. The Red Bull young driver pro­gramme is fun­da­men­tally an up-or-out mech­a­nism, un­sen­ti­men­tally presided over by the afore­men­tioned Marko, and while you could make a com­pelling ar­gu­ment that Car­los is too good to fire, there may not be a va­cancy for him to fill at the se­nior team next sea­son.

“This is an im­por­tant year,” he ad­mits, “not just for me, but for all 20 of us be­cause so many are out of con­tract at the end of the sea­son. A fourth year in Toro Rosso is not nor­mal be­cause the sta­tis­tics say so. But I’m not wor­ried; the way I see it, pre­vi­ous sea­sons don’t count – what mat­ters is how you did in the last race.

“I see this year as a big op­por­tu­nity. And I’m ready for it.”



Get­ting to grips with his home team’s sil­ver­ware – in­clud­ing their most re­cently ac­quired Cham­pi­ons League tro­phy

On top of the world: Sainz is de­lighted to don a replica shirt, bear­ing the name of Real Madrid cap­tain, Ser­gio Ramos

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