CARLOS SAINZ: THE REAL DEAL
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
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
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.”
IMAGINE MY POSITION… 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
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