A NEW START FOR SAINZ
As Carlos Sainz made his switch from Toro Rosso to Renault in Austin, F1 Racing was there to see it unfold
At the US GP he graduated from Toro Rosso to Renault. F1R was there to see how he got on
THERE was no trace of a smile on the face of the young Spaniard, who had just done something, first time out, that had taken his predecessor 24 attempts to achieve: reach Q3 in qualifying.
Not only that, but Carlos Sainz, on his first race weekend for Renault F1, at the 2017 US Grand Prix, would start in P7, profiting from the demotion of Max Verstappen, who’d been slapped with a 15-place penalty for changing engine parts. Would it be uncharitable also to mention that Sainz would start at COTA 12 places ahead of his team-mate, the hard-charging qualifying ace Nico Hülkenberg?
True, the Hulk’s grid position was entirely unrepresentative, since he was another driver who was handed a heavy penalty for changing engine parts – in his case, it was an MGU-K shaft that failed during second practice. So there’d been no head-to-head between this fresh and aggressive driver pairing.
For some drivers though, those on an upward trajectory and with enough talent, dedication and luck to maximise their opportunity, planets can align, as they had for Sainz this Austin Saturday, and as they had, indeed, ahead of the race, to elevate him in a flash from Toro Rosso.
THE INSISTENT BLINKING OF
the highintensity light at the rear of Sainz’s Renault R.S.17 draws the eye. It’s flashing on-off-on-offon-off – impatiently waiting for the action to begin. Sainz’s car is on the right-hand side of the garage, and it’s noticeable in the close confines of the COTA pits how much more real estate a 2017 F1 car occupies than did its predecessors. These are big machines: low, long, wide and purposeful. Heavy (too heavy, some say), but also powerful thanks to their sophisticated power units, and capable of generating sufficient downforce to have raised cornering speeds this year by as much as 19mph, or a whole ‘G’.
It’s sobering to reflect on the fact that the men who are charged with taming these devices are still often so young. Sainz, aged just 23, will start his 57th grand prix in Austin and is already approaching the end of his third season – experience enough to have graduated from the Toro Rosso junior programme and become part of something much more serious: Renault’s ambitious, well-funded works team with a proud, championship-winning heritage.
“IT WAS A FANTASTIC RELIEF TO GET CARLOS HERE FOR THE FIRST SESSION AND TO SEE THAT ALL OF THE EFFORTS AND CONTRACTUAL DISCUSSIONS WERE WORTH IT” cyril abiteboul
But if Sainz is feeling any pressure, he’s not showing it as his crew of engineers and mechanics bustle around his machine, ensuring every part of its setup is as prescribed by pre-race data mapping. His new-livery helmet – Spanish flag stripes on a matte-black carbon weave – is almost motionless in its position at the very heart of the car. We’re just minutes into Friday’s second practice session, but Sainz has been ensconced in the cockpit for some time, waiting for his participation to begin.
The voice of race engineer Karel Loos cuts through over the intercom: “There will be five timed laps on this run: slow-fast-slow-fast-slow. Recharge on slow laps. We’re trying lower levels of exit locking and have some ‘cruise control’ runs for aero correlation.”
The era of drivers heading out for a few laps, pushing the car as hard as it wants to go, and then being the only reference for one, maybe two, engineers, with a post-run verbal debrief (Clark-chapman; JonesHead), is so far removed from contemporary F1 as to be almost unimaginable.
Analysis of Sainz’s performance will be forensic in its attention to detail; number-crunching carried out at the track will be augmented by the ‘mission control’ intelligence centre watching live from team HQ in Enstone, Oxfordshire.
But at the heart of this dazzling technical effort is a man whose skills are of paramount importance to the success of the enterprise. Those of Sainz’s predecessor, Jolyon Palmer, were found wanting, resulting in the team terminating his contract ahead of the Japanese GP. This would be his last Renault race. And while this mid-season driver swap might have seemed abrupt, it had, in fact, been a long time coming.
Renault team boss Cyril Abiteboul confirms that he and the team had been speaking to Sainz for more than a year before the switch, but that previous contractual ties had kept Sainz at Toro Rosso. These were loosened by the engine merry-go-round that next year takes Renault to Mclaren (replacing Honda) and Honda to Toro Rosso (replacing Renault). Abiteboul relates a feeling of fulfilment at finally securing Sainz’s arrival: “It was a fantastic relief to get Carlos here for the first session and to see that all of the efforts and contractual discussions were worth it. This was something that both entities wanted, but because this is such a busy time of year, with a heavy travel schedule, we had to find a time away from fly-away back-to-back races to do it.”
Diaries were cleared for the week after the Japanese Grand Prix and the entire race team were briefed to be ‘in the office’ on the day of Sainz’s arrival to help make him feel welcome.
“It was great,” says Abiteboul. “We did a dry run of a race weekend, with everybody there and it was super-positive immediately. We could feel that there was a good energy and a good vibe.
“CARLOS IS QUITE STRAIGHTFORWARD; HE HAS SOME HUMILITY. HE’S STRONG BUT AT THE SAME TIME HE LISTENS TO PEOPLE” cyril abiteboul
There was an appetite to be working together and be immediately up to speed.”
The benefits of those intense preparations are immediately apparent here in Austin, as Sainz is thrown into the ‘team leader’ role unexpectedly early when the Hulk’s MGU-K problem means his FP2 session is largely wasted. Carlos has to carry the team – and he’s ready.
His comments to race engineer Loos are clear and precise: “I’m not so happy with the car this session. The traction’s really poor compared with FP1 and on the first timed lap the brake balance caught me by surprise.”
He’s not yet assertive in his demands, but neither is he fazed by taking the step up to a larger, more explicitly ambitious race team. Like any racing driver, he knows what he wants and he knows that he now has to build relationships with his team that allow him get it.
Abiteboul says that he and others were immediately impressed by the blend of personal qualities Sainz brings to his racing: “Even though the relationship changes when someone works with you, he’s not that different from the Carlos I already knew. He’s quite straightforward; he has some humility. He’s strong but at the same time he listens to people. He’s young and he has the energy of youth, but he’s also able to have some perspective on his performance now and how that might affect his future performance. He was conservative on his first weekend, but immediately up to it.”
And how. Sainz was pipped for ‘best of the rest’ honours only by fellow young flier, Esteban Ocon; ahead of them just the two Mercedes, the Ferraris and a Red Bull. Being ‘next best’ is Renault’s minimum expectation this year and for 2018 their hopes are higher still.
“Having Carlos with us sent an important signal internally and externally,” says Abiteboul. “We are growing as an organisation massively, but our effort is not just about working hours and financial commitment. It’s also about showing that we are doing everything that it takes to have a driver at the right level.”
Sainz’s P7 finish in Sunday’s race turned out to be no more than a simple affirmation of what everyone already knew: he’s a gifted, attacking driver, ripe for success. Much like another young Spaniard who, more than a decade ago, found his F1 feet at Minardi (the team that would become Toro Rosso), and then went on to become a world beater at Renault…
Renault had been interested in Sainz for a long time, and now he’s here it’s clear he’s a good fit, impressing the engineers with his precise feedback
Sainz made Q3 in his first qualifying session with Toro Rosso and finished in the points in P7. Could he be following in the footprints of another famous Spanish racer?