Read time: 15.4 minutes
It’s easy to fall into sentimentalist traps when a driver leaves the team. Well, most of the time. There is the odd exception every now and then, but Carlos Sainz is not one of them. This weekend’s Abu Dhabi Grand Prix marks the denouement of a two-year stint at McLaren that has probably exceeded even his expectations. In that time, his talent and class have shone bright, and there can be no doubt that this charming Spaniard is one hell of a fighter.
But rather than don rose-tinted spectacles and roll out nostalgia-ridden clichés as we reflect on Carlos’ time at McLaren, we thought we’d let the man himself have the final say. No fluff, no filler, just pure, unadulterated Carlos.
These are his defining moments as a McLaren driver, in his own words…
1 | 2018 Abu Dhabi test: "I already feel at home"
It might sound obvious, but my first defining moment as a McLaren driver has to be the 2018 Abu Dhabi test. It’s the first time I got to really meet the team and the test immediately made me feel at home at McLaren. It put me in a very relaxed and positive frame of mind heading into the winter. Those first 150 laps were so important. Even though the 2018 car wasn't the best car McLaren has produced, it allowed me to understand some of the weaknesses and immediately work with the team to improve them. Also, I was straight away impressed by the mental strength and good atmosphere in the team. After a long and tough year, everyone was spot on during the test and you could already feel the excitement of the upcoming season.
2 | 2019 Monaco Grand Prix: "Definitely one of my best overtakes"
It’s almost impossible to overtake around Monaco and I knew my best opportunity was at the start. The lights went out and going up the hill into Turn Three I was side-by-side with Alex [Albon]. To be honest, at that point I was only focused on overtaking him. I managed to stay ahead around the outside and, as soon as I hit the brakes, I felt quite a lot of grip and decided to go for Daniil [Kvyat] too. It was a risky move because it's not the typical overtaking spot at Monaco (if there is such a thing!), but sometimes you just feel that extra bit of confidence and go for it. That overtake will stick in my head for a long time!
3 | 2019 Brazilian Grand Prix: "Smooth operator"
Starting last on the grid meant I had to take bigger risks if I wanted to get into the points that day (looking back, probably too many!). That requires more focus and a very different approach compared to a normal race, and normally this mentality puts me on the front foot. For the first 10 laps I was super-attacking – I went all out. I chose to start on the Soft tyre to try to gain as many positions as possible. I pulled off one of best moves of my career to pass Pérez for P15 into Turn One.
People were saying Hamilton might get a penalty, but I never allowed myself to believe I would finish third
I knew most people were going for a two-stop strategy, so I opted for the one-stop to do something different to them. I settled into a rhythm after the opening laps and looked after the tyres. Then I had to do the same again once I pitted, so I could make it to the finish on the Medium tyres. When others made mistakes towards the end, I hung in there, stayed out of trouble, defended my position with everything I had and capitalised.
After the race, people were saying Hamilton might get a penalty, but I never allowed myself to believe I would finish third. Finishing fourth meant it was already a great day for me. If I had started to believe third was possible, only to be told that fourth was the final result, it would have turned a good day into a bad day. I had to erase the possibility from my mind. And then, when they told me I had finished third, it felt amazing.
4 | Abu Dhabi 2019: "Did I don't didn't send it?"
With everything pretty much decided coming into the final round of the season, one of the biggest question marks was who was going to finish sixth in the Drivers’ Championship. This meant a lot of eyes were on Pierre [Gasly], Alex and me. Around mid-point of the race, I was running out of the points and realised that if things stayed the same, I was going miss out on that sixth place by one point! That’s when I started talking to my engineers about trying an alternative strategy: to pit for Medium tyres with 15 laps remaining and go full-attack until the chequered flag. It was complete improvisation because we hadn’t even considered it in any of our pre-race planning, but it made sense in my head looking at how the race was going and how I felt in the car.
Those final laps were pretty hectic. I had to recover something like 1.5 seconds a lap to catch up to Hülkenberg. Our predictions said I would catch him on the last lap but, as we all know, in F1 it’s one thing to catch someone and another thing to pass them. I went into maximum engine mode, dived down the inside of Turn 11, braked incredibly late and somehow made it stick for 10th place and the one point I needed. It was one of the highest levels of adrenaline and emotion I’ve experienced in an F1 car. But it wasn’t so much about finishing sixth in the championship, it was more about what I had built it up to be in my mind. I treated that race like a title decider. Imagining that I was fighting for the F1 title rather than P6 was a good way to achieve it and, hopefully, who knows, that experience might come in handy in the future!
5 | 2020 Styrian Grand Prix: "The most exciting and stressful qualifying"
I don’t know why, whether it comes from my dad or it’s the training I’ve done out of a single seater, but I always feel very comfortable in wet or mixed conditions. Whenever I wake up and see rain forecast, I get pretty excited.
During the second weekend in Austria this year it rained a lot. The track was so wet, at one point it looked as though qualifying might not even happen. Eventually it did, after a long delay, and if there is one thing I remember it´s the aquaplaning in sixth gear heading to Turn Three – that’s how bad it was.
I enjoy driving in the wet more than the dry because driving becomes less formulaic and more about feeling the car and improvising along the way – you must constantly adapt. In the end, I managed to qualify P3 – my best qualifying in F1. Managing to put our car up there with a Mercedes and a Red Bull and going to the press conference afterwards with Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen – two drivers I respect a lot and who usually stand out in tricky conditions – was a very good moment for me as a McLaren driver.
6 | 2020 Italian Grand Prix: "High risk, high reward"
I wouldn’t say I’m a constant big risk-taker. I’m more of a calculated risk-taker and that’s because I aim to be one of the most consistent drivers out there. If you want consistency, you can’t take big risks all the time, you have to choose the opportunities wisely. Saturday at Monza this year was one of those opportunities. I came into Q3 on the back of finishing P2 in final practice, P4 in Q1 and P3 in Q2, so I knew we had the pace for a great result, but I made a couple of small mistakes at the start of my flying lap which could have cost us a lot of positions. It would have been a tremendous disappointment after being consistently strong, so I decided to really go for it in the last few corners. I braked much later than I had all weekend and got on the throttle earlier – the car was right on the limit. Normally, when you overdrive you go slower, but this time it paid off.
7 | 2020 Italian Grand Prix: "I want to win this race"
This was a crazy race. I could see Pierre ahead. The victory was right there in front of me. I managed to close the gap to him after clearing the field, but I just couldn’t get close enough to overtake him on the last lap. With the current generation of F1 cars, overtaking when you’re within 1.5 seconds of the car in front becomes a challenge because of the dirty air: the car becomes difficult to handle, less consistent and every lap is like an adventure. It becomes a bit of an unknown and it can also get super frustrating.
In the end, I was less than half a second away from my first grand prix win
The team could see from the data that I was pushing really hard to get into DRS range, so my race engineer Tom Stallard came over the radio to say the team was happy with P2 and to just focus on not making mistakes. This was conflicting for me. I understood why the team wanted to settle for P2, with all the points it would bring, but I really wanted the win because I honestly felt like I really deserved it. I had more pace than Pierre, so I went for it. I tried my best and got into DRS range, but it was just a little too late. In the end, I was less than half a second away from my first grand prix win! I guess it wasn't meant to be that day.
8 | 2020 Tuscan Grand Prix: "Oh my God"
When my race was ended by the crash at the Safety Car restart, the easiest thing to do would have been to go to my room, lock myself in there and forget about the race until it had finished. But if there’s one thing I’ve learnt at McLaren, it’s how to be a better team player: to respect and help your colleagues wherever possible. During the rest of the Tuscan Grand Prix I was eager to follow what Lando was doing, and shared my opinion with the engineers and the strategy guys using my headset, live from the engineering room. It might have been my thoughts on what I would do in situations Lando was finding himself in, or how he might be feeling at a particular point in the race – basically, anything that could help the team get a better result. I like to think that even after the accident my weekend was still not over and that my input somehow contributed, even if it was in the slightest of ways.
9 | My relationship with Lando: "Bonkers"
During a filming day in Austin last year, Lando and I put some videos on Instagram of us headbanging to really loud music – dance, techno, house, that kind of thing. One of the songs was ‘Bonkers’ by Dizzee Rascal, and I guess that’s one word you could use to describe our relationship. It’s pretty unique and hard to find something like this in F1.
You know when you meet someone, and you instantly get a good feeling about them – you have a similar sense of humour and just get on right away? That’s exactly what I felt as soon as I got to know Lando. But what makes our relationship even more special is that it’s been like this throughout our time as team-mates in the super-competitive world of F1. On the track we’re competitors, we want to beat each other, but we have always battled in a respectful way and that has also helped the team move forward. When we are away from the track, we just have a lot of fun together.
The last word
It’s very hard to pick one moment that defines my time at McLaren, but if I had to single one out it would be one that most people may not think of. It’s Baku 2019. I came into that weekend on the back of three very difficult races – my first races with McLaren. Even though my confidence was high, the points never came because we were extremely unlucky. Despite that, I never felt under pressure to perform. I remained confident in what I was doing and the atmosphere was still great – we didn’t let our heads drop and I felt the support of the team.
I knew that as soon as the strange things out of my control stopped happening, the results would come. And that’s exactly what happened on Sunday in Baku last year. It was the turning point. With the exception of Canada, I went on to score points in eight consecutive races. A similar thing happened this season: we emerged from a difficult period to have a run of really positive results.
It's created a special bond between us and it's a bond that will never be broken
There will always be tough moments, but you can overcome them as long as you get back up and keep fighting. That’s what I’ve done throughout my career and during my time at McLaren, and that’s why I share so many great memories with everyone in the team. Every time there has been a difficult moment, together we’ve come back stronger. It’s created a special bond between us and it’s a bond that will never be broken. I'm really grateful to absolutely every member of this great team and I really look forward to seeing you around the paddock and fighting you on track. Once again, thank you!
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