Carlos Sainz’s Ferrari career has started well, to the point that even an Azerbaijan Grand Prix weekend that made him “angry” showcased one of the qualities that have made him a formidable Formula 1 driver.
While team-mate Charles Leclerc is famous for being hard on himself, as exemplified by his regular self-berating radio messages, Sainz actually has a similar trait. It’s not showcased with such outbursts, but instead with the capacity to identify a weakness frankly and quickly without hiding behind excuses.
In Azerbaijan, he had two offs. The first – at Turn 3 during Q3 after Yuki Tsunoda went off ahead of him – made no difference to his weekend given the session was red-flagged. But the second, locking up and taking to the Turn 8 escape road on his out-lap after pitting for hard tyres, cost him just under 20 seconds and left him fighting the likes of the Alfa Romeos to get back into the points.
“Basically, when I left the pits on the hard [Pirellis] I was immediately very surprised with the lack of grip,” said Sainz after the race. “We ran the hard in FP1 and the warm-up, maybe because the track was a lot hotter, wasn’t so much of an issue.
“But immediately when I left the pits on the hard, I was a bit all over the place and struggling with front locking.
“Then into Turn 8, I misjudged the grip I had, and I probably lost a bit of concentration thinking about other things. I just braked that tiny bit too late, too hard, which meant I locked up both front tyres, and decided to take the escape road rather than crash.
“I was really, really angry with myself. Then the recovery from there with the front tyres a bit flat-spotted was good. I had the pace I was expecting to have
“But as I locked the fronts in both of the starts, then I’ve locked the fronts in Turn 8 with the hard tyre, it’s definitely a weakness that I need to address.
“It’s something that maybe is part of my adaptation to the car, trying to find a way to make me feel a bit more comfortable in this cold front tyre condition.”
For much of the season, Sainz has generally been regarded as the driver among the five major movers – the others being Fernando Alonso, Sergio Perez, Daniel Ricciardo and Sebastian Vettel – to have adapted most effectively.
While you could now make a strong case for Red Bull newcomer Perez now having that accolade, Sainz has definitely settled in well.
He is probably the best-prepared driver in F1 to take on such a challenge given Ferrari is his fourth different team over the past five seasons having moved from Toro Rosso to Renault then Renault to McLaren prior to his latest switch.
Those experiences shaped his desire to maximise the time spent at Maranello over the winter, as well as ensuring he got regular mileage in 2018 Ferrari machinery to ease his adaptation.
“When I changed from Toro Rosso to Renault, I thought ‘OK, these two cars are completely different but it’s maybe a one off’, but then changing from Renault to McLaren it was then completely different again,” said Sainz. “Then, from McLaren to Ferrari was completely different again.
“So it kept opening up my eyes a bit how different everything is from those four different teams and how much you need to adapt. I guess I have some practice with it.
“But I would say it’s more down to the detail. When I arrived at Renault, that first rainy race in Austin, I was on the pace straight away. But I felt like I lacked the last two tenths from the toys – the diff maps, the engine braking and the last bit of driving style.
“The same applies to McLaren and probably the same applies to Ferrari. And then it’s also all the set-up options that you have in the car, how to use them, how to exploit them depending on the track.
“And there I’m talking a lot more about the mechanical and the aero – you just don’t know what is going to suit each track. You probably need years of experience with that car to know that one goes in one direction or the other depending on the circuit.”
The big picture of Sainz’s performances certainly supports this. His pace has been good so far this season, although he has only outqualified Leclerc one time in six attempts – perhaps not a surprise given how strong the Monegasque is on Saturdays.
But making the car work on cold tyres at circuits where it’s difficult to get energy into the fronts, more of a problem in Monaco and Baku than at upcoming circuits like Paul Ricard, the Red Bull Ring and Silverstone, is one of those details he needs to work on.
“Obviously the pace hasn’t been an issue, I think the pace has been strong all weekend,” Sainz added.
“Although the race pace wasn’t at the level of Red Bull and the Mercedes, it was still very strong.
“So personally I still take the positives that the pace itself in the car is very good, but I need to improve with the cold feeling of the tyre.”