At the age of 26, Carlos Sainz has already spent six seasons in Formula One. During that time he played for four teams, participated in 118 Grand Prix events and scored 372 points in his career.
But none of this will prepare him for the next chapter of his career: a stint with Ferrari.
From his first season in F1 at Toro Rosso in 2015, it was clear Sainz had talent. He looked competitive alongside rookie Max Verstappen, but the young Dutchman was forced to seek promotion to Red Bull’s senior team in mid-2016.
Verstappen then blocks Sainz’ path to the winning car and the Spaniard has to find another way to the head of the pack.
Red Bull initially used him as a pawn in negotiations with Renault, lending him to the French manufacturer so that his junior team Toro Rosso could be freed from its engine contract and sign with Honda for 2018.
But the change worked for Sainz and his reputation blossomed outside of Red Bull, allowing him to rescind his contract and sign with McLaren in 2019.
He joined the British team when his results improved. His position in the sport was strengthened by a strong 2019 season that culminated in his first career podium at the Brazilian Grand Prix.
Carlos Sainz caught Ferrari’s attention during the 2019 Brazilian Grand Prix. DOUGLAS MAGNO/AFP via Getty Images
At that point, Ferrari made a comment. Sebastian Vettel’s contract at the Italian team is about to expire and Sainz has appeared on the radar as a potential replacement.
With the arrival of winter and for a delayed start to the 2020 season, Sainz was named Ferrari driver for 2021.
Given the performance of both teams in 2020 alone, the switch from Ferrari to McLaren could be seen as a step backwards.
McLaren’s upward trend, which coincided with Sainz’s arrival in 2019, saw the team finish third in the constructors’ championship last year, while Ferrari dropped to sixth.
But Sainz has no doubt he’s doing the right thing.
First of all: You’re driving a Ferrari… I don’t think there’s anything else, he told a group of journalists, including ESPN, in an interview in late 2020.
Becoming a Ferrari driver is every driver’s dream.
Whatever the situation, it’s very, very hard to say no.
At that time, I was confident that as an Italian team. I’ve always felt comfortable at Toro Rosso and I’ve always thought Ferrari would be a good place for me.
I know Italy, I know some of the people there, and I felt I could do it right away.
Moreover, it is sentimental to think that driving for the most successful team in the history of the sport is still the dream of every Formula One driver.
Carlos Sainz will drive for Ferrari in 2021. Pierre-Philippe Marcou/AFP via Getty Images
But Sainz joins Ferrari at the lowest level in the team’s history.
The lack of results in the 2020 campaign came after the team lost the strength advantage it gained from pushing the regulation limits in 2019 and was relegated from the top to the middle.
The loss of engine power also revealed other weaknesses in the Ferrari concept. The team now wants to return to the top by 2022, realising that Mercedes’ world champions are too far ahead to challenge this year.
I’m already seeing positive signs from Ferrari and improvements, and of course there will be a new engine that should make things a little better, Sainz said. But I think 2021 is a difficult year for everyone.
We all know that Mercedes will continue to dominate the sport, and without major regulatory changes, there is a good chance that this will remain the case in 2021.
So I think Ferrari, and almost everyone who isn’t Mercedes, should focus more on 2022 and try to make it the biggest change in the team’s competitiveness.
I am already convinced that Ferrari knows this and will try, and that 2021 will be a transition year.
I’m going to try to get closer to the team, build a good relationship and learn what racing is all about. Then, in 2022, we will start with a clean slate and new rules, which will also be more important.
Ferrari spent the year 2020 languishing in midfield. Mark Thompson/Getty Images
In a way, Sainz’s transition year is not a bad thing.
Expectations have already been downgraded by Ferrari’s poor performance in 2020, and while the pressure is always on Ferrari drivers in F1, no one expects them to win races from day one.
However, he will be up against his new teammate Charles Leclerc. In a season where so many things have gone wrong for Ferrari, Leclerc has remained the bright spot, scoring two podium finishes against all odds.
Sainz went through the race against Verstappen at Toro Rosso to see what it’s like to share a garage with the team’s golden boy, and he’s looking forward to seeing how he does against Leclerc.
I’m looking forward to it, especially because he’s probably one of the best drivers on the grid, Sainz said. You could say that he  has had a super strong season, he knows the team, he knows the car very well, and he looks pretty good.
With the combination of youth and experience that he has now, I think I will be up against the strongest, or certainly one of the strongest drivers on the grid. That would be an excellent reference point for me.
Of course I start with a gap, because I don’t know the car, I’ve hardly done any winter tests and I’ve only had one and a half days to prepare for the season [during the test in Bahrain].
I still have a lot of overtaking to do in the first half of the year, in the first races, to get to know the team and the car. But it will be great to have him as a reference and see how fast I can make speed and keep helping the team improve.
Carlos Sainz was just 0.4 seconds away from his first win in Formula 1 at last year’s Italian Grand Prix. MATTEO BAZZI/POOL/AFP via Getty Images
But Sainz is interested in the much longer term than next season 2021. He has a two-year contract at Ferrari until the end of 2022 (Leclerc is under contract until the end of 2024), but he is hoping to build a new home in F1 after changing teams for so many years.
I intended to build a long-term relationship with McLaren and I really enjoyed my two years with the team. In the second year we have already seen improvements from the first year, which shows that stability in a team and staying with a team for a long time contributes to performance and makes you a faster driver and a better driver, he added.
That is also my goal with Ferrari and the reason I signed with them for two years. We are happy together, but I want this to be a new trend in my contracts and not just a year like Renault, not knowing what will happen.
If there’s one thing I learned at McLaren, it’s how important it is to be with the team for more than a year to maximize the potential of this car and the people around you.