Carlos Sainz had the greatest ambitions prior to the 2022 Formula One season, but is in danger of being relegated to second place early in the season. What does this mean for the Spaniard’s future and will Ferrari now look at the contract negotiations differently?
Great start for Sainz
After his first year for the Italian team, Sainz was in pretty good shape. The Spaniard had managed to make the switch from McLaren to Ferrari fairly easily and even finished ahead of his teammate in the championship. Sainz finished fifth in the championship with 164.5 points, Leclerc came no further than seventh place and 159 points.
So on paper Sainz had an ideal negotiating position at Ferrari with his expiring contract (end of 2022). The underlying figures told a slightly different story. Sainz had indeed been on the podium three times and scored more points, but when both crossed the finish line Leclerc finished ahead of Sainz more often than vice versa: 12-7.
However, the minute difference on Saturday spoke most in favor of the former McLaren driver. Whereas Sainz over the years always shone on Sunday and was less so on Saturday, he remained close to Leclerc at 13-9 over a full season. The Monegasque was seen as a qualifying beast and so this was surprising. The same was true of the minute advantage for Leclerc when you look at the average difference between the two in qualifying: 0.055s.
Sainz’s performance was held in such high regard mainly because Leclerc was seen as one of the best drivers on the grid. If Sainz could do this already in his first year at Ferrari, how would the proportions be in the second year. Where Sainz himself had hoped to become the team’s leader, however, he is now coming up short.
Leclerc finds an extra gear
Indeed, with a championship car under his belt, Leclerc appears to have an extra gear at his disposal. In 2022, Leclerc has taken another step forward and Sainz will not be able to keep up with him for the time being. Leclerc won every qualifying session on Saturday with an average difference of 0.153s. This does not even include the qualifying at Australia because Sainz could not set a representative time for comparison due to circumstances.
On Sunday, we see a similar picture. Where Sainz in 2021 could regularly stay close to Leclerc or even finish ahead of him, in 2022 this has not yet succeeded. Leclerc is on his own island with Max Verstappen and has nothing to fear from his teammate. Sainz finished twice on the podium, but completely threw his own windows in with a retirement in Melbourne.
Leclerc is now on the title track with 71 points from 3 races and the same cannot be said of Sainz. He is third in the championship with a gap of 38 points to his teammate. Not unbridgeable, but how soon can the Spaniard turn the tide and how long will it take for Ferrari to back up one driver for a supporting role?
Second fiddle at Ferrari
Much of that role will depend crazily on the competition. If Ferrari remains the fastest team, then, like Mercedes between 2014 and 2016, it may simply have the two drivers racing for the world title. However, if Verstappen, Sergio Perez, Lewis Hamilton or George Russell manage to get involved in the title fight, then the focus within the team will be on the first driver, where the number two in the championship should mainly serve the team. Score points for the constructors’ championship and help your teammate where necessary.
For Sainz, it would be good if the competition were to lag behind. It would give him more time to get used to the new F1-75 and possibly close the gap to Leclerc. The Monegasque will undoubtedly have a lesser moment in the season and the Madrid native should take advantage of that.
None of this is convenient for Sainz, however. With F1-75 at his disposal, he could have done himself a great service with victories. His contract expires at the end of this year, unlike Leclerc’s, so Sainz is at the table with Ferrari. Whereas he had a good negotiating position after 2021, it is now somewhat reduced.
Sainz himself is performing less and will therefore be able to demand less, but also for Ferrari the situation has changed. As an iconic brand, the team can always attract big names, but with the current car, the team is not at all shy in terms of driver supply in the coming years. Everyone wants to drive that car now and that offers the team opportunities. Leclerc still has a contract and seems to be the ideal frontrunner at the moment, but Ferrari will probably postpone the decision a bit longer to see if there isn’t a better alternative for Sainz.
This situation is also a double one. Ferrari hopes of course that Sainz performs as well as possible, but at the top you need a top driver and one who is just below that. This has been evident in recent years at Mercedes and Red Bull Racing. You don’t want a Hamilton/Rosberg scenario when the competition is close, but you also don’t want a situation like Red Bull Racing where only Verstappen had to pull the cart.
Ferrari and Sainz want something else
For Ferrari it is to be hoped that Sainz does not improve too much. The Italians would benefit from him playing the supporting role for Leclerc and thus being able to win both titles. Sainz himself of course hopes for something else, but if he would cause unrest then this could also have consequences for his contract negotiations.
For Sainz it is therefore a difficult position. On the one hand he wants to be the leader of Ferrari and win the world title himself, but his contract is also at stake. If he plays the ideal team player now then he has a contract with the team for 2023, but if he really wants to win a world title then 2022 is his first chance. You never know how many you’re going to get, so in that case it’s better to give everything to still be world champion.
It’s not surprising then that we haven’t heard anything about Sainz’s contract negotiations since the Bahrain Grand Prix. The Spaniard and the team announced at the first race of 2022 that it was still a matter of details. Everyone assumed that the contract would be signed by now, but that is not yet the case. The question is whether Sainz has had second thoughts about his current situation, Ferrari may be considering postponing the decision or whether it is really all “just” taking a little longer.