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Formula 1

Last year’s British GP winner is having a deceptive 2023 season

by Edd Straw
5 min read

Carlos Sainz returns to the scene of his first – and so far only – Formula 1 grand prix win at Silverstone this weekend off the back of what he characterised as a frustrating event at the Red Bull Ring in which the results didn’t correspond with the fact he feels he is “in a good moment” in terms of his driving.

Sainz has finished in the top six seven times in nine grands prix, but he has yet to finish on the GP podium in 2023 – although he did take third in the sprint event in Austria.

While he has outscored his team-mate so far this season 82 points to 72, Charles Leclerc has two podium finishes as well as a pole position to his name.

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Sainz expressed his frustration after finishing fourth on-the-road in Austria even before he was relegated to sixth when hit with 10 seconds of track limits penalties that dropped him behind Lando Norris and Fernando Alonso. That’s the second time he’s lost a fourth place this season after a five-second penalty for causing a collision at the final restart of the Australian GP relegated him to 12th there.

But he performed well during the Austrian GP weekend and there were hints he was marginally the faster Ferrari driver. He certainly outperformed Leclerc on sprint Saturday in tricky conditions, but the pendulum swung against him at the end of Q3 when Leclerc picked up time with an attacking run through the final three corners to outqualify him by 0.148s. That meant Sainz ran third early in the grand prix behind Leclerc, who had started ahead of him in second place.

When the virtual safety car was deployed to allow the recovery of Nico Hulkenberg’s Haas, Sainz held third just six-tenths of a second behind Leclerc.

Ferrari attempted to call Sainz in but the VSC was activated when Sainz was at Turn 9 on lap 14 and the call to box came a few seconds too late as a result. He followed Leclerc into the pits at the end of the next lap.

Sainz had to ensure Leclerc had a little extra space for Ferrari to complete the double stack pitstop and with Ferrari taking 4.4-4.5s to complete each pitstop, which cost him time. The VSC was cancelled while Sainz was in the pit exit, which added to the hit he took although even without that he would have emerged in sixth place having lost places to Sergio Perez, who stayed out, Lewis Hamilton and Lando Norris. Once the time gaps stabilised, Sainz’s pre-VSC deficit to Leclerc of just over half a second had stretched to six seconds.

Sainz quickly cleared Norris and Hamilton, with the deficit to Leclerc extending to eight seconds before he started to whittle away at it. However, Sainz’s battle to keep Perez behind after his second stop meant he lost touch with Leclerc, eventually finishing 16 seconds behind. He felt third place was possible had he not lost time in the VSC pitstop – and although he didn’t say it, probably felt he had the speed to be the lead Ferrari driver.

Asked by The Race if he considered Austria his strongest weekend of the year, Sainz replied with a very certain “yep”.

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“When you take into account yesterday’s quali, yesterday’s wet race, today’s first stint pace and second stint pace, attacking, defending, clearly I’m in a good moment personally with my driving,” he continued.

“I guess I’m also frustrated that I’m not maximising the points.”

Sainz came into the season determined to avoid a repeat of his difficult start of 2022. During testing he spoke of changing his approach to ensure he was “more prepared for the first race” and felt he was driving well early in the year.

He feels he’s maintained that form, with Austria typifying how his performances have not been rewarded with the results they deserve.

“I’m just frustrated,” he said on Sunday. “It’s been a few races that I’ve had a lot of pace in the car and a lot of race pace.

“I wish I could maximise it a bit more now because I’m very quick this year, especially in the race. I feel like I’ve done a big step forward if you look at my pace yesterday and today. But P4 is I guess not bad. But I think today P2 or P3 was on the cards.”

Sainz has also outqualified Leclerc in four of the last six sessions, including Austria sprint qualifying. Over the season, Leclerc has the edge in qualifying and has often found a little extra on the final run, although in Spain three races ago he was lost with mysterious car troubles in Q1 while Sainz put it third. However, in Canada, while Sainz was ahead he failed to nail the lap in Q3 when he needed to, then started down in 11th after being hit with a grid penalty for impeding Pierre Gasly.

But the races have been Sainz’s calling card. He held position behind Leclerc in the first stint in Austria before circumstances meant he dropped back, while he also tracked Leclerc for most of the race in Canada under instructions not to attack. In Spain, during a race that he felt exposed Ferrari’s weaknesses in terms of tyre degradation, he could do little to prevent fading from second to fifth.

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That followed a frustrating Monaco GP spent largely caught up behind Esteban Ocon that yielded only eighth place despite surviving the front wing damage he picked up when he launched an overly-optimistic move at the chicane. He also had a difficult time during the Azerbaijan GP weekend, where he was baffled by his lack of pace.

Sainz’s breakthrough F1 win at Silverstone last year was a strange one. Although he took pole position it wasn’t one of his better qualifying sessions, with an untidy Q3 lap following a near-miss in Q2 when he struggled with tyre disadvantages.

He led the race initially (albeit having dropped behind Max Verstappen at the first start that was red flagged because of Zhou Guanyu’s massive accident) but didn’t have the pace Leclerc did and was ordered to let him past.

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Famously, having stopped under the safety car while Leclerc stayed out, Sainz told Ferrari to “stop inventing” over the radio when asked to act as rear gunner and was able to pass Leclerc to take his first win.

Sainz can consider himself unfortunate only to have one win to his name, but with the high-speed sweeps at Silverstone not expected to favour Ferrari it’s hard to see him taking another win this weekend without a big slice of luck.

However, his claim that he’s driving well does stand up and it’s fair to say that the on-paper results he’s achieved this season haven’t always reflected how well he has actually been performing.

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