Carlos Sainz's first year dressed in the red overalls of Scuderia Ferrari couldn't have gone much better, with the young Spaniard finishing in fifth place in the Drivers' Championship and, strikingly, five-and-a-half points clear of established teammate Charles Leclerc.
Sainz capped off a stellar debut season with Ferrari by taking third place in the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, adding to his earlier podiums in Monaco, Hungary and Russia. It's been a hugely impressive display from Sainz, given that he was one of several drivers this season to have swapped teams between 2020 and '21.
While other drivers to swap teams, such as Sebastian Vettel, Sergio Perez and Daniel Ricciardo, all struggled for consistency in their new machines, Sainz was like a metronome. Aside from Portugal and France, Ferrari's season nadir, Sainz scored points in every single race and was the only driver to finish every Grand Prix.
It's no surprise that Sainz has earned the approval of Ferrari team boss Mattia Binotto, with the intention this winter already being to figure out his future as his contract expires at the end of 2022.
It's perhaps no surprise that Sainz is acquitting himself so well at the top level. After all, his father is two-time World Rally Champion and three-time Dakar Rally winner Carlos Sainz.
A quiet but effective influence in the background of his son's racing career, Sainz senior took the time to speak to RacingNews365.com about his son's progress at Ferrari during the Extreme E event in Dorset last weekend.
"I'm very proud, it can't be any other way," he smiled, when looking back on the year.
"I think he had a great challenge in front [of him] of the beginning of the year. At that time, I said he would surprise many people. I think probably most of the people hearing that weren't believing it, but I'm happy that he was able to have a good year.
"He was able to do a year of improving from the beginning to the end. That was the aim, to start the year at one level and finish the year at a different level - that is the most important thing. I think he has done that, which is good.
"I think he's prepared for the next challenge, [which] will be the new cars. Now he knows his team, his engineer after a year at Ferrari. Charles and he are a great team, they are pushing each other. I think Ferrari has a strong team."
Going up against Leclerc
Adding to Sainz's daunting task for 2021 was the fact that he was paired up with Charles Leclerc. Not only does the Monegasque driver have a fearsome reputation after winning over the Scuderia by matching and beating four-time World Champion Sebastian Vettel in 2019, his two race wins that year came in circumstances of ridiculous pressure at Spa-Francorchamps and Monza.
With Leclerc also having a year's experience with the chassis after racing (if you can call it that) the SF1000 in 2020, 2021's clear step forward saw him raise his game accordingly. While Sainz initially struggled to match Leclerc, the pair ended the year practically inseparable in the upper midfield.
Speaking after the season finale, the pair spoke glowingly about each other's talents, feeling that they had worked well together to mutual benefit.
"I think we learned a lot, as always when you have a new teammate," Leclerc told media, including RacingNews365.com, in Abu Dhabi.
"You always learn with new ways, of how Carlos is approaching race weekends, the way he works, his talent, his raw speed and the way he takes the corners.
"He's had an amazing year, so he has obviously pushed me very, very much to try and perform better at every race.
"To pinpoint one thing, I think one of the strong points of Carlos is his race management and tyre management and that's probably been my weakness in 2019. I've progressed a lot as a driver in 2020 and again this year, and part of this year is thanks to Carlos."
Sainz himself said that being paired with Leclerc meant a lot of homework, as he pored over the data traces produced by his teammate early in the season.
"Since the moment I arrived to winter testing in Bahrain, I had a lot of things to learn from Charles," Sainz explained.
"The way that he was driving the Ferrari in a particular way to be as quick and as fast as he's been all year long, and I've had to adapt myself. I had to copy a lot of the stuff that I was seeing on the data that sometimes was difficult to believe that it was possible to do that.
"He's so crazy quick that it was actually a bit shocking but, little by little, I adapted and tried to learn from him. I managed to get to a good level and there are still things that when we will go into the winter break, he's much stronger than me in certain areas.
"We will exchange some information and we will try and both become better drivers, learning from each other.
"I think that this type of battle and competition is what is going to bring Charles and I, again, to a better level next season, and it's also going to benefit Ferrari and ourselves."
Can he step up to the very front?
With Sainz joining in the fight for podium places, including a career-matching-best of second place in Monaco as he pursued Max Verstappen relentlessly around the streets of Monte Carlo, it appears as though a first victory could beckon if the car is capable of doing so under the new regulations.
With Ferrari making clear steps forward on the power unit front, their new state-of-the-art simulator coming online at Fiorano, and an early switch to concentrating on nailing the revolutionary 2022 regulations, all the pieces are there to suggest that the team could rejoin the battle for supremacy next year.
Given that Sainz struggled to initially find his feet in Formula 1, it's a huge turnaround from when he was dumped unceremoniously from Red Bull's programme for 2018 after racing with Toro Rosso for three seasons. Moving to Renault, he was there for only one year before moving to McLaren and the start of his ascendancy to where he is now.
It's this mental resilience that makes him such a formidable opponent, Sainz senior believes.
"That is probably one of the strongest points he has always had - he's never giving up," he explained. "He's always pushing. His Formula 1 career was never easy.
"He's had to face a lot of situations where things [weren't] going his direction, sometimes just bad luck or whatever, but he's used to fighting. This is a spirit I like to see in any sportsman."
It was in 2015 that Sainz partnered up with Max Verstappen, the man who has just been crowned as the new F1 World Champion. While it looks as though the Dutch driver had a clear advantage as he out-scored Sainz by 31 points, Sainz had seven retirements in contrast to Verstappen's four.
Sainz senior points out that "Carlos had a lot of DNFs, but it's so far away [in the past] nobody really looked in detail".
"Up until the last race, they were nine-nine in qualifying and he out-qualified Max [in Abu Dhabi] and this is a fact," he states.
While Sainz only recently turned 27, he sits in an awkward limbo between being slightly too old to be regarded as part of the sport's youthful future populated by drivers like Verstappen, Leclerc and Mercedes' new signing George Russell, while being too young to be regarded as a true veteran.
Asked whether he believes his talents have been properly recognised as that of an up-and-comer, Sainz says he doesn't worry about where he slots in as part of the grid's dynamic.
"I don't know if I can consider myself part of that young generation," he commented.
"What I do consider myself is on a very strong level and I'm able to fight with whoever I need to fight.
"Guys like Charles, Lando [Norris] and George, when he will get the Mercedes [seat] next year, I think it's a generation of drivers that, even if I am not exactly the age that they are, I just enjoy fighting with them. I think they are at a very good level but, in a way, they always manage to keep it clean on track and put together good battles.
"Personally, I enjoy it a lot, and I feel capable of fighting anyone, for sure."
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