In the most recent Formula 1 classic race, a grand prix which only sparked to life late on, the 2019 Brazilian Grand Prix gave Carlos Sainz Jr his moment in the sun which he celebrated in the darkness of a post-race podium and led Ferrari to come knocking
There is a habit for memories in Formula 1 to be very, very short, often prompting more current events to be overhyped.
That much is true of last year’s Brazilian Grand Prix. It offered one of the most dramatic finishes to a race in recent F1 history, and a shock result with two total outsiders standing on the podium.
But until the first safety car period, triggered with 18 laps to go when Valtteri Bottas ground to a halt in his Mercedes, it had been a fairly forgettable race. Max Verstappen was on course for victory despite pressure from Lewis Hamilton, while Sebastian Vettel was poised to round out the podium, running 18 seconds clear of Ferrari team-mate Charles Leclerc.
And yet when the field bunched and a chaotic final two restarts followed, it paved the way for Carlos Sainz Jr to fight for a result that would help his growing stock hit new heights – albeit with an agonising wait before his maiden F1 podium was confirmed.
When Sainz awoke on raceday, thoughts of a podium seemed far off. A wiring issue on his engine prevented him from setting a lap time in qualifying, and forced McLaren into taking an all-new power unit on Sainz’s car. The result was a pit lane start, dealing a blow to his hopes of finishing 2019 as F1’s midfield king.
Sainz wasn’t ready to give up, though. “It’s maximum attack I guess,” he said when asked about his tactics for the race. “Obviously, maximum attack doesn’t always work with Pirelli tyres. It will be a compromise between managing the tyres and going maximum attack. It’s probably a very difficult thing to do, but somehow you must always find a way.”
McLaren opted to risk a one-stop strategy with Sainz despite most going for a two-stop plan. He showed few signs of holding back early in the race, passing Robert Kubica, George Russell, Daniil Kvyat, Nico Hulkenberg and Sergio Perez in the opening five laps.
A further boost came when Norris allowed Sainz past, later saying he had been “shit slow” and wanted to try and help the team
Sainz settled into 13th nearing the first round of pit stops, knowing that he would be going longer than the cars around him. The recovery left him sitting just three seconds back from team-mate Lando Norris, who had qualified 11th.
Sainz was the final midfield driver to make a visit to the pits, coming in two laps after Norris on lap 29. He was given a set of medium-compound tyres to see out the remaining 42 laps – a big ask, but with others expected to pit a second time, the gamble would surely offer Sainz track position.
The long stint had cost Sainz places to Perez and Daniel Ricciardo, both of whom were among the first to pit, dropping the McLaren driver to 15th. As the fresher tyres came towards Sainz, he started gaining positions, making a pass on Lance Stroll before rising up the order as cars around him pitted. A further boost came when Norris allowed Sainz past, later saying he had been “shit slow” and wanted to try and help the team.
All of this left Sainz running eighth. Both Pierre Gasly and Romain Grosjean were in his crosshairs, sitting a few seconds up the road, making a recovery to sixth seem well within Sainz’s reach.
But the safety car threatened to undo all of Sainz’s hard work. After the marshals failed to get Bottas’ car behind the barrier fast enough, the race was neutralised, bunching the field and offering many of the midfield runners another stop. McLaren had the decision to either pit Sainz and drop him outside of the top 10, or stay out on worn tyres with the risk of being passed by cars behind.
“For once we took a bit of a gamble and this time it paid off,” Sainz said. “I had literally no grip. I was wheel-spinning in fourth and fifth gear at the start because we were so slow, so I couldn’t put any energy on the tyres.”
Sainz moved up to seventh on the restart after sweeping past Romain Grosjean at the Senna S, aided by an MGU-K glitch on the Haas car. But as Toro Rosso driver Gasly pulled clear in sixth on fresher tyres, Sainz was left looking in his mirrors as Kimi Raikkonen, Antonio Giovinazzi, Ricciardo and Norris all sat within two seconds.
But Sainz was able to hold on to the position, soaking up the pressure before once again diverting attention to the cars ahead of him. This time, it was the slowing Ferrari of Vettel, whose clash with Leclerc had left debris across the track and sparked another safety car period.
“You’re doing a mega job mate, this is P5,” quipped Sainz’s race engineer, Tom Stallard, as they prepared for a final two-lap sprint to the line. The gaggle of cars he had been keeping at bay remained within striking distance, leaving Sainz with another difficult restart to manage.
He again managed to perfect his run to the first corner, preventing Raikkonen from attempting an overtake. As he rose up the hill from Pinheirinho, Sainz again had to dodge a stricken car, this time belonging to Alexander Albon. A clumsy attempt to overtake by Lewis Hamilton had resulted in contact that spun Albon around, dropping him to the rear of the field.
Sainz kept it together to cross the line just six-tenths clear of Raikkonen and take fourth place, matching his best F1 finish from the 2017 Singapore Grand Prix.
But there was even better news to follow.
As former Red Bull junior stablemate Gasly celebrated his own shock podium finish, the stewards confirmed they were investigating Hamilton’s collision with Albon. The Mercedes driver did not even attempt to defend himself, sending Mercedes team manager Ron Meadows with the message that he accepted full blame for the clash.
Sainz’s agonising wait was documented in the Netflix Drive to Survive series. Slumped in a chair in team hospitality, Sainz said: “I’m like in the most awkward moment of my career. I really seriously don’t have a clue how to act right now. I’m just waiting.”
With a penalty for Hamilton seeming inevitable, McLaren started to consider how to honour the team’s first podium finish since the 2014 Australian Grand Prix. Sainz’s PR was initially uneasy about taking the team onto the podium, fearing it could look “desperate”.
It resulted in some of the most heart-warming images of the 2019 season, depicting a team that, after years of struggles, finally had its moment in the sun
“Are you telling me we shouldn’t go on the podium?” asked Sainz’s cousin and manager, Carlos Oñoro. “Are you kidding me? Since the day he was born he’s been waiting for this moment!”
News then came through that Hamilton had been given a five-second time penalty. Sainz was officially third.
It sparked wild celebrations in the McLaren hospitality unit before the team in its entirety made its way onto the podium. It resulted in some of the most heart-warming images of the 2019 season, depicting a team that, after years of struggles, finally had its moment in the sun – even if darkness was already starting to descend on Interlagos.
The result also clinched fourth place for McLaren in the constructors’ championship, and would ultimately lead Sainz to finish the year sixth in the drivers’ standings, winning the ‘Class B’ battle ahead of both Albon and Gasly.
Significantly for his future, it also stood out as Sainz’s finest race in F1 to date, coming near the end of a season that had plenty of high points. A few weeks later, Ferrari would be making first contact with him about a potential drive, ultimately leading to his appointment as Vettel’s replacement for 2021 in May.
Assuming his partnership with the Scuderia is a fruitful one, Sainz is likely to be making many more visits to the podium in the future. While they may come with all the pomp and circumstance of a regular ceremony, he won’t be able to take his entire team with him – something that will make Brazil 2019 a race he will cherish.