How good is McLaren’s new recruit?

Filling Fernando Alonso’s shoes is no mean feat and a challenge that now poetically falls upon Carlos Sainz Jr, who has made no secret of the fact that he was an Alonso fan growing up.

The baton has been transferred from one Spaniard to another and the hopes of a nation along with it, at a McLaren team currently in strife and with a long road to recovery ahead. Does Sainz have what it takes to live up to that challenge?

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Image Credit: Octane Photos

Even though the Spaniard made his Formula 1 debut back in 2015, the level of his talent is a debate subject, with opinions ranging from him being as strong as Max Verstappen while some wrongly question whether Sainz deserves the McLaren seat at all.

This wide spectrum stems from what has been a career without reference points to date. His debut season at Toro Rosso in 2015 has been the only full season so far in which he has had the same team-mate throughout.

Up against the juggernaut Verstappen – who had only completed one year of car racing prior to his F1 bow in 2015 – Sainz was convincingly outscored. Verstappen secured 49 points, aided by two impressive fourth-place finishes, while Sainz ended up with a comparatively measly 18.

However, these numbers failed to tell the true story. The STR10 was unreliable and Sainz suffered seven DNF’s on account of technical issues, while Verstappen was fortunate to only face two mechanical retirements. When the car was running, Sainz was fast and out-qualified Verstappen 9-7 across the course of the season.

Sainz’s performances meant that he was a factor in the conversations when news broke ahead of the 2016 Spanish Grand Prix that Verstappen would replace Daniil Kvyat at Toro Rosso.

Of course, Red Bull wanted to safeguard Verstappen against a swoop for his services from Mercedes or Ferrari, which played a part in his rapid promotion, but had this not been a consideration, Sainz could have been chosen instead – it might have ultimately been the wrong decision but it would have at least been an easily justifiable one.

Verstappen’s sudden promotion has left Sainz off-balance since. Never before has the team-mate of a driver that has been promoted from Toro Rosso to Red Bull managed to stay in F1 beyond the next season.

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Image Credit: Octane Photos

It didn’t matter that Sainz had beaten Kvyat by 42 points to 4 across the remainder of 2016 – with a talent bottleneck at Red Bull thanks to Verstappen and team-mate Daniel Ricciardo tied to contracts, Sainz was trapped. It’s no surprise that he edged towards a loan deal to Renault mid-way through 2017, through fear of career stagnation.

However, moving to Renault with five races to go added further complexity to the inter-team comparisons across the 2017 season, making it even harder to assess Sainz’s talent.

So far in 2018, Sainz points total fails to accurately reflect his performances – much like in ’15. Sainz has scored 30 compared with team-mate Nico Hulkenberg’s 52 point haul from the opening 12 races. Had it not been for a power unit issue in France and contact with Romain Grosjean in Britain, Sainz would be closer.

The qualifying battle between the two is more of a battle than many anticipated, with Hulkenberg only carrying a slender 7-5 advantage into the second part of the season.

In both 2015 and ’18, the only seasons where fair inter-team comparisons can be drawn, Sainz’s deficits to his respective team-mates are misleading and you have to delve deeper to find the statistics that are a true reflection of Sainz’s talent.

Going toe-to-toe against Verstappen and Hulkenberg – two of the most highly rated drivers in the field to have never won a championship – and managing to contribute to a close battle in qualifying demonstrates Sainz ability.

Red Bull, of course, had the option to promote Sainz to the team in place of the outbound Ricciardo, yet opted for Toro Rosso’s Pierre Gasly instead.

This is, however, less of an assessment of Sainz’s ability and rather founded on the fact that Verstappen and Sainz would be a partnership with baggage from their fierce rivalry at Toro Roso, which resulted in fiery radio exchanges and even contact on track at various flashpoints in 2015 and at the start of ’16.

Plus, Gasly brings with him critical Honda knowledge, having used the power unit at Toro Rosso this season. With Red Bull entering its own Honda partnership in 2019, Gasly provides the team with a head-start that would be lacking had they opted for Sainz.

That’s not to devalue Gasly’s merits as an extremely fast racing driver and one of the stars of 2018 so far. However, Sainz lacks nothing in terms of speed and instead it is these peripheral factors that have likely directed Red Bull’s decision.

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Image Credit: Octane Photos

Sainz has enough talent to lead McLaren, an iconic family name that the sponsors will adore and enough potential to eventually fill Alonso’s shoes. Much like Ricciardo can build Renault around his future, Sainz will have that opportunity at McLaren as it plots its course back to pre-eminence.

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