While everyone’s hearts were pounding over the last-lap shootout in Sunday’s Abu Dhabi Grand Prix that almost wasn’t but then was, Carlos Sainz turned in a third place finish that cemented fifth spot in the Formula One World Drivers’ Championship. That officially made him Best Of The Rest. And it’s an especially impressive feat, considering his teammate at Ferrari is two-time race winner Charles Leclerc, a dude generally considered to be pretty dang good, and Sainz just showed up in Maranello last year.
This doesn’t usually happen. Just take a look at the fortune of McLaren’s Daniel Ricciardo, who, outside of a victory at Monza and a few strong mid-points finishes, never quite kept pace with his teammate Lando Norris throughout the bulk of 2021. Or Sergio Perez, who won in Baku and nabbed four third-place results in his first year with Red Bull. Both are great drivers, and yet both struggled to wrangle their new cars.
Fernando Alonso, like Sainz, was an exception, as he squeaked by Esteban Ocon for 10th in the drivers’ standings after two years away from Formula 1. But he’s also Fernando-freaking-Alonso, a two-time F1 World Champion who’s easily competed in a greater variety of racing disciplines than anyone else on the grid, so that case surprises me less.
Sainz and Leclerc are both in the prime of their F1 careers. Based on Leclerc’s performance in 2019, a year during which Ferrari took the first of two considerable steps back, I’m half convinced that guy’s going to be a world champion one day. That is, so long as Ferrari can get its act together. If 2021 has proved anything, it’s that Sainz is well prepared to give him a run for his money.
It’s also shown that Ferrari has one of the strongest driver pairings on the grid, save for, I assume, Mercedes with George Russell joining the fold next year. The Scuderia is in really good shape for F1's forthcoming era, and it’s thanks in large part to Sainz completely shattering expectations of a driver at a new team.
Then again, maybe we should have expected better from Sainz, as he’s quietly been one of the most impressive and consistent drivers in the field for a while now and especially since arriving at McLaren in 2019. In 2020, he outperformed then-teammate Lando Norris over the course of the season, and people never shut up about that guy. No disrespect to Lando, he’s wonderful — I just think we’ve all been glossing over Carlos for a minute now.
When race director Michael Masi made the controversial decision to allow only the lapped traffic between Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen unlap themselves ending the late-race yellow in Abu Dhabi, he let the cars between Verstappen and Sainz, who was running third, stay where they were. I’m of the opinion the Ferrari driver was done dirty in that instance, as himself and many others have already pointed out. But it was appropriate, in a way, that this roundly impressive but oft-overlooked driver would be counted out of a fight to cap his finest year in the sport yet.
If Ferrari can somehow make that leap to the frontrunners in terms of performance — and that’s a big “if,” I know — Sainz will finally have a car that matches his talent. I figure he won’t be quite so easy to ignore then.