Carlos Sainz Jr. is poised to clinch the Formula Renault 3.5 championship this weekend in Jerez, needing just six points to follow in Kevin Magnussen’s footsteps and win the F1 feeder series.
The Spaniard has enjoyed a strong season with DAMS, winning seven races to give himself a 44 point lead over compatriot Roberto Merhi, but the big question waiting to be answered is “what next?” – quite clearly, the aim is Formula 1.
As a member of Red Bull’s junior programme, Sainz has backing from one of the biggest and most successful brands in motorsport that has cultivated the talent of Sebastian Vettel, Daniel Ricciardo and Daniil Kvyat in the past. As a result, standards are supremely high, and Red Bull also isn’t shy of a curveball.
In fact, Sainz has twice been a victim of said curveball. He seemed to be the ‘second choice’ for a seat at Toro Rosso in 2014 when Daniel Ricciardo was promoted, only for GP3 champion Daniil Kvyat to sweep the carpet from underneath him and favorite Antonio Felix da Costa to get the gig. He’ll now be at Red Bull in 2015.
This year, the appointment of Max Verstappen once again denied Sainz a shot at the seat, only for him to be given a reprieve when Sebastian Vettel confirmed his decision to leave Red Bull, thus allowing Kvyat to move up and free a space.
So will Sainz be overlooked yet again?
Consensus is that there are three viable options: Sainz, GP3’s Alex Lynn and FR3.5/GP2 driver Pierre Gasly. All are very young, very talented and Red Bull-backed. If a curveball were to be thrown yet again, Sainz would be pushed to one side.
What Red Bull really like to see are ‘moments of brilliance’ – take Kvyat’s fine end to the 2013 GP3 season, or Verstappen’s six-race winning streak in this year’s FIA F3 European Championship. That’s the kind of stuff that gets the attention of the top bods.
So when Alex Lynn arrived in Russia last weekend, he had the chance to do that. The Briton has led the GP3 championship all season long and been in impressive form, but here he needed to find the killer blow. He was able to win the title in Sochi, and as main challenger Richie Stanaway faded and endured a pointless weekend, Lynn had little reason not to seal the deal.
Yet he didn’t. He finished seventh in the feature race and fifth in the sprint to bring home just 12 points. He may only need one point to win the title in Abu Dhabi (meaning he’ll probably win it in qualifying, sadly), but he didn’t achieve what Red Bull would have wanted.
Gasly has enjoyed a successful junior career, but hasn’t made too great a splash into GP2 since joining for the Italian Grand Prix at Monza with Caterham Racing. He is yet to score any points, and although he has enjoyed an impressive debut season in Formula Renault 3.5, it would be hard to give the drive to the man who finishes the season third in the standings over the champion.
But then again, with Red Bull, it’s very hard to say. Sainz has the support, the talent and even the genes – his Dad is a legend in the rally world – and he just needs the break.
He might need a pittance to win the title in Jerez this weekend, but Sainz will know that he needs to bring home as many points as he can to make it impossible to say no.
Then again, this is Red Bull we’re dealing with – the brand that quite literally dropped a man from space and brought him home safe and sound. The word “impossible” just doesn’t feature in the company dictionary – and that could be to Sainz’s detriment.