Carlos Sainz Jnr, Ferrari, Singapore, 2023

2023 Formula 1 driver rankings #9: Carlos Sainz Jnr

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At first glance, it might be surprising to see a Ferrari driver sitting in the upper-mid section of the driver rankings at the end of the 2023 season.

After all, Carlos Sainz Jnr earned a place in history books this season. He will go down as the only driver ever to beat both RB19s to win a grand prix in 2023 – an achievement that will always be remembered for.

But while Sainz pulled off something no other driver could do that September night in Singapore, the rest of his season certainly had its ups and downs. And in such an incredibly competitive field of drivers as there was in 2023, those negative moments become more difficult to ignore.

Ferrari were not as strong as either he, team mate Charles Leclerc or new team principal Frederic Vasseur would have hoped for throughout 2023. Each grand prix seemed to be a dice roll as to whether or not the notoriously peaky SF-23 would be at its best for the weekend, while Red Bull’s dominance left little opportunities to fight for the top places on the podium.

Early in the season, Ferrari found themselves not just well behind Red Bull but also slower than Aston Martin and Mercedes. Although Leclerc picked up only six points in the opening three rounds – compared to Sainz’s 20 – Leclerc was comfortably the stronger of the Scuderia drivers over the early phases of the championship.

In the season opener in Bahrain, Sainz was behind Leclerc at every point of the weekend and only finished fourth courtesy of Leclerc breaking down late in the race. In Jeddah, he was half a second slower than Leclerc in qualifying but started well ahead of him on the grid due to a grid penalty. Sainz allowed Lance Stroll to nail him around the outside of turn 13 on the opening lap and finished one place ahead of Leclerc, who started eight positions further back on the grid.

Melbourne turned into a nightmare as, after restarting fourth on the grid for the final restart, he made contact with Fernando Alonso at the first corner, sending the Aston Martin spinning out of the order. But when the stewards handed him a five-second time penalty, it was effectively as good as a ten second stop-and-go penalty as the Safety Car finish meant he dropped outside of the top 10, missing out on points.

The underwhelming results continued over the early phase of the year. When Leclerc took pole in both the sprint and grand prix qualifying sessions in Baku, Sainz didn’t seem like he was driving the same car. Although his fifth place result was perfectly reasonable, finishing almost half a minute behind Leclerc was not the sign of a strong weekend’s work.

At least his home grand prix in Barcelona was very strong. He narrowly missed out on pole and despite finishing in fifth, it was still a very good result to finish behind both Red Bulls and Mercedes, who were clearly the two quickest teams over the weekend.

But Spain seemed an anomaly. Sainz was also making mistakes – maybe more than a Ferrari-calibre driver should. He crashed at the Swimming Pool in Monaco during practice, slid off track in the race when the rain came and finished behind Leclerc ever though he had started in front of him – again, after a Leclerc penalty. In Montreal, Sainz gave his mechanics more repairs to do when he had another practice shunt and was investigated multiple times over the weekend for impeding rivals at the chicane. He lost fourth in Austria after having 15 seconds of time penalties for six track limits offences.

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In Hungary, Sainz again slid off into the barriers in practice and missed Q3 in 11th – one of only three times he did so in 2023 – then headed off into the summer break on a low note by retiring in Spa after damage from a turn one clash with Oscar Piastri. Although he sat just seven points behind Leclerc in the championship at the time, it did not reflect how untidy Sainz’s performances had been at times through the first half of the season.

But when Sainz returned to the cockpit for the second half of the season, it was as if he had found his steel again. When he arrived at Ferrari’s home race at Monza, he was on fire. He was fastest in the final two practice sessions and stunned Max Verstappen in qualifying to take pole position with what could have been the most memorable qualifying lap he’ll ever have. Despite being unable to keep the Red Bulls at bay, Sainz won a thrilling wheel-to-wheel battle against Leclerc for third to take his first podium of the season.

The next weekend at Singapore, a precious opportunity arrived. Red Bull did not get their car in a good window which opened up the number one position to anyone who was able to claim it. Over a weekend where Ferrari, McLaren and Mercedes were a close match, Sainz’s driving made the difference on Saturday and Sunday as he led every lap from pole position, showed an extremely cool head over a long, tough race and executed some clever tactics in the closing laps to break Red Bull’s winning streak. Given the pressure he was under and the fact he had been presented with the opportunity to win through genuine pace, not luck, Sainz’s victory was one of the truly outstanding performances of the season.

The rest of the season was solid enough. While Leclerc continued to have the edge on him in both results and race pace, Sainz was at least making notably fewer mistakes than the early part of the season. He had every reason to feel hard done by when he was forced to take a penalty in Las Vegas due to hitting a loose track covering on the brand new street circuit, which dropped him from the front row of the grid to 12th. But then a misjudged first corner on a slippery track meant he bumped into Lewis Hamilton, spinning and dropping to 18th as a result.

Carlos Sainz Jnr

GP start1 (x2)16
GP finish118

After all the better work he had done over the second half of the season, Sainz ended the year with perhaps his worst weekend of all in Abu Dhabi. He crashed heavily in practice after losing control over a bump – which, in his defence, was smoothed out before the third practice session – but he completely lacked pace over the rest of the weekend. He was knocked out of Q1 in 16th then ran a strategy that relied on a sudden Safety Car which never came, before retiring in the closing laps after never being near the points. That disastrous end to the season cost him three places in the final championship standings, dropping him to seventh.

Although Sainz ended the season just six points shy of his team mate, it did not seem a fair reflection of how much less consistent he had been than Leclerc over the year. Even though he clearly stepped up over the second half of the year, it was telling that Sainz never out-qualified or finished ahead of Leclerc once following after famous Singapore win.

However, long after 2023 is confined to the history books, Sainz’s season will not be remembered for its low points, but for that one glorious night in Singapore.

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Will Wood
Will has been a RaceFans contributor since 2012 during which time he has covered F1 test sessions, launch events and interviewed drivers. He mainly...

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27 comments on “2023 Formula 1 driver rankings #9: Carlos Sainz Jnr”

  1. Sainz below Russell . That’s a shocker from RaceFans tbh.

    1. Agree.. those were my thoughts as well.

      Sainz didn’t set the world on fire, but he was the only non-Red Bull driver to get a win this year, and his performances in Monza and Singapore alone were far better than any performance George has had this year. He also made lesser errors under pressure than George and ended with a higher points tally at the end of the season in a car that was probably equal to Mercedes performance-wise.

      Shocking that Russell is ranked in the top 8 this season. Some strong quali performances were his only highlight in a under performing season.

    2. I would rate Sainz above Russell as well, but it is close and in Russells defence it is also because ‘the car is developed towards Lewis’ driving style’ ;-)

  2. Quite a negative take.

    The penalty Sainz got in Australia was one of the worst pieces of stewarding in a long time, given the context. Two other drivers barrelled through the field, taking themselves and others out of the race. Both didn’t get any sort of penalty at all.

    But even with that anomalous 12th place in Australia, and the admittedly rather awful weekend in Abu Dhabi, Sainz still had a similar average finishing positions to Alonso, and was comfortably ahead of Russell. Given the emphasis on Sainz’ shortcomings, it’ll be an interesting read to see the explanation of why Leclerc trailed him in points right to the very end of the season.

    In qualifying too, Sainz had the third best average result of all drivers – avoiding the notable lows of some of his competitors, with (again) Abu Dhabi being the worst of the lot. Quite an accomplishment given that only Verstappen and Leclerc, an exceptional qualifier to be sure, did better.

    1. Yes indeed.

    2. MichaelN, with respect to your question about Sainz outscoring Leclerc – whilst Sainz did manage to secure a win for Ferrari during the season, if you look at the way that the driver finishes are distributed, half of Leclerc’s finishes were between 2nd and 4th this season (with six podium finishes in total) and his average finishing position in races was 4.9.

      For Sainz, half of his finishes were between 5th and 6th and his average finishing position in races was 5.4, with three podium finishes for the season. However, although Leclerc had a higher average finishing position in races where he did make it to the end, Leclerc also DNF’d in more races than Sainz did, with the higher DNF rate offsetting his tendency to outscore Sainz.

      1. Yes, Leclerc is generally the (slightly) faster of the two. No argument there. But given that he has now been Ferrari’s lead driver for four seasons, the points between him and Sainz probably shouldn’t be this close, and definitely not this close again.

        Even in 2022, Sainz’ average finishing position was just 0.2 places behind Leclerc, and his qualifying was also 3rd overall – again just behind Verstappen and Leclerc. He’s not getting a lot of credit for his consistency. There is of course truth to Sainz’ lack of big scoring highlights being a bit of a downside – but I’d say he’s being judged quite harshly, while others are given a lot of credit for outlier-results.

        As for the DNFs, Leclerc indeed had five non-finishes to Sainz’ two, but it’s important to add that Leclerc was largely responsible for those twice (in Australia and the Netherlands). That leaves technical issues in Bahrain and Brazil, and a technical disqualification in Texas. Sainz’ DNS in Qatar is his only true technical issue, but the team withdrew him in Belgium after Piastri badly damaged the Ferrari, and the failing Nevada infrastructure also put him way back and in a hopeless position. So I’d say it’s not that big a difference between the two of them.

        1. Yeah, I think I have to agree with what you are saying, it certainly was my impression that the article was harsher on Sainz than it has been on some of the others (like the #9 perhaps) MichaelN and @toothfairy

          1. #10 Gasly, meant :)

        2. MichaelN, your comment about Leclerc being the lead driver at Ferrari is an interesting one – we have the dichotomy that Leclerc is often assumed to be the lead driver, but we then have Vasseur’s rather strongly publicly stated position that the interests of the team outweigh those of the drivers, and the drivers get equal treatment as a way of reinforcing that their interests come after those of the team.

          As a corollary, it also raises the question of what importance is placed on time with the team, versus that of overall experience in the sport. On the one hand, you do note that Leclerc is into his fourth season at Ferrari, versus Sainz completing his second season, but on the other hand, Sainz has a significant advantage in terms of total experience in Formula 1 (around 180 races for Sainz and 120 for Leclerc, meaning Leclerc has only around two-thirds of Sainz’s experience in the sport).

          The question of the consistency of Sainz’s performances, and how much weight to give to that against the weight given to outlier results, perhaps also speaks to why Sainz’s performances might have been somewhat overlooked.

          You note that there is the question of Sainz being consistent, but there also being a “lack of big scoring highlights”, and that does hint at perhaps why there is a lack of appreciation for those performances.

          By their nature, those outlier performances create a scenario where people will naturally gravitate towards that moment as an example of unique individual greatness. Having solidly consistent performances, but ones which have few of those outlier moments, means that no single individual moment is particularly memorable. People latch onto those peak outliers because there is the sense that only that driver could have achieved that result at that time – it’s a lot harder to persuade people to be enthusiastic about a strong of solid results where no one particular result stands out, even if that is in itself a notable achievement.

          People feel there is something unique about those outlier results, whereas consistency in results lacks the idea of uniqueness of achievement due to the inability to pinpoint any particular result as being particularly special, and thus people find it hard to elevate that sort of performance above what a reasonably competent driver might have otherwise achieved.

          The peak results, therefore, are seen as being much harder to achieve than the consistent results, even though it is more of a case of different skill sets being utilised, and it’s hard to create an argument that people find especially interesting or compelling if it lacks those highlights that make somebody go “that was special”.

    3. And you don’t mention the extremely undeserved penalty in Las Vegas, even if it was forced by the rulebook
      In my list he is no lower than 5th

  3. No way! In Singapore we have witnessed one of the most brilliant drives in the history of F1 – calculated, intelligent and with nerves of steel – Sainz rose to the occasion and beyond. For that reason alone I would rate him higher than Russell, Hamilton, Piastri and LeClerc.

    1. And apart from Singapore, we’ve seen him being humiliated in Bahrain, Azerbaijan, or Abu Dhabi.

      Sainz does not belong any higher, one single race cannot change the perception of whole season.

    2. Sainz also seemed to be underappreciated in the weekend ratings. Seemingly being judged against where a Ferrari belongs rather than against where his car belonged.

      I would also rate him comfortably above Russell and Piastri. But underneath Leclerc and Hamilton.
      Hamilton finished an uncontested 3d in what was only on occasion the 2nd best car. And Leclerc seems just that little bit better than Sainz on an average weekend.

  4. Sorry if I’ve missed something here, but who is #17. No link on the list

    1. My bad – it’s fixed now.

  5. I’m struggling to get my head around how Sainz could have been ranked below Russell and, especially, Piastri. Both were in terms of race pace further behind their teammates, scored way less points than their teammates, had at least as many off weekends and crashes and their highs weren’t as high as Sainz’ too. It’s apparently really really only qualifying that cost him, but Leclerc is arguably the fastest one out there over a single lap.

    1. +1

      This ranking is for the fun, I get that. But his ranking is ridiculous – but the bias of Will are well known…

  6. Honestly I have never seen such a negative analysis from somebody like you are doing here on Sainz. Why you constantly peak all the negatives points of the season? From now, I will stop reading this page with treat in such unfair way a driver that has make a very solid season. I could feel in the past months the negativity towards Sainz but this articule is a little bit to much.BYE BYE RACE FANS.

    1. Driver ratings are subjective. If you followed the mid-season driver rankings you’ll know how comical the articles and especially the comments were. I wouldn’t write off this site just due to driver ratings. You can do whatever you want but there’s still a lot of valuable info on this site, including the lovely daily round ups.

      Have a good day Richard!

    2. I don’t know why but generally speaking, Sainz and Hamilton have been penalised hugely based on the assumption their cars were better than they are while Alonso for example frequently got a free pass when he wasn’t delivering the results. I just don’t think the measure of realistic chance given the machinery available is realistic at times. I reckon Hamilton will finish below Norris and Alonso despite outscoring both having had a arguably slower car for most of the year.

  7. Mitchell c Pfitzmaier
    19th December 2023, 0:28

    Vegas practice him getting knocked back to 12th was a disaster. But after the accident dropping to 18th and driving out of his mind to finish 6th is a credit I never see mentioned for him.

  8. Those ranks are quite interesting to read it the off season,but having Russell who had a pretty terrible year in the top 10 and above the only non Red Bull winner is pretty ridiculous.

    Russell binned it twice alone from a very good position (Canada-Singapore), should have won Singapore when he switched to mediums but his pace wasn’t good enough, scored only 2 podiums throughout the year, clashed twice with his teammate in qualifying (both were avoidable and the Spain one was pretty dangerous), finished behind Norris,Alonso and both Ferrari drivers in the standings but somehow,made it in the top 10….

  9. I had Carlos in 8th, ahead of Russell, but I was significantly underwhelmed by Sainz this season.

    As I pointed out in the team-mate comparison article, I felt Carlos was really comprehensively beaten by Charles from the start to the end of the season, really only on form for Italy and Singapore with the new car. Once Charles had his wake up call it was business as usual from Leclerc from Japan onwards.

    Realistically, Carlos was ahead in quali in Melbourne (0.09s), Miami (Leclerc crash), Spain (a total disaster for Charles), Canada (Ferrari overruled Charles for Slicks), Zandvoort (another Charles disaster) and Monza and Singapore (0.067s and 0.079s). Naturally, Sainz will have caveats about days where he could have beaten Charles had the cards fell differently, but on pace, Carlos had 3 of the 22 events ahead on outright speed for an average of 0.08s. That’s fairly grim even against one of the great qualifiers of the sport.

    Of the 5 races that Sainz finished ahead (of the 15), Saudi (CL grid pen), Miami (CL quali crash), Spain (as above), Italy (finished 2 tenths ahead) and Singapore (Leclerc’s strategy was built around securing Carlos the win). He was ahead in Australia and Zandvoort, 2 events Charles was again very untidy.

    I’m aware that this comment puts Charles in a very favourable light, but I want to stress that I think Charles’ season had some very poor moments. I love Charles, but this team-mate battle should have been put to bed long before the final round and in that sense I think both drivers underperformed their package. I feel Carlos accepts he can’t challenge Leclerc on pace so prides himself on being Mr. Reliable, “the intelligent driver”. Numerous practice crashes, which Leclerc also has, and silly contact like Melbourne and Spa, contest that image for me.

    I suppose, like all ratings, it’s a question of expectation versus reality. Do I think Carlos had high points? Of course. Do I think they’re enough to challenge for a title? Of course not. This season was more or less the ultimate CV for ‘Ferrari Number 2′ position – if that’s the height of Carlos’ ambition fair enough, but overall it’s a fairly average season worthy of a fairly average rating.

  10. Sainz was much better than Russell this season and is ranked worse. Can’t understand that at all.

  11. I see many people puzzled by Sainz’s ranking in relation to Russell. In Russell’s defense, he is British …

  12. Wow, the only other driver to win a race against Max in 2023 and you rate him 9th!?!? Odd and very subjective criteria, not that you outlined your criteria, let me guess Charles L is #3 as he won the boardroom battle to undermine his teammate! Starting to lose faith in this web site for accurate and/or informed reporting.

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