BARCELONA (Reuters) - Carlos Sainz boasts a strong record and plenty of fans at his home Spanish Grand Prix but he can expect his return to Barcelona’s Circuit de Catalunya this weekend to feel particularly special.
For the last three seasons the 23-year-old Formula One driver has been with Red Bull-owned Toro Rosso — finishing ninth, sixth and seventh respectively in Spain — but Sunday will be his first home race with Renault.
And that, for a generation brought up on Fernando Alonso’s ground-breaking 2005 and 2006 championship-winning years with the French factory team, means a lot.
“It is like a love story, Spain with Renault,” Sainz told Reuters.
“I was the first one who was a big fan of Fernando and Renault back in the day so that’s why I feel so proud and so comfortable here in this team and why I am working here at the moment like I was going to be here forever.”
Whether his stay is for longer than just the current one- year loan remains open, with Red Bull having the option to pull Sainz back if Australian Daniel Ricciardo decides to leave that team at the end of the season.
Sainz is evidently keen to stay, and Renault want to keep him, but his immediate priority is to measure up against German team mate Nico Hulkenberg who has out-qualified him 4-0 this season and is well ahead on points.
“I’m comfortable where I am, I have full confidence in this project and I’m very comfortable doing a full season with Renault without really having a clear picture of the future,” he said in Baku at the end of last month.
“I’m more concerned about performance, how can we make this car faster, how can we evolve as a team and how can I help this team to move forward.”
He did that in Azerbaijan, the race immediately before Barcelona, where he finished fifth after Hulkenberg had hit the wall and retired. It was the first time he had beaten the German this year.
The points left Renault just one behind fourth-placed McLaren, who use the same engines, in the constructors’ standings.
The result was also Renault’s best since the former champions rescued Lotus from imminent collapse and returned to the sport as a full team in 2016, and set Sainz up nicely for home.
“I’ve always felt very special and respected in Spain, in Barcelona,” he said.
“Probably my first ever qualifying there, making P5 (fifth on the grid), helped to get the Spanish fans to believe in me,” he said of a 2015 race in which he out-qualified and beat his then-team mate Max Verstappen.
In 2016, a race won by Verstappen after moving to Red Bull, the Spaniard ran as high as third.
“I don’t know why it’s always been a very good race for me and I’ve always performed very well and that has helped me to have my little fan base in Barcelona,” said the ardent Real Madrid fan.
Before Baku he had been struggling to get the car to his liking, particularly in cornering, while Hulkenberg seemed to move up a gear.
“I have a big challenge but I knew since Austin last year that I was facing up against probably one of the strongest drivers on the grid at the moment,” Sainz said of his experienced team mate.
“I’m working hard. I think that’s the only response to it. Working hard to get closer.
“I think the margins are still extremely small, we’re talking about a tenth, or two tenths sometimes, which multiplies itself in the race because of track position and all that.
“When you’re talking about a tenth or two, it can fall to one side or the other, especially when I know that I am still not 100 percent confident with the car. I know there’s performance and lap time to come.”
Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by Ed Osmond