Has Sainz made the right move joining Ferrari?

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At the age of 26, Carlos Sainz has completed six seasons in Formula One. He has driven for four teams in that period, raced in 118 grands prix and scored 372 career points.

But none of that will prepare him for the next chapter in his career: a move to Ferrari.

It was clear from his debut F1 season with Toro Rosso in 2015 that Sainz had talent. He looked competitive next to fellow rookie Max Verstappen, but the younger Dutch driver edged him to gain a promotion to the senior Red Bull team midway through 2016.

In doing so, Verstappen blocked Sainz's route to a winning car and the Spaniard was forced to forge a different path to the front of the grid.

At first Red Bull played him as a pawn in negotiations with Renault, loaning him to the French manufacturer so its junior Toro Rosso team could be relieved of its engine contract and sign with Honda for 2018.

But the move worked for Sainz and his reputation flourished outside of Red Bull, allowing him to break free of his contract in 2019 and sign with McLaren.

He joined the British team as its results improved and his standing in the sport was enhanced by a solid 2019 season, topped off by his first career podium at the Brazilian Grand Prix.

At this point, Ferrari took notice. Sebastian Vettel was nearing the end of his contract with the Italian team and Sainz had appeared on its radar as a potential replacement.

Over the winter approaches were made and before a wheel had turned in the delayed start 2020 season, Sainz was named as a Ferrari driver for 2021.

Based purely on the performance of the two teams in 2020, a move from Ferrari to McLaren could be viewed as a step backwards.

McLaren's upward trajectory, which coincided with Sainz's arrival in 2019, left the team third in the constructors' championship last year, while Ferrari slumped to sixth.

But Sainz has no doubt he is making the right move.

"First of all, you are driving for Ferrari... I don't think there's much more to say," he told a select group of journalists, including ESPN, in an interview at the end of 2020.

"Becoming a Ferrari driver is in every driver's mind and every driver's dreams.

"Independently of the situation, it's very, very difficult to say no to that.

"At that point, I was pretty convinced that as an Italian team...I'd always felt comfortable with Toro Rosso, and I always felt like Ferrari could be a good place for me.

"I know Italian, I know some people there, and I felt like I could have a successful time there immediately.

"Apart from that, I think sentimentally, driving for the most successful team in the history of the sport is always the dream of any Formula One driver."

But there is no getting away from the fact that Sainz joins Ferrari at a low point in the team's history.

The lack of results in the 2020 campaign came after the team was stripped of a power unit advantage it had gained by bending the boundary of the regulations in 2019 demoted it from the front of the grid to the midfield.

The loss of engine performance also exposed other weaknesses in Ferrari's car concept and the team is now targeting a return to the front by 2022, accepting that world champions Mercedes are too far ahead to challenge this year.

"I already see some positive signs from Ferrari and improvements and obviously there is a new engine coming which should again improve a bit the situation," Sainz said. "But I think 2021 is a difficult year for everyone.

"We all know Mercedes is going to keep dominating the sport and without a big regulation change there's a lot of chances that will continue in 2021.

"So for me, I think Ferrari and pretty much everyone who is not Mercedes should focus more on 2022 and trying to make that the biggest change in the competitiveness of the team.

"I'm already confident that Ferrari know that and are going to try and do that and that 2021 is going to be a transition year.

"I will be trying to get in contact with the team and build good relationships and getting to know the car race by race and then in 2022 we start with a clean sheet of paper and new regulations and it's going to be more important also."

In some ways, a transitional year is not a bad thing for Sainz.

Expectations have already been lowered by Ferrari's dismal performance in 2020 and, while there is always added pressure on Ferrari drivers in Formula One, no one is expecting him to win races from day one.

He will, however, be measured against his new teammate Charles Leclerc. In a season in which so much went wrong for Ferrari, Leclerc remained its shining light and secured two podiums against the odds.

Sainz has the experience of going up against Verstappen at Toro Rosso to know what it's like to share a garage with a team's golden boy, and he is keen to see how he stacks up against Leclerc.

"I'm looking forward to it, mainly because he's probably one of the drivers on better form, on the grid," Sainz said. "You could argue he had a super strong season [in 2020], he knows the team, he knows the car very well and he looks to be honestly on top of his game.

"With the combination of youth and experience that he has now, I think I'll be up against the strongest, or definitely one of the strongest drivers on the grid. It will be a great benchmark for me.

"I will obviously start with a bit of a disadvantage not knowing the car, having very little winter testing -- having one-day-and-a-half to prepare for the season [at the Bahrain test].

"I will have a lot of catch up to do in the first half of the year, in the first races, as I get to know the team and the car, but it will be great to have him as a benchmark and see how quickly I can get up to speed and keep helping the team to get better."

But Sainz is looking much longer-term than the upcoming 2021 season. He has a two-year deal with Ferrari until the end of 2022 (Leclerc is contracted until the end of 2024) but he is hopeful he will be able to build a new home in F1 after so many years switching between teams.

"I was planning to build a long-term relationship with McLaren and I enjoyed the two years with this team a lot, and the second year we saw improvements already compared to the first one, so it shows that stability in one team and staying in one team for a long time helps with performance and makes you a quicker driver and a better driver," he adds.

"That's also my target with Ferrari and why I signed a two-year deal with them and, as long as we are happy with each other, I want that to be the new tendency in my contracts, not just one year like I was with Renault not knowing what was going to happen.

"If there is one thing I've learned in McLaren, it is how important it is to be more than one year in a team to extract the maximum potential of that car and the people that are next to you."