In 2015, two young upstarts made their debuts in Formula 1.
Max Verstappen and Carlos Sainz Jr. both 'graduated' from Red Bull's driving academy and were thrusted into the then-Toro Rosso team. That year, both drivers showed immense talent and grit, and at times it seemed as if the high-level of competition might boil over, leading to the two youngsters coming to blows.
Fortunately, it never came to that. Verstappen ended the 2015 season in twelfth place and on 49 points, and Sainz in 15th and on 18 points. It's quite a difference, but Sainz suffered more technical retirements than Verstappen that year. However, a perfect run for both drivers would not have altered the finishing order.
While both impressed in their debut season, it was Verstappen who impressed most. In 2016, after only four races, he was promoted from Toro Rosso to Red Bull from the fifth race of the season (Spain) onwards. Sainz remained at Toro Rosso for 2016 and had to watch from the sidelines as Verstappen drew the admiration of the F1 world.
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Carlos Sainz Jr. (left) and Max Verstappen in 2015. Image: Getty Images
Team to team
While Verstappen built the Red Bull team around him, Sainz had a far more difficult time at staking his claim. He remained with Toro Rosso until 2017, following tireless attempts at making it to Red Bull. Engine deals between Red Bull, McLaren, and Renault made Sainz the pawn in a power struggle between these teams.
From the 2017 United States GP onwards, Sainz would be a Renault driver, partnering Nico Hulkenberg. In 2018, the two drivers did their best to bring Renault out from the doldrums, but it was a mountain too high to climb for drivers who are not seen as Tier 1.
At the start of 2019, Sainz again swapped teams, this time signing with McLaren-Renault following the departure of fellow Spaniard, Fernando Alonso. Sainz and Lando Norris would be two new signings for the British team, but the duo made impressive progressions and drove McLaren to a fourth-place finish in the 2019 championship. For McLaren, this was a match made in heaven, and the team was looking forward to welcoming the future with these two drivers in their midst.
While the 2020 F1 season is yet to get underway, massive developments took place in the second full week of May. Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari announced the end of their partnership come year-end. Given that Sainz is also out of contract at the end of 2020, the fabled Italian team acquired his services for 2021 - a move that finally put Sainz in a top team, and right back into the fray with Max Verstappen.
Verstappen is still with Red Bull, still chasing that elusive championship. As it stands, three of F1's hot prospects will go up against the might of Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes. In the Red Bull camp, it's Verstappen (and his team mate, Alex Albon. Perhaps.). Then for Ferrari, it's Sainz and Charles Leclerc.
But Sainz and Verstappen will have their sub-battle to settle. In their earlier years, Sainz felt that he was the more consistent driver and more deserving of the 2016 Red Bull drive. Verstappen, in his typical arrogant fashion, dismissed such claims and announced that he was the better driver of the two.
Sainz will want to prove to Red Bull and the entire F1 paddock that he is deserving of the Ferrari seat and that he is the better driver between him and Verstappen. For Sainz, having to wait five years for his break-through is a sign of maturity. He has been showing himself to be a reliable, safe and fast driver who can bring home the points. He might not have had the machinery to challenge for wins and podiums, but all that will change come 2021.
In 2019, Sainz registered his first podium at the Brazilian GP, albeit through a penalty. But it was McLaren's first podium finish since 2014. Also in 2019, Sainz finished the season in sixth place, behind Hamilton, Valtteri Bottas, Verstappen, Leclerc, and Vettel.
In 2020, given the strong momentum McLaren will be carrying on from 2019, Sainz and Norris might register podium finishes, but Sainz will be a man on a mission.
Watch out, Max. The Spanish bull is charging!
Carlos Sainz Jr. (right) and Lando Norris. Image: Getty Images