From surgery to F1 victory in 16 days: Carlos Sainz’s Australia win proves his mettle (2024)

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MELBOURNE, Australia — In the space of six weeks, Carlos Sainz has endured some of the lowest lows a Formula One driver can experience.

He’s lost his seat at Ferrari, F1’s most famous team, to Lewis Hamilton for 2025. He’s suffered appendicitis, leaving him in need of surgery and forcing him out of the race in Saudi Arabia, where his stand-in, Ollie Bearman, starred.


And after those lows, in Australia on Sunday came the high: a brilliant grand prix victory, the third of his F1 career, after capitalizing on Max Verstappen’s brake issue that forced him into an early retirement.

“Life is a rollercoaster sometimes,” Sainz said after the race. “But it can be really nice and good to you.”

It was a reminder that Sainz needed. Sixteen days ago, he was undergoing serious surgery in Jeddah. Last week, when he began the 24-hour flight from Europe to Melbourne, he doubted he’d be fit enough to race. “I was like, this is not going to happen…” he said post-race, recalling his pre-flight feeling.

In the end, Sunday’s win in Australia also served as a reminder to the F1 world not only what a strong, resilient driver Carlos Sainz is simply by getting in the car and racing but also why he remains one of the most capable free agents going into 2025.

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Smooth operator strikes again

Much as he did in Singapore last year when Red Bull unexpectedly struggled for performance, Sainz took full advantage of the opportunity that came his way. He was quick through practice, albeit not at full fitness, and led Q1 and Q2 on Saturday. It was only thanks to a massive gain from Verstappen in Q3 that Sainz didn’t take pole. Of the two Ferrari drivers, Sainz had the upper hand all weekend.

Unlike other races towards the end of last year, when Ferrari would take pole knowing full well the advantage would swing back to Red Bull, the team had greater confidence this time around. Ferrari’s long-run pace was looking better in Australia, and it had made strides to remedy the tire degradation woes from the past couple of years. Verstappen wouldn’t be easy to beat, but there seemed more room for error at Red Bull than usual, enough to put Ferrari in the conversation for the win.

By the race’s second lap, that conversation got a lot louder. Verstappen’s right-rear brake was stuck from the very start, causing him to run wide at Turn 3. It sent Sainz up for a run to sweep through into the lead on entry to Turn 9, sparking cheers around the track so loud they could be heard through Sainz’s radio. The issue only worsened for Verstappen, the white smoke growing thicker before turning into a fire. The Dutchman had to slow and retire from a race for the first time in two years.


With Verstappen out of the race, Sainz quickly laid the groundwork that would clinch him the win. He started to open up a gap to McLaren’s Lando Norris in second at a rate of one second per lap, reporting that his tires were holding up well. Even after Ferrari teammate Charles Leclerc and Oscar Piastri in the sister McLaren pitted, Sainz matched their times in the 1m22.5s range, seeing off any possible undercut.

By the time his tires started to fade and he needed to pit, coming in at the end of Lap 16, Sainz had built up his buffer enough to ensure he would retain the lead — Norris, meanwhile, was jumped by both Leclerc and Piastri — and have the benefit of tires that were five laps fresher than the chasing cars. It was this phase that won him the race.

From surgery to F1 victory in 16 days: Carlos Sainz’s Australia win proves his mettle (3)

Sainz took the lead from Verstappen shortly before the Red Bull driver dropped out of the race. (WILLIAM WEST / AFP)

Sainz built the gap to Leclerc through the second stint of eight seconds, dropping to around five after making his final pit stop. With little need to extend himself, particularly with the McLarens out of range, Sainz could keep things under control through to the flag, finishing under the Virtual Safety Car after George Russell’s crash.

“Once I got up front and I had a gap, you can manage everything,” Sainz explained. “You can manage yourself, you can manage the tires, you have less pressure. You can choose your places where to push and not to push. Everything becomes a lot easier.”

Inside Sainz’s recovery

“Easier” does not account for the physical challenge facing Sainz. He didn’t report any issues beyond his abdomen feeling a bit “weird” through practice and qualifying, adjusting to the absence of his appendix. But these stints were nothing compared to a full race distance, meaning he was stepping into the unknown on Sunday.

It was only in the race’s closing stages that Sainz began to deal with a bit of stiffness in his abdomen. “Spending seven days in bed, for your physical fitness, and for all the muscles, it’s just not very healthy for an athlete,” Sainz said. “I was a bit more stiff. Until the last stint, I was perfectly fine. Still with this weird feeling, but nothing that was slowing me down at all. I was confident with the car and pushing.”


Post-race, Sainz couldn’t indulge in any of the extravagant celebrations one might associate with a race winner, like jumping with his mechanics in parc ferme or embracing anyone too heavily. He still had a big bandage across his stomach and admitted to being in “protection mode” with his body. “Everything I do is a bit more slow and a bit more cautious,” Sainz said. Clearly, that did not go for his driving.

From surgery to F1 victory in 16 days: Carlos Sainz’s Australia win proves his mettle (4)

Sainz is the only non-Red Bull driver to win a grand prix since the 2022 Abu Dhabi GP. (Glenn Nicholls / AFP)

After the race, Sainz opened up about the lengths he went to with his team to ensure he was fit to race. He completed two one-hour sessions per day in hyperbaric chambers and used an Indiba machine—something Sainz described as “an electromagnetic thing for the wounds”—to help speed up healing. His sleep, food intake, and movement were all scheduled with the same priority in mind.

The second week of recovery gave Sainz greater confidence he’d be fit to drive. He also spoke a lot with Alex Albon, who was also sidelined by appendicitis two years ago at Monza before returning a few weeks later in Singapore. “I can tell you for sure he wasn’t comfortable in the car,” Albon said after the race. “The first couple of laps, for me if I look back on it, it does feel strange. You get this inertia stomach, it’s very weird. You feel everything moving inside of you, and it’s not that pleasant.

“I’m not sure the human body is built to pull five or six G with something loose inside. But he’s done a very good job.”

An endorsem*nt for Sainz’s future

Even without accounting for Sainz’s remarkable recovery, the fact he is a free agent for 2025 — or, in his words, “still without a job for next year” — is difficult to comprehend.

Since Russell’s Brazil victory in November 2022, Sainz is the only non-Red Bull driver to have won a grand prix. He’s shown regularly how he can take full advantage of opportunities that come his way, and he started strongly this year with a podium in Bahrain. Signing a driver of Lewis Hamilton’s caliber and profile would never be an opportunity Ferrari would turn down, but Sainz had every right to feel hard done by in losing his seat. He’s performing better than ever.

With a fluid driver market beckoning for 2025, when Mercedes and Red Bull both have seats available, Sainz has one of the strongest cases out there for a top seat. This win hardly harms his bid, proving again what he can do under tough circ*mstances, but Sainz made clear he wasn’t racing with his future in mind.

“Everyone knows more or less what I’m capable of doing,” Sainz said. “I race to keep proving to myself that I can win whenever I get a competitive car and whenever there’s an opportunity to win on a weekend.

“I don’t race to prove to team principals or to prove to people my value. I race to prove to myself that if I’m given a car, I can get it done, and I can be up there.”

Leclerc and Norris, Sainz’s teammate at McLaren in 2019 and 2020, talked up the Spaniard’s qualities. Leclerc called Sainz one of the “highest-rated drivers” in the paddock and dismissed any suggestion he could be underrated. “I’m not too worried about his future because I’m sure that many, many team principals are… he doesn’t say it, but for sure, they are speaking with him,” Leclerc said with a laugh.


“When you’ve worked with him, when you know what he’s capable of doing, and when things click, they click very well and he has performances like he does this weekend,” Norris said. “I would say all year, he’s proved to be a step up from maybe what he has been last year.

“You’re silly if you underrate him.”

If there were even the slightest doubt over Sainz’s quality, his performance in Melbourne has surely silenced that. Here, we have a driver at his peak, taking full advantage of the opportunities that come his way — just two weeks after abdominal surgery.

You’ll do well to find someone better to put in your car for 2025.

(Lead photo of Carlos Sainz: Martin KEEP / AFP)

From surgery to F1 victory in 16 days: Carlos Sainz’s Australia win proves his mettle (2024)


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