Audi has prioritised Carlos Sainz as its main target for a race seat when the German marque enters Formula 1 in 2026, according to reports.
The Spaniard is competing in his third season as a Ferrari driver since his 2021 switch from McLaren and still has another year to run on his contract with the Scuderia.
However, Swiss outlet Blick has speculated rumours from Spain suggest Sainz could be on the move at the end of that deal if Audi is successful in courting the Madrid-born racer.
It has already been confirmed Audi will officially enter F1 as both an engine manufacturer and a works outfit courtesy of a strategic collaboration with Sauber, whose current team competes as Alfa Romeo, in time for the new regulation cycle in 2026.
The German brand’s pursuit of the one-time F1 race winner is allegedly being led by new Sauber Group CEO Andreas Seidl, who worked with Sainz at McLaren for two years between 2019-20.
“If you want to fight for victories no later than three years after promotion, you have to look around a good 60 races before entering this small pool of stars,” the report began.
“The first serious rumour has now emerged from Spain: Ferrari driver Carlos Sainz (28), next to [Charles] Leclerc probably without great chances of winning the title, is said to be at the top of the list for Sauber CEO [Andreas] Seidl.”
Despite toppling Leclerc in the standings in their debut year together, Sainz was blown away by his team-mate at the beginning of last year when Ferrari finally possessed the speed to win races again at the start of F1’s newest rules revolution.
While Leclerc convincingly won two of the first three races of 2022, Sainz was struggling to adapt to the more cumbersome and unresponsive machinery available in F1’s latest technical era and retired in two of the opening four rounds.
Sainz would eventually get on top of his various issues, though, and secured his maiden pole position and race win later in the campaign at the British Grand Prix.
However, he still finished three places and a hefty 62 points behind the sister Ferrari by the season’s end.
The chance to lead Audi’s charge in F1 and be removed from the shadow of Leclerc at Ferrari could represent an enticing proposition for Sainz.
Audi has previously been hugely successful in multiple other racing disciplines and has outlined an aim to be competitive in F1 within three seasons of its arrival.
Speaking yesterday at an event in China, the German automotive giant announced that its debut prototype engine is set to run on its test bench before the end of 2023, while also confirming it expects to increase its total employee count from 260 to over 300 by the conclusion of the year.
The Sauber-owned outfit, presently run under the guise of Alfa Romeo, currently fields Valtteri Bottas – signed from Mercedes last year – and Chinese driver Zhou Guanyu, who is enjoying an improved thing of things in his sophomore season.
However, neither driver has a long-term contract to cover Audi’s involvement and the Ingolstadt-based car manufacturer could potentially be eyeing a change in time for its impending entry.
With his Ferrari deal expiring at the end of 2024, Audi would be able to attract Sainz to the team a year in advance of its name being plastered over the Sauber name.
Upon confirmation that it would be entering F1 for the first time in its history, Audi’s top brass suggested it would ideally like to be in a position to take on a German driver.
However, with the options on that front scarce, it has since stated that it would not be a necessity and it would prioritise performance over fulfilling any criteria related to nationality.
Sainz, 28, has already been associated with four of the current 10 teams on the grid.
The current Ferrari driver was previously a member of the Red Bull academy and began his F1 career with Toro Rosso in 2015, now AlphaTauri, before moving on to Renault with a handful of races remaining in 2017.
After being replaced by the impending arrival of Daniel Ricciardo only a full season into his time with the Enstone squad, Sainz landed at McLaren and, along with Lando Norris, helped the Woking side to consecutive finishes of fourth and third in the Constructors’ Championship.
An impressive 2019 campaign that yielded a then-career best sixth in the Drivers’ standings and his maiden podium finish at the Brazilian Grand Prix paved the way for Ferrari to choose Sainz to replace Sebastian Vettel in the Italian team for 2021.
Sainz’s debut year in red yielded a further four podiums, including one at the season finale in Abu Dhabi to overhaul Norris and Leclerc to claim fifth in the Championship.
But a struggling year last time out meant he was unable to improve on that finish, despite being equipped with vastly superior machinery to the previous season.
Ferrari’s subsequent problems with a troublesome SF-23 package thus far in 2023 have meant the Maranello-based entity lies fourth in the standings after three rounds.