Carlos Sainz: McLaren no longer just 'best of the rest'

Carlos Sainz and Alexander Albon battle in Japanese GP

Carlos Sainz Jr. believes McLaren is no longer just ‘best of the rest’, in the wake of a "special" fifth place at Formula 1’s Japanese Grand Prix.

Sainz Jr. qualified seventh, half a second behind the midfield drivers, and battled Red Bull’s Alexander Albon throughout the race.

Albon used a two-stop strategy to clear the one-stopping Sainz Jr. as the pair were split by nine seconds at the chequered flag, with Sainz Jr. classifying fifth.

Charles Leclerc overhauled much of the midfield during his recovery drive but was unable to reel in Sainz Jr., prompting Ferrari to pit him again in an ultimately fruitless bid for the fastest lap.

“I’ve been side by side with Lewis [Hamilton], and at the same time, I’ve been in the last 10 laps fighting with Albon, fighting with a Ferrari here,” said Sainz Jr.

“So we are not only best of the rest, we are managing that if something happens to the guys in front to sometimes profit, which is not easy, it’s not easy to finish best of the rest and qualify best of the rest as much as I’ve been doing in the last three races.

“Trust me, it is tight, but we’ve been putting together very strong weekends.”

“Probably this [result] was a bit more special than the others because of the pace we had.

“It was incredible to feel for the first time the car working really nicely together in the first sector, and whenever the team asked me to pick up the pace, and I started doing 33.5s, and Leclerc couldn’t keep up, and suddenly we were managing to hold off a Ferrari and managing to match Albon on pace.

“This is the first time this year it has happened. Very pleased, proud of that. From my side, just an extended long first stint, a good start and good qualiy.”

Sainz Jr., now sixth in the Drivers’ Championship, added: “When you have a Ferrari 10 seconds behind, and normally they are a couple of seconds per lap quicker in race pace, you think you’re not going to make it.

“I had been saving my tyres, and when I was required to push, I picked up half a second of pace.

“Although he [Leclerc] was half a second quicker for the first three, four laps, he suddenly started degrading, and I started keeping up the pace, and they gave up. It was very nice.”