Carlos Sainz moved to quell team disquiet on Friday night at the Austrian Grand Prix after comments he made earlier in the week were rebuked by his Red Bull bosses.
The Spanish driver, currently in his third year with Toro Rosso, told the FIA press conference on Thursday that he wouldn’t contemplate a fourth season with the Red Bull junior team because he intends to make a step forward on the grid by 2018.
“My target number one is to be with Red Bull [Racing] next year and start fighting for podiums or wins,” he said. “If that doesn’t happen, obviously a fourth year at Toro Rosso is unlikely, so I’m not going to close the door to any opportunity.
“I’m definitely ready to take a step forward in my career. I’m looking forward to it, I’m ready, so as I said before, not closing any doors and we will see what happens.”
With Red Bull Racing satisfied with Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo, both of whom are contracted to the team next season, Sainz would have to leave the Red Bull stable of teams altogether to race for a more competitive squad.
RBR team principal Christian Horner was the first to dispute Sainz’s apparent edging towards the exit.
“Carlos Sainz is under contract,” he told Sky Sports F1. “We’ve exercised his option so he’s under contract, and we have an option on him for next year and the year after. He’ll be in a Toro Rosso again next year.”
“He only got a chance in Formula One because of Red Bull investing in him in the junior years.
“It’s a little bit disingenuous to be making comments like that … Without Red Bull he wouldn’t be in a Formula One car.”
Helmut Marko joined Horner in his criticism, accusing his young charge of distractedly underperforming.
“You don’t bite the hand that feeds you,” he told Sky Sports F1. “It was [Red Bull co-founder] Mr Mateschitz and I who pushed Sainz into Toro Rosso, nobody else would give him a chance.
“I think he is a little bit confused. I see it in his driving — he came off today and has done other mistakes already this season.
“I think he should focus on driving. Kvyat has out-qualified him the last couple of races.”
Helmut added, however, that he would contemplate releasing Sainz to Ferrari, but he said he had spoken with Maurizio Arrivabene and Gino Rosato and neither had mentioned having an interest in the Spaniard’s services.
Toro Rosso team principal Franz Tost also hit back at Sainz’s comments, calling on his driver to show loyalty to the team.
“I’m a little bit confused about this discussion at this stage of the year because Red Bull has paid and financed the complete career of Carlos Sainz,” he said. “Why should Red Bull give him away now to any other opponent when they educated him to quite a high level?“
“I think sometimes loyalty should always in Formula One play an important game.”
Sainz moved to chill the story on Friday evening, emphasising that his priority has always been to succeed with Red Bull Racing.
“It probably has been thrown a bit out of proportion,” he said. “What I said yesterday is nothing strange.
“I think as a driver, as an ambitious driver, as a human, it is very clear that my goal in life is to become a Red Bull driver and start fighting for podiums with them.
“Again, I owe them everything; I owe to Toro Rosso and the people there everything I know in Formula One at the moment.
“But I have ambitions, and my ambition is to be Red Bull driver one day — hopefully sooner rather than later.”
Sainz, however, refused to backtrack from his comments that he wanted to drive for a higher-placed team in 2017, regardless of the colours.
“What I said is a fact: in 12 years of Toro Rosso no-one has been here a fourth year. For me to be a fourth-year, I will be the first one in history.
“It will be a strange situation because normally it is a junior team where you want to develop drivers and to put someone up.
“What I said is what it is. I’m not showing anything else than commitment and loyalty to Red Bull with my words I said yesterday.
“I know I’m ready to take a step up in my career. I think my results also show it; it’s not something I have invented.”
However, asked if he was talking to other teams, Sainz said he had no contractual obligation not to do so — but he refused to be drawn on whether there were any offers on the table for him to switch sides.
“I cannot talk about that and I will not talk about that, because then a big story will come up,” he said.
“What I know is that I’m ready to take a step forward … and I would love to do it with Red Bull. This is my one and only target at the moment, and the only reason I want to perform in 2017, keep performing like I am doing, is to have a Red Bull seat in the future.”
He added, however, that he couldn’t speak for Red Bull Racing’s availability in 2018.
“That is a question to Christian and to Helmut, but it doesn’t look likely.”
With Renault almost certain to replace Jolyon Palmer in 2018 — if not sooner — and with Ferrari’s Kimi Räikkönen out of contract, rumours of Sainz’s defection are unlikely to slow, but the Spaniard said he wouldn’t be speaking publically about his contracts from now on after the storm his Thursday comments caused.
“It’s going to stay internal because it looks like whatever you say, someone can interpret it in very different ways and it can create a bit of a situation, which I obviously didn’t expect.
“I will learn from it, let’s put it that way, and from now onwards, as I said, it will stay a bit more internal.”