It goes without saying that Formula One, the pinnacle of motor racing, is an almost infinitely complicated sport.
Thousands of exactingly designed parts are coaxed by the complex mind of an elite athlete to propel a prototype car around a circuit at speeds in excess of 300 kilometres per hour.
The variables on any given day, never mind across an entire season, are limitless, so to make a prediction today, more than a month away from the first race and weeks away from preseason testing, is almost impossible.
On the other hand, there’s no time like the present.
So forget the fight at the front, worry not about how badly Ferrari will underperform, and push Max Verstappen’s ascendency from your mind, because the story of 2017 will be Carlos Sainz.
Carlos Sainz — the son of a rally double-champion and the man overlooked by the political machinations of the Red Bull driver program last year — this season not only holds his career in his hands, but he could prove a front-runner linchpin.
First, he has the talent — his admission into the Red Bull junior driver programme and early contract renewal last season prove as much.
There are those who would deny his abilities after an under-the-radar maiden season in the shadow of his teenage teammate Max Verstappen and a sophomore year with a broken Daniil Kvyat as his near exclusive bar, but their reasons for doubting are greatly exaggerated.
Unaccounted for in Verstappen’s undoubtedly impressive debut season was Sainz’s string of unreliability from the season’s halfway point, when the Toro Rosso was scoring most heavily.
Neglected too is the effect it had on Spaniard’s ability to build momentum in his first campaign.
In 2016 Sainz made good on any unfulfilled promise, and he did so in the style of his idol and friend Fernando Alonso — he consistently outperformed his car.
He scored 46 points — three shy of Verstappen’s total in 2015 — despite the car’s year-old Ferrari power unit leaving the team woefully off the pace.
Second, Sainz has the temperament — that prized asset of all top-line drivers and the key to his outstanding second season.
“When Max Verstappen was promoted to Red Bull, people tend to forget that was also a tough period for me, not only for Daniil Kvyat. For me it was difficult to understand not being the chosen one,” Sainz told James Allen on F1.
“The next three events were the three best races of my life in Formula One straight after a bad moment, which was also important for me, and since then I’ve built momentum and developed it into a situation that is helping me a lot.”
Compare this to Toro Rosso’s previous second-year pairing of Daniel Ricciardo and Jean-Eric Vergne. After Ricciardo earnt the nod to replace Mark Webber at Red Bull Racing, Vergne became consumed by his mental weaknesses.
Ricciardo, similarly, remains an archetype of the Red Bull programme not because he blew his opponents out of the water but because he showed aptitude for improvement in the face of adversity. Sainz fits this mould hand-in-glove.
Formula One’s history is replete with talented journeymen — the Heidfelds, or (possibly) the Hulkenbergs of the world — but the matching of Sainz’s ability and mentality stand him in good stead to better himself in 2017.
And there could be no better year for the Toro Rosso driver to find his next gear, because in 2017 the Formula One world will be almost completely open to such a talented individual.
Even in 2016 manufacturers were courting Carlos. Renault was obviously keen, but Helmut Marko forbade it, knowing the talented Spaniard’s contract could be handy insurance should a Ricciardo vs Verstappen title fight turn sour in 2017.
Renault’s attraction was limited in any case — both Sergio Perez and Kevin Magnussen saw little reason for optimism in the project infamously plagued by hierarchical infighting — but could Marko realistically hope to hold onto Sainz should more powerful suitors come knocking?
Mercedes, Ferrari, McLaren, Williams, and Renault — all championship-winning teams — will have seats up for grabs at the end of 2017, and each of them present a stronger path for Carlos’s career than Toro Rosso, which will never be allowed to vie for the title.
The permutations of such a move are vast. Any of Kimi Räikkönen, Valtteri Bottas, Fernando Alonso, Stoffel Vandoorne, Felipe Massa, Lance Stroll, or Jolyon Palmer — or even Sebastian Vettel — could be turfed by an ascendant Sainz, rearranging the dynamic of the leading teams when, fingers crossed, as many as four constructors are shaping up to compete for the championship.
It is clear that an upwardly mobile, growing-in-confidence Carlos Sainz could become a key player at F1’s pointy end in the immediate future.
How devastating an impact he can have is up to him and his next 20 races.