Hospital bed to Aussie win: Carlos Sainz comeback kick-starts career

MELBOURNE, Australia — Little more than two weeks ago, Carlos Sainz was laid up in a hospital bed in Saudi Arabia. An appendicitis diagnosis the morning of qualifying in Jeddah had seen him undergo emergency surgery and, in the process, forced him to miss the second round of what could prove to be the most important racing season of his Formula One career.

At that moment, a return to the cockpit of his Ferrari seemed distant. A return to the top step of the podium seemed like pure fantasy.

Fast forward to Lap 2 of Sunday’s Australian Grand Prix and Sainz, just 16 days later, was passing reigning champion Max Verstappen for the lead. The Red Bull’s right rear brake was sticking — to the point that it would catch fire and result in the championship leader’s retirement two laps later — but that made Sainz’s journey from hospital bed to victory no less remarkable.

For just the second time in 11 months, someone other than Verstappen was going to win a race. And just as it was in Singapore last September, it was going to be Sainz.

A remarkable recovery

In the aftermath of his surgery in Saudi Arabia, Sainz scoured the internet for the contact details of doctors who might be able to help him make the quickest possible return to an F1 car. There were examples of other athletes who had made surprisingly quick recoveries in similar time frames — including Williams driver Alex Albon, who raced three weeks after complications during his surgery to remove his appendix in 2022 — but there were no guarantees he’d be able to travel to Australia and race.

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“The reason why athletes recover faster is because you can dedicate 24 hours per day for seven days to recovery. And that’s exactly what I did,” Sainz said on Sunday. “I started going to hyperbaric chambers twice a day for one hour, taking an Indiba machine, that is electromagnetic thing for the wounds.

“I was programming my time in bed, my time to go for a walk, my time to eat, the kind of food that you have to recover. Just everything is centered around recovery to try to be ready for Australia.”

Progress in the first week was frustratingly slow, with long periods in bed and limited movement. Even with nine days to go before Sunday’s race, Sainz struggled to lift himself out of bed in order to go to the airport and board his 24-hour flight to Australia.

“I could barely use my abdominal to move,” he said. “And I was like, ‘This is not going to happen.’

“But I took the flight, and suddenly when I landed in Australia, the feeling was a lot better. And every 24 hours, I was making a lot more progress than the first seven days, which is actually what all the doctors and all the professional people told me: ‘Don’t worry, because the second week, every day is going to improve a lot more than the first week.’ So I just followed more or less what everyone told me and put together a good plan.”

Even in full health, the Albert Park circuit is not an easy place to drive an F1 car — as several drivers can attest after making contact with its unforgiving barriers over the course of the weekend. At a couple of points around the circuit, drivers are subject to more than five times the force of gravity under braking, and Sainz said after qualifying that he was getting a “weird feeling” from within his abdomen.

Albon, who offered Sainz advice ahead of the race weekend, including where to add extra padding under his seat belts to limit strain on his scars, said he too had experienced unusual sensations after his return.

“Adrenalin’s a beautiful thing! It fights a lot,” Albon said on Sunday. “I can tell you for sure he wasn’t comfortable in the car. 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. He’s done a very good job.

“But people forget also you’re not just going through an operation, you’re actually not training for a good two weeks so you end up genuinely down on fitness so it’s not easy. I’m sure he’ll get a good night’s sleep tonight!”

Sainz’s lack of training since his surgery meant he faced uncharted territory in the second half of the race. As Albon said, it’s easy to overlook how physical a full race in a Formula One car is, and ahead of Sunday’s 58-lap Australian Grand Prix, Sainz had completed no more than 25 laps in a single practice session.

“I was confident about the first half of the race I would be OK, because it’s more or less the laps that I did on Friday,” he said. “Obviously the second half of the race was a bit of an unknown, but once I got out in front and had a gap, you can manage everything. You can manage yourself, you can manage the tyres, you have less pressure, you can choose your places where to push and not push and everything becomes a lot easier.

“I’m not going to lie, the last laps I was a bit stiff and tired, but nothing that was slowing me down too much.”

In the shop window

Even without his remarkable recovery from appendicitis, Sunday’s victory would have been a hugely significant moment for Sainz.

In January, he was informed by Ferrari that he would be replaced by Lewis Hamilton in 2025, leaving the 29-year-old without a drive at a crucial point of his career.

Since making his debut with Toro Rosso, Red Bull’s junior outfit, in 2015, the Spaniard has driven for four different teams in F1. His stint at Ferrari, stretching back to the start of 2021, represents his longest period at a single team and one he had hoped to extend into 2025 and beyond at the start of the year.

With more than half the grid out of contract at the end of this year, there are plenty of options open to Sainz, but ensuring he ends up in the best possible seat will be dependent on results like the one he achieved in Australia. It was clear on Sunday evening that the win carried more weight than normal.

“It’s not only because of the last two weeks, it’s the whole start to the year in general,” he said. “How the year started with the news of the non-renewal; then you get yourself fit, you get yourself ready for the start of the season, pushing flat out; and then you get to Bahrain, you do a good podium, you say, ‘OK, now the season is starting well and I can keep the momentum going’; and suddenly, boom … missing a race in Jeddah and the operation.

“Long days in bed, not knowing if I was going to be back in time. Obviously, a lot of unknowns. Am I going to be back fit? Am I going to be back feeling still good with the car?

“And then suddenly you come back and win. So, yes, what I said on the team radio: life is a roller coaster sometimes, but it can be really nice and good to you sometimes. I’m just letting it sink in and enjoying the moment.”

Third-place finisher Lando Norris, who was Sainz’s teammate at McLaren in 2019 and 2020, believes all teams should stand up and take notice of what the Spaniard achieved on Sunday.

“I think for the people who know him, know what he’s capable of doing, know his effort level, his approach and dedication to wanting to be one of the best, exactly like he’s proved today and over the last couple of weeks,” Norris said. “I’m sure you have plenty of drivers who probably wouldn’t have tried as hard and dedicated so much of their time and effort to trying to recover and get back in the race car. And I think that’s just one example of it.”

Sainz has been closely linked with a move to Sauber next year in preparation for its rebranding as Audi in 2026, but Aston Martin, Mercedes and Red Bull also have incomplete driver lineups in 2025. The latter has rarely been talked about as serious option for Sainz, but with Sergio Pérez out of contract at the end of the year and Verstappen’s future less than certain after Red Bull’s turbulent start to the year off track, it appears as though it is being entertained.

“You’ve had a very fast unemployed driver win today,” Red Bull team principal Christian Horner said when asked about his driver situation for next year. “The market is reasonably fluid with certain drivers.”

Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff, who is said to have junior driver Andrea Kimi Antonelli, 17, and two-time champion Fernando Alonso, 42, towards the top of his list to replace Hamilton, also gave Sainz a name check on Sunday.

“The ones that are available [for 2025] or could be interesting all have arguments in favour, be it the very young ones, the very mature ones in the best years, or Carlos,” he said. “It’s a difficult choice, because it’s not like there is a [knockout] criteria for one and everything points to the other one. So I just want to do a step back and monitor the situation, because some of the guys you mention may sign for other teams. So we are just looking at it.”

Meanwhile, Sainz knows that the more performances like Sunday’s he can extract, the more options he will have for next year. Sources have made clear that he is eager to get his future sorted as soon as possible and the coming weeks could be crucial for him to cash in on his Australia success.

“For sure, [the race win] does no harm for 2025. That is 100%,” he said. “But yeah, I’m still without a job for next year, so I guess this is going to help it. And yeah, I don’t know, I think everyone knows more or less what I’m capable of doing.

“But I do race for myself. 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 in 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, and that’s the mentality and the approach that I have and I will keep having the rest of the year.”

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