A little over 12 months ago, Carlos Sainz’s future in Formula 1 looked unclear.

Despite impressing through his first full season with Renault, he was only third-choice at best for the team as it pushed to sign Daniel Ricciardo or Esteban Ocon to partner Nico Hulkenberg for 2019.

Red Bull still had an option on Sainz’s services, but ultimately favoured promoting Pierre Gasly into Ricciardo’s seat. McLaren was also looking at Ocon as an option. There was a possibility that Sainz could have slipped through the net.

But now the Spaniard has not only cemented himself as F1’s midfield king, leading McLaren’s revival this year, but he has also stood out as one of the most consistent performers on the grid.

Carlos Sainz has become F1’s smooth operator.

While the fight for the 2019 titles has been a foregone conclusion since the mid-point of the season, the battle to top F1’s midfield – dubbed ‘Formula 1.5’ – has been extremely close. McLaren, Renault, Racing Point, Haas, Alfa Romeo and Toro Rosso have all been the pace-setting midfield team on occasion, but it is McLaren who has pulled clear thanks to its consistency.

Sainz has been key to this. He has scored points in all but three races he has finished this year, and has been the leading driver outside of the top three teams six times, double the total of next-best man and McLaren teammate Lando Norris.

“Given how tight pre-season testing and the first few races have been in performance, between all the teams, I must say I am very happy,” said Sainz. “I’m not surprised, but obviously very happy with where we are at the moment. The midfield is so tight, and everyone is so close to each other, so to have that cushion of points that we have at the moment means that we must be doing things right.”

With close to double the total of its points from 2018 (111-62), McLaren has a firm grip on P4 in the constructors’ championship. Sainz’s run to P5 at Suzuka pulled the gap to Renault to 34 points which, depending on the outcome of Racing Point’s protest, could become 43. Barring a dramatic turnaround, it seems likely McLaren will end the year best of the rest – all while soaking up pressure from its rivals snapping at its heels.

“We haven’t done massive steps compared to other people,” said Sainz. “It is true that since Canada, we’ve hit our target more often, which is to be in Q3 and in the points, but we haven’t done a massive upgrade to the car. We haven’t changed the car around, we haven’t found something that has switched the car on. We’ve just brought little stuff to every race.

“When everything is still within half a tenth, you know you haven’t done a massive step.”

Such fine margins place an extra onus on external factors to get an edge over your rivals. The performance of the drivers and operational strength of the team is naturally vital to success, but one of the biggest takeaways from McLaren this year has been how harmonious the atmosphere has become.

Sainz and Norris have hit it off as friends both on- and off-track, arguably boasting the strongest teammate relationship on the grid after a mere 17 races together. There is a spring in the step of everyone at Woking. A sense of fun.

“We are enjoying a very nice team atmosphere,” Sainz said. “I must say between Lando and myself, and all the engineers and mechanics, we’ve managed to create a very good atmosphere at the circuit. We’ve managed to find something a bit different in the paddock, something that is really working well, and something that I am really hoping to keep for the future.

“I’m convinced it is helping the team’s performance.”

So what has brought that ‘something different’ to McLaren? Is it down to the all-new driver line-up, bringing a more youthful and arguably less jaded view to F1?

Sainz isn’t drawn on the particulars: “I don’t know. The important thing is that we found it. We need to keep it. It’s an advantage. We need to keep working on it, and make sure that this team keeps working as one and we keep moving forward.

“At the moment that philosophy, that atmosphere is driving all of us forward. And that’s what we need to keep going.”

No matter how good the atmosphere may be, it is still down to the drivers behind the wheel to deliver. Sainz’s performances have won plenty of praise in the F1 world, the highlight coming at Suzuka last weekend. A flying start saw him go wheel-to-wheel with Lewis Hamilton for the second race running before he then managed to keep Alexander Albon at bay for much of the race in the Red Bull. Finally, and most impressive of all, he forced Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc into giving up on a fight for P5 after realising he could not outpace the McLaren enough to bridge the gap. Rarely one for self-indulgence, even Sainz himself believes he is at the top of his game right now.

“I thought about it during the race when I was pushing to hold off Leclerc and suddenly they told me the lap times, and I said: ‘Ooh, I must be driving quick!’” Sainz said.

“And at the end of the race, I said to the team thanks for a great car all weekend. Very proud to be finally a bit more than best of the rest. We were definitely a step clear.”

One way in which Sainz has expressed his gratitude to McLaren this year is through his team radio antics. After fending off Renault’s Daniel Ricciardo to win a close battle for sixth at Silverstone in July, Sainz spontaneously broke out into a rendition of Sade’s song ‘Smooth Operator’. He delivered an encore two races later in Hungary after beating Red Bull’s Pierre Gasly to fifth place.

“That came up by the song that I was hearing a lot on the radio over the British Grand Prix weekend,” Sainz said, smirking. “I don’t know why, I wasn’t listening to it on purpose. It just came up on the radio a couple of times. It got stuck in my head!

“The two races that I nailed, I sang it. It’s obviously connected. It’s a thing. It has to be perfect races though. I am only singing it in perfect races. Hungary was perfect. Silverstone, starting 13th, finished sixth holding Ricciardo for 12 laps in a faster car was perfect.”

Sainz has established himself as one of F1’s most consistent and reliable performers, maximising McLaren’s pace at almost every opportunity and even taking the fight to the big three teams who have seemed so far out of reach for so long.

“I’ve been side by side with Lewis, I’ve been in the last 10 laps fighting with Albon, fighting with a Ferrari here. 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,” Sainz said.

“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.”

It may not have enjoyed a reprise at Suzuka, and it may only have originated by accident, but “smooth operator” has become fitting for Sainz’s performances this year - even if he doesn’t entirely get the true context.

“I actually don’t know exactly what ‘smooth operator’ means in English,” he conceded.

“Someone who’s a bit cool, a bit good with the ladies,” explained his PR.

“Oh, then it explains it very well!” Sainz replied, laughing. “I like it!”