Carlos Sainz Jr says being able to beat Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc in the Japanese Grand Prix made him “very proud” of the progress made by the McLaren Formula 1 team.

The Spaniard delivered the latest fine performance of a strong 2019 campaign with a run to fifth place in Sunday’s race at Suzuka, having successfully fended off Leclerc’s Ferrari in the closing stages.

Leclerc did have damage to his car following a first-corner collision with Red Bull driver Max Verstappen, but Sainz was consistently able to lap quicker than the Monegasque and better look after his tyres. 

Sainz also matched the pace of Alexander Albon throughout, with the Red Bull driver eventually getting ahead after taking advantage of a two-stop strategy.

“Probably this one was a bit more special than the others because of the pace we had,” Sainz said.

"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.

“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 qualifying.

“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 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.”

A fast-start saw Sainz running wheel-to-wheel with Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes through the opening sequence of corners for the second race in succession, and the McLaren driver is relishing his recent battles with drivers from F1’s top three teams.

“I’ve been side by side with Lewis, and at the same time, I’ve been in the last 10 laps fighting with Albon, fighting with a Ferrari here,” he explained.

“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.”

Asked if such a result felt like a victory to him, Sainz replied: “It does.

“That’s why when sometimes people ask me ‘well another best of the rest’, it sounds a bit disappointing to me, because it’s actually really tough to keep doing it every weekend, even after those three DNFs.

“I was wanting to get back in a run, and these last two, three weekends have been very strong, and honestly I’m very proud of it.”