Carlos Sainz believes McLaren was the closest it has been to Red Bull all season over the Japanese Grand Prix weekend but remains “very far away” from disrupting the top three teams’ status quo.

Sainz managed to hold Red Bull’s Alexander Albon off through the opening stint in Japan after getting ahead at the start, and put in a quick final stint to force Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc to give up on the fight for fifth place.

The result saw McLaren tighten its grip on fourth place in the constructors’ championship – later aided by Renault’s double disqualification – and appeared to give the team hope of cutting the gap to the three front-runners of Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull.

While Sainz felt McLaren was drawing closer to Red Bull and that the 0.4-second gap in qualifying was bigger than the true margin at Suzuka, he stressed the team was still a long way back over race distances.

“We could have been even closer without the issue that I had in the whole of qualifying. We’re definitely probably [at] one of the closest [points] of the season, especially the second half,” Sainz said.

“I think we are still very far away, especially on race pace. The [Red Bull] car looks to behave much better with used tyres and everything.

“At least we are in a position where if something happens to them, hopefully we can defend at least. We’re still not close enough to fight them.”

With Red Bull out of reach in the constructors’ championship, McLaren’s priority has been cementing its advantage over Renault which stands at 43 points heading into the Mexican Grand Prix weekend. Renault lost nine points as a result of its cars being disqualified from the Japan results over a brake bias adjustment system.

While Sainz appreciated the added points buffer, he stressed the fight for P4 was far from over.

“I think before [the disqualification] we were already in a fairly good and comfortable position, but probably after that, it gives us probably even more margin,” Sainz said.

“It is always helpful, because in the midfield you never know. If in one race there is chaos, and for some reason someone gets a third place or a fourth place, it’s a lot of points. It’s better to have more margin.

“You can still get Renault to finish fifth and sixth in every race, or sixth and seventh, and us to not get too many points, but it’s more difficult for them for sure.”

Additional reporting by Julianne Cerasoli.



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