Friday | 30 Jul 2021

The long read: Long live the king

He could have been a world-beating squash player or a Real Madrid legend. He could have been a scrupulous lawyer. Instead, he chose the world of rallying. This is the story of Carlos Sainz - the greatest of all time.

The king was back. A few years ago, a former driver strolled back into the M-Sport Ford World Rally Team service area. The impact was immediate among those who’d been around for a few years. Overalls were zipped up, backs straightened. Conversations stopped.

The greetings were courteous, deferential. The respect for a man who’d done two stints with the team remained enormous. He passed through in a flurry of handshaking conviviality, a word here, a nod and a smile there.

Instead of going straight back to work, once he’d moved along, the stories came out. The younger members of the team listened intently. And looked over again, wondering whether a selfie might be out of the question.

So that was him. 

That was Carlos Sainz.

Carlos Sainz continues to command respect when he walks into a room

It certainly was. The reaction? That’s the mark of the two-time world rally champion.

For 18 years, the Spaniard drove professionally in the WRC and today, 16 years on from his WRC swansong, he remains at the forefront of Audi’s burgeoning off-road programme.

It’s testament to his ongoing relevance as much as his innovation while at the top of his game that it was Sainz who readers voted the greatest driver of all time in a poll last year.

Forget a pair of French Sébastiens who have scored, between them, eight times the titles Sainz has enjoyed.

That wasn’t lost on Sainz.

“I don’t need to tell you how much I rate Sébastien Loeb,” said Sainz, “how much he deserves to be the greatest. But not only him – all the world champions merit this recognition. But somebody has to win and in this case it’s myself.

“I gave everything to rallying. Rallying has been my life and my dream and today, rallying and the whole family of rallying gives me this big recognition. Thank you. Thank you very much.”

And rallying has a lot to be grateful for. Sainz could so easily have turned his hand to any other sport. And his back on rallying.

Aged 16, he was already a champion of the Spanish squash court, then there was a trial at his beloved Real Madrid football team soon after.

But ultimately it was four wheels that would take this law student from his studies and thrust him into the global motorsport spotlight. To begin with, at least, it wasn’t rallying that worked for Carlos. It was the circuits of Formula Ford.

By the start of the 1980s, he’d discovered rallying and, armed with a Renault 5 Turbo, finished runner-up to Salvador Servià’s Lancia 037 in the 1986 Spanish Championship (he put that right with back-to-back home success in 1987 and ’88).

Just a few months after concluding that Renault campaign, a then 24-year-old Sainz exploded onto the world championship.

Carlos Sainz during one of his stints for Ford

Driving a Group A Ford Sierra Cosworth on his WRC debut at the 1987 Rally of Portugal, Sainz won the opening stage of his world championship career. And not just by a little bit. He was a second per kilometre quicker than Juha Kankkunen’s Lancia Delta at the 13km Estoril opener.

The Finn, who was crowned world champion later that year, didn’t forget his first encounter with a driver who would become one of his chief adversaries as the seasons rolled by. But not just yet.

It would be another season and a half before Toyota snapped up Sainz off the back of some stellar Sierra performances on events like Corsica, Finland and Sanremo, where he finished fifth, sixth and fifth respectively.

In 1989, Carlos joined Toyota Team Europe to drive alongside Kankkunen, Kenneth Eriksson and Björn Waldegård.

These were the days when manufacturers were still relying heavily on specialist drivers. A year before, for example, Lancia had employed Frenchmen Yves Loubet and Bruno Saby with one aim: to win on asphalt. Neither would do a pure gravel rally. Conversely, Swede Mikael Ericsson would never wheel a Delta HF 4x4 on anything but the dirt.


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Given his racing background, Toyota team principal Ove Andersson thought he’d finally bagged himself a Tarmac specialist in Sainz. Carlos politely put him right.

“I told him, “But Ove, I want to win everywhere… In those days, the teams all had their specialist drivers. But I wanted to be the one who could do everything.”

Sainz’s first four outings in a Celica GT-4 delivered disappointment as retirement followed retirement. The second half of his 1989 part-programme improved with podiums after leading in Finland and in Sanremo before the season-closing RAC Rally.

Having competed in Britain for the previous two years, he understood the history of the event and saw the Nottingham-based event as the ideal place to break his WRC duck. Especially in 1989.

“I really wanted that win,” he said. “After that year, the RAC became the same as the other WRC rounds – it moved to the recce and the pace notes. The 1989 event was the last one run in secret. To win the RAC Rally on maps would have been something special.”

And it was looking very good. Coming south from Scotland, Sainz was a minute and a half up on Pentti Airikkala’s Mitsubishi. The Finn pushed harder and harder, trimming the difference to 30sec. Airikkala was confident of overturning the Toyota’s advantage in Yorkshire, having won the British Championship opener held in the same woods four times.

But Sainz dug deep and resisted the charging Galant. Had it not been for a broken propshaft with just three stages remaining, win number one would have been done. Instead, it was a heartbreaking, but at that time, career-best second place.

Some drivers would struggle with the highs and lows of a year like 1989. Not Sainz. It was all fuel for his fire through ’90.

Second at Rallye Monte-Carlo was a good start, but it was that long-awaited first win at the Acropolis Rally in Greece where his season really gathered momentum. He led for three of the four days, casting any concerns over the reliability of the GT-4 to the back of his mind, to top the podium in emphatic style.

That was the first week in June. By the end of that month, he’d taken a second win. This time on the other side of the world at Rally New Zealand.

Remember Sainz’s desire to be the complete driver? No driver can fulfil such a dream without victory in Jyväskylä, Finland. But the prospect of a southern European winning what was then known as the 1000 Lakes Rally was fanciful. For the locals, a Swedish victory was hard to take. But a Spaniard? Surely not.

Actually, yes. But in circumstances sufficiently needing of sisu, the Finns would likely have taken Sainz as one of their own.

On the eve of the rally, the championship leader was involved in an accident on the recce (a car was parked in the middle of the road after a blind crest). With the tendons in his left foot damaged, even making the start might be tricky. With the swelling too bad to fit a race boot on, Sainz drove the whole event with a trainer on his injured foot.


Forced to revise his left-foot braking technique for an event where such method is almost compulsory, Sainz still won.

“I don’t forget that one,” he said. “That was a big one for me to show that I was the driver who could drive and compete and win on all rallies.”

Two rallies down the road and the title was his. The icing on the 1990 cake was victory in a titanic RAC Rally scrap with Kankkunen’s Lancia. Sainz had been told he could take the British round off if he wanted. Stay home, relax and prepare for the defence of his crown which would begin soon enough.

That really wasn’t his style. There was a rally to be won. So he went and won it.

Twelve months on, the Toyota star lost out to Kankkunen in a winner-takes-all RAC. Split by a point going into the finale, engine problems meant third, two places behind Juha’s record-breaking success (the first driver to clinch three world titles).

Revenge was taken on the same event in 1992, when those positions were exactly reversed. A second title in three years spelled the end of Sainz’s first spell at Toyota.

By now, the all-rounder tag was sitting very comfortably, with wins on events like Monte- Carlo, Finland, Safari and on the Tarmac in Corsica. And Catalunya.

Such was the size and importance of Sainz’s influence on and following in rallying, a Spanish round of the WRC was fast-tracked for 1991. He didn’t win in Catalunya the first season, but he did second time around in 1992.

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Sainz was just a trailblazer in terms of that ubiquitous ability to win, but also in the way he went about the sport.

His attention to detail was second to none. Granted, there’s nothing new about drivers putting in the time in testing. Walter Röhrl for one was somebody who knew precisely what they wanted from a car and had little desire to stop until that box was ticked.

But Carlos’ work ethic extended beyond a prolonged consideration of strengths and weaknesses of one damper over another. Having seen the speed of the Jolly Club-run Lancia Delta HF Integrale through 1992 – a year when Didier Auriol set a new record with six wins in a single season – Sainz was convinced the time had come to turn Italian.

With Lancia already having closed its doors on its WRC programme, funding for 1993 would come from Sainz’s personal sponsor, Repsol. His appreciation of the business and commercial side of the sport really was ground-breaking in the early 1990s.

But actually, it can be traced back even earlier. That fastest stage time on the 1987 Rally Portugal opener was done in a Sierra RS Cosworth backed by Marlboro. Not many drivers arrive on the WRC scene with a sponsor like that on the doors – but Sainz had been working with the tobacco firm since Formula Ford.

“If one of my sponsors,” he said, “doesn’t double their investment in terms of return then I’m not happy. I like to keep sponsors two or three years, but all the time, I have to work to make sure they are taking the value.”

Sainz and Colin McRae were at the same time team-mates and rivals for the same title

And officialdom scarcely escapes that trademark intensity. In 1990 Sainz suffered every rally driver’s nightmare when he found a Peugeot 205 in the middle of a Corsican stage, performing a three-point turn. Enraged at what he saw as lapse organisation, he sought then FIA president Jean-Marie Balestre.

In a press conference in Ajaccio, Balestre tried to move the conversation along, rather unwilling to dwell on one of his countrymen’s stupidity. Sainz was having none of it. He reasoned and debated with Balestre – not something many did – and made his feelings and his point in the most forceful of fashions. That he could convey those feelings fluently in French, Italian, English or his native Spanish only served to strengthen his case.

As well as being one of Spain’s most recognised and, at the height of his power, probably best paid sportsmen, he was a businessman. He based a PA out of his Madrid office and spent plenty of time in there himself, piecing together the finer details.

But he didn’t always get it right. Shorn of any development, by 1993 a privately run ‘Deltona’ was no match for Ford’s Escort RS Cosworth and a Japanese corner which now included Subaru as well as Toyota and Mitsubishi.

One podium from nine rallies was not the return he was after, so he headed for Subaru’s Impreza 555. Second in the championship in both his years with Prodrive, he was expected to be back in a Toyota for 1996 – until the firm was banned for turbocharger irregularities at the end of 1995.

When Volkswagen began their tilt for WRC stardom, it was Sainz they turned to, to help run their world-beating programme. Pictured here are Julien Ingrassia (left) and Sebastien Ogier (right) after winning a maiden drivers' championship with Volkswagen

It’s easy to look back on Sainz’s time aboard a Subaru and fixate on the team orders debacle in Catalunya, 1995, when his Scottish team-mate Colin McRae disagreed and disobeyed David Richards’ instructions.

Admittedly, Sainz was soundly beaten by the Brit at home in the weeks that followed. But it’s worth remembering that, had he not fallen from his mountain bike and damaged his right shoulder, forcing him out of Rally New Zealand that year, the title would likely have been his.

For a driver investing so much time, energy and effort, Sainz wasn’t the luckiest. Three years on from 1995, and after two seasons and three more wins with Ford, he was back at Toyota.

But the 1998 campaign ended in heartbreak when he was stranded at the end of the season’s final stage in Britain with a dead engine aboard his Toyota Corolla WRC. Had it lasted just a couple of hundred meters more, a third title was his.

Few drivers in the sport’s history have managed the sort of longevity Sainz has. And even fewer have continued to perform so consistently at the highest possible level. Fourteen years separate his first WRC win from his last, with Citroën in 2004.


Sainz continues to find success outside of the world of WRC

With his time in the world championship done, Sainz moved into cross country rallying and joined Volkswagen in its tilt at Dakar, the biggest scalp of all in off-road racing. He’s a three-time Dakar winner (with three different manufacturers in VW, Peugeot and Mini), his last success coming at the age of 58.

In those early years with the German car maker, he worked closely with VW Motorsport director Kris Nissen. When the time came for Volkswagen to move into the World Rally Championship, Nissen had one name at the top of his list for the development of the Polo R WRC.

“It took Carlos 10 seconds to say yes,” is Nissen’s recollection of those negotiations.

That’s how it was Sainz who gave what would go on to become the world championship’s most successful ever car its first test on Tarmac and gravel.

Sainz Sr's motorsport interests now extend to those of his son, Ferrari F1 driver Carlos Sainz Jr.

When you have somebody like Sainz laying the foundations as thoroughly as he had throughout his whole career, it comes as little surprise that the Polo dominated in the fashion it did for four years.

After those spells with Peugeot and Mini, he’s now back in the Volkswagen Group fold, this time spearheading Audi’s return to rallying – sort of. The Ingolstadt manufacturer is running its own Dakar effort now.

Talk to Carlos today and nothing has changed. Four decades on from discovering the sport, his affinity and energy remain undimmed.

Yes, he spends a little more time away from rallying these days, but which father wouldn’t want to follow their Ferrari Formula 1 driving son to most races? Carlos Jr is a genuine chip off the old block in his charismatic and engaging approach.

But when it comes to testing Audi’s new car, Sainz Sr will be winding back the years and exhaustively running through every conceivable option. Before finding some more and testing those too.

Sainz’s view on a job worth doing has never changed. And never will. You do it right. Or you don’t do it at all. That’s the mark of a true champion.

Long live the king.

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