Tommi Mäkinen and Carlos Sainz headed to the final round of the FIA World Rally Championship both in search of their third respective world titles.
The stage was set for the ultimate battle over 380 kilometres of prime British forestry - but that battle never materialised.
Instead, Mäkinen, who topped the standings before the event, was out of the running just six stages into the rally after hitting a concrete block at Millbrook Proving Ground. The incident was caused by an oil spill from one of the historic contestant’s cars and it brutally ripped the rear right wheel from the Finn’s Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution.
With his rival now out of the running, Sainz knew a result of fourth or higher would be enough to secure the drivers’ championship crown, and so he and co-driver Luis Moya paced themselves cautiously.
Everything was going to plan as, before the final test - a 27-kilometre blast through Margam Park - the Spanish duo remained fourth with a sizeable advantage over fifth-placed Grégoire de Mevius.
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Sainz had been instructed by his Toyota team to simply drive through this last stage, leaving the Corolla in road mode. No risks, no heroics and no anti-lag. The title was his, surely?
But no: just three-hundred metres before the flying finish, the car’s engine died and it ground to a halt. Game over.
Sainz was paralysed but Moya vented his rage, first on the engine with the fire extinguisher before launching his helmet through the rear window.
Mäkinen, unaware of the scenes at Margam, had already accepted defeat. His bags were packed and he was giving an interview from the reception area of his accommodation when he got the news.
He was the first WRC champion to seal the title from a hotel.
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Sections of this story are excerpts from 'WRC 50, The Story of the World Rally Championship 1973-2022', written by Markus Stier. Purchase your copy here.
Cover Photo: © McKlein