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108

Carlos Sainz wins one of the most exciting World Championship rallies on record

Suggest to the main players that World Championship rallying is getting a shade unsubtle and that even wrestling isn’t fixed as blatantly as this, and they smile sheepishly. No one had quite expected the Rally of Portugal to produce such a barnstorming finish. For Subaru, victory came as a relief; for Toyota, there was consolation even in defeat. For both, there was a recognition that they had taken part in a remarkable sporting contest.

If anyone were to write a book about the greatest rallies, the 1995 Rally of Portugal would surely be one of them. It was not only one of the closest World Championship rallies of all – indeed, it was the closest Rally of Portugal ever – but one of the most dramatic.

The first surprise was that Toyota was competitive at all. The Cologne monolith had salvaged two thirds and a fourth place from the first two rounds of the World Championship better than Ford, but still well below par for the sport’s biggest team. Fastest stage times were distinctly sparse and no Toyota had even looked like winning. The limited changes that time permitted since the Swedish didn’t amount to a great deal and Ove Andersson, the team boss, volunteered that he wasn’t expecting much before Corsica.

Instead, Juha Kankkunen led from the outset and it wasn’t long before rivals were making the familiar complaint that they couldn’t keep up with something as powerful as a Toyota. TTE insisted that the power output was no greater than it had been since the new, 34-millimetre turbo restrictor was imposed at the start of the season and that broadening the power band by re-mapping the engine management system had been the answer; the major changes, which will include a comprehensive weight-saving programme, will not appear for a while yet.

TTE insisted that its improvement looked greater than it was thanks to Subaru’s Swedish fiasco. The Japanese generally prize reliability above all other virtues and the massacre of the three Imprezas in the snow did not go down well in Tokyo. This time it seems, the engines had been de-tuned accordingly.

None of the Subaru drivers had a good word for his engine, yet Sainz forged into the lead at the end of the first leg, in much the same conditions that had suited Kankkunen so well earlier in the day. Nevertheless, it was clear that the Celica was by and large quicker in the dry and, as Kankkunen re-took the initiative, Subaru’s hopes were pinned increasingly on the forecast turn in the weather in the closing stages: Pirelli’s renowned superiority in the mud might outweigh the Toyota’s sheer horsepower.

Looking back on the event, Kankkunen and Nicky Grist were sure that they would have won if it had been dry. While they were quicker, against the odds, when conditions were at their worst, the inch-perfect Carlos Sainz wriggled just 12s in front by the end, even though the front brakes failed early on the last stage. This was most certainly a rally won on points rather than a knock-out and an event where the drivers transcended the machinery.

Prodrive feels that few will bet against Sainz for the World Championship, but TTE has taken heart. “The basics of the car are good the ‘super-strut’ suspension, the transmission. At least we are competitive and this is good for everyone in the team,” said Andersson. No one should underestimate TTE’s capacity to regain ground by throwing resources at a problem and after all, it is ahead of Subaru in the manufacturers’ race at the moment.

Thanks to the ultra-efficient Ralliart Germany outfit and its Group N Lancers, Mitsubishi still leads the makes’ championship, despite not sending Group A cars to Portugal. In a baffling display of Oriental logic, it will send a works-blessed car to the Safari, which isn’t part of the four-wheel drive competition. One doubts that a team so confused about its aims will stay in front for long.

Above all, this was a most persuasive advertisement for the present turbocharged, four-wheel drive formula. As the World Council deliberates on proposals to sanction both into the next century, the team managers of the Big Four regard their future with a degree of optimism. To that extent, there were no losers in Portugal.

TAP Rally of Portugal – March 8-10 1995

1: Carlos Sainz / Luis Moya – Subaru Impreza 555, GpA
2: Juha Kankunnen / Nicky Grist – Toyota Celica GT-Four, GpA
3: Colin McRae / Derek Ringer – Subaru Impreza 555, GpA
4: Armin Schwarz / Klaus Wicha – Toyota Celica GT-Four, GpA
5: Didier Auriol / Bernard Occelli – Toyota Celica GT-Four, GpA