The real King Carlos

Monarchs come and go, but Carlos Sainz will always rule the rally stages for many. His intensity hasn’t dimmed with age
Writer Anthony Peacock

And still his reign continues.

Greyer around the temples, certainly, a few more wrinkles around those intense brown eyes, undoubtedly, but resolutely and indisputably ‘The King’.

Or ‘The Matador’ as he is also known: more for his uncompromising desire to hunt down and despatch every rival, rather than merely for his Spanish nationality.

Carlos Sainz is one of those drivers who manage to be a name as well as a sportsman. Sure, he is an all-round athlete – having been a professional squash player when he was younger – and he’s also got two world rally titles behind him. But there are people out there who have an even broader spread of talents and have won more championships.

Sainz has become the legend he is because of his compelling personality, making him the sort of person around whom myths grow up effortlessly. It doesn’t even matter if they are true or not: it’s enough to know that they could be.

He’s a close personal friend of the former King Juan Carlos of Spain (possibly true: Carlos is too discreet to confirm or deny) and he lapped Toyota’s GT-One Le Mans car faster than the regular drivers in testing (probably exaggerated, although no one quite remembers the exact times involved).

The point is you’re prepared to believe all these things and more. And now, Carlos has another – more reluctant – item to place on his CV, alongside his Dakar campaign this year: celebrity parent.

Not that Carlos believes for a minute that Carlos Sainz Jr’s achievements, which have culminated in a Formula 1 seat at Toro Rosso for 2015, have anything to do with him – apart from instilling the unstinting work ethic that’s always necessary to make yourself appealing to backers and reach the top.

“It’s all down to him,” is Sainz Sr’s simple verdict. “I always said that if he worked hard and focused on his goal it was possible for him to achieve it. And now he has.”

Carlos Sr is reluctant to talk publicly about Jr these days: he wants his son to be his own man, rather than stand in his shadow (Carlos Jr actually loves rallying, but deliberately chose the circuit racing route to avoid the inevitable comparisons). But there’s one thing that Carlos Sr desperately wanted for his son that he never had for himself: the parental support to get a motor racing career off the ground.

The automotive scene in Spain back in the 1980s, when Carlos was carving out a career, looked very different from now. Fernando Alonso was still in nappies and the talented generation of bike riders started by Sete Gibernau was yet to come to the fore, while the cutting edge of the domestic car industry consisted of laughable reproductions of superannuated Fiats.

In Formula 1, Spain’s last driver was Emilio de Villota, while in rallying the man to beat was Antonio Zanini – who may have been a big star at home, but was practically unknown abroad.

This was the bleak motor sport landscape in which Sainz was raised, so it’s little wonder that his first instinct was to try to become a footballer: he had a youth trial with Real Madrid, the team he still avidly supports.

He came into motor sport (via the unorthodox route of playing squash professionally) comparatively late, at the very back end of his teens, much to the horror of his parents – whose aversion to Sainz’s new career was not exclusively directed at motor sport, but instead at anything that didn’t involve becoming a lawyer.

So Carlos had to do it all on his own. Which is how he found himself competing in the 1983 Formula Ford Festival at Brands Hatch, courtesy of Marlboro. “At the time, it was easier to get sponsorship money for racing rather than rallying in Spain,” says Carlos. “So I thought that this could be a good solution for me, even though my idea was always to go rallying.”

Sainz’s first rally car was an unlikely beast: a Seat Panda. The car has been recently restored by an enthusiast and was demonstrated at the Catalunya Rally in Spain last year. With very little by way of horsepower, the flimsy

Madrid-registered shopping trolley may not have lit up the stages, but its place in history is undisputed. Sainz won the inaugural Copa Panda convincingly enough to attract outside backing, which led to a massive step up thanks to a funded drive from GM in the Spanish championship, and then the world championship with help from Ford of Spain.

Fittingly for a driver who had started his competitive international career in single-seaters, Sainz’s very first stage win, on the 1987 Portugal Rally (his WRC debut) came on a racetrack, at a special stage held around the Estoril Grand Prix circuit.

Three years and 20 rallies later he clinched his first WRC victory on the Acropolis Rally: it’s easy to see the phenomenal rate of career progression that marked him out as a prodigy.

But this is not Carlos’s favourite victory (and he has 26 to choose from). Instead, he says that if he had to pick one, it would be the 1990 Rally Finland. Up until then, no non-Scandinavian driver had ever won in Finland. Truth was, it didn’t seem possible.

Because back then – strange as it may seem – rallying was far less sanitised than it is now. Rather than the reassurance of two sedate passes over a stage in the recce, from which a full set of pace notes is prepared, most rallies in the old days were driven blind, with the drivers heading off into the unknown. This meant that rallies were invariably dominated by local specialists, who knew the terrain perfectly and had every chance to hone that knowledge over the course of the year. So it was very common for teams to chop and change their line-ups depending on requirements. The thinking back then was that somebody who was quick over the snowy wastes of Sweden wouldn’t stand a chance against the local farmers’ boys in Corsica and vice versa. On events like Finland, which were entirely unforgiving and required an almost spiritual understanding of how the roads flowed, that effect was magnified.

But then Sainz came along and demolished that theory. His victory in Finland effectively changed the entire philosophy of the sport, with the WRC evolving into a drivers’ championship that (largely) relied on permanent nominations at every event, like Formula 1.

“I think that is the thing that I am most proud of: I helped to change things” says Sainz. “When I came into the sport, you still had a lot of specialists. So I realised that to beat them, I had to be a specialist everywhere. And I applied myself to that.”

This is pure Carlos in one sentence. He’s staggeringly fast, but he’s never been the fastest everywhere because that’s not necessary to succeed, although he’s third on the all-time list of stage winners. However, he’s always been consistently quick. It’s this crushing persistence that tends to grind his rivals down: every metronomic stage time another arrow in their backs, until the final plunge of the matador’s sword comes almost as a relief.

“Looking back, nearly every year I won a rally – from the start all the way to the finish,” says Carlos. “That is another thing that makes me pleased. It means that I was competitive all the time: I didn’t drop off. And it was important for me to stop with the WRC while I was still competitive.”

After that first win in 1990 he only had three winless years throughout his full-time career: one notable example being 1993, when he was seduced by the romance of Lancia, having already won two drivers’ titles with the very Germanic Toyota Team Europe in 1990 and 1992. Sebastian Vettel, take note.

“It was the only time I let my heart rule my head and my only big mistake,” says Sainz. “But there were other considerations, too: Castrol was coming with Toyota and I wanted to stay with Repsol. Anyway, it was the wrong decision.”

Against more modern opposition, the previously formidable Lancia Delta Integrale was a shadow of its former self, run by works-backed Jolly Club rather than the full factory team. Sainz’s best result was a solitary second place in Greece. By 1994 he had moved to Subaru, an Anglo-Japanese squad whose rigorous work ethic suited his own.

“There was nobody like him then and there hasn’t really been anyone like him ever since,” says David Lapworth, Prodrive’s technical director, who worked closely with Carlos at Subaru. “In terms of commitment to getting the job done, he was inexhaustible. He had a level of perfectionism that was almost obsessive.”

Testing is a task that most rally drivers endure rather than relish – unlike Carlos, who soon realised that this could potentially hand him a technical advantage. So long after his team-mates had gone home, Carlos would continue to pound out test miles, exhausting every single possible avenue of development until his engineers were fit to drop. Perhaps that’s why Carlos was always the king of brand-new events: he won the inaugural rallies in Indonesia, Cyprus and Turkey.

Colin McRae – with whom Carlos enjoyed a far warmer relationship than most people believe – affectionately described him as a “maniac” when it came to testing.

Of course there was the Catalunya 1995 incident, when McRae disobeyed team orders to challenge for a victory that was destined for Sainz. Twenty years on, the then-livid Spaniard concedes it wasn’t such a big deal.

“My understanding of what happened back then hasn’t changed at all,” he says. “The facts are how they are and I’ve always told the truth about it. However, my perspective is different. With Colin I actually had a very good relationship, especially in the later years. In fact it was Colin who first made me think about doing Dakar. We were sitting in Majorca – Colin had a place there and I was over to stay for a few days – and he was doing Dakar with Nissan. He was telling me all about it and I remember thinking that this sounded like a really good way to stay involved in motor sport when I stopped rallying.”

This day came in 2004, when Sainz announced that he was calling time on a stellar career at the end of that season, during which he claimed his final WRC victory – in Argentina – at the age of 42. As fate would have it, Sainz didn’t actually get to take part in his last rally due to a small back injury he picked up during the recce. So it was an emotional farewell that he conducted in a neck brace by driving his Citroën Xsara WRC over the start ramp in Australia to rapturous applause, but it still somehow didn’t feel quite right. ‘This is the way the world ends, not with a bang, but with a whimper’ – to borrow from T S Eliot.

As if it were meant to be, Sainz was recalled to Citroën for two rallies the following season to replace the impetuous François Duval, who had been suspended following a string of errors.

What became definitively Sainz’s final rally ended on the podium at the Acropolis: an event he had first won 14 years before. In total, he had 196 WRC starts, more than any other driver.

“Actually yes – it all finished with a podium, didn’t it?” Carlos sounds almost surprised, having briefly forgotten the postscript to his WRC career – probably because it was already archived after 2004. There was a chance to do a rally in 2013 with Volkswagen, for whom he was a brand ambassador, but it’s not entirely surprising that this never happened even though there was a lot of enthusiasm for the project from the Volkswagen board. Sainz isn’t the sort to do something at that level just for a publicity stunt, or for the sake of it (Citroën boss Guy Fréquelin had to work very hard to persuade him back to substitute for Duval in 2005, with an approach that almost bordered on emotional blackmail).

If Sainz does it, he does it at 100 per cent. That’s what makes him so engaging, and that’s what will probably make his son a world champion one day, too.

The next chapter
Retirement doesn’t mean Sainz has lost his taste for victory

"I still compete because I still like the challenge. If one day I feel that I don’t like it any more, I will stop. But for now it’s exactly the same as it always was. And this challenge is big, maybe one of the biggest.”

That’s how Sainz explained his decision to join Peugeot for an assault on this year’s Dakar Rally. The stakes were high: Carlos had to terminate a lucrative brand ambassadorship with Volkswagen to join forces with another manufacturer on the Dakar – “but I knew that if I wanted to win the Dakar again, it had to be with a factory team, and this was the best option.”

Even into his 50s, it’s the winning that motivates Sainz rather than financial gain, having last tasted Dakar victory in 2010. “I could have done Dakar with a private team and stayed with Volkswagen, but I knew I needed to make this change to try and win. And I have so much respect for Peugeot and the way they approach motor sport. It’s a team that is used to winning.”

He’s right, of course, but on this occasion the gamble didn’t work out: on day five Sainz hit a rock that was hidden in the dust of another competitor and rolled five times, having earlier hustled the Peugeot 2008 DKR up to fourth overall.

In any case, the team admitted it simply didn’t have the speed to win on its debut. Some people say it chose the wrong basic configuration: the Peugeot is just two-wheel drive, and the last time a two-wheel-drive car won the Dakar was back in 2000, courtesy of Jean-Louis Schlesser in his bespoke Schlesser Buggy. The Peugeot is powered by a 3-litre twin-turbo diesel, and the last time a diesel-engined two-wheel-drive car won the Dakar was… never.

“For me, this adds to the motivation,” explains Sainz. “It’s fantastic to start with a project from the beginning: to see it grow and help to influence the direction. I’ve worked with a lot of new cars and I hope the experience I bring can be useful. But you don’t get results on the Dakar overnight. I see this as a long-term project.”

Which means, if he returns to the fray next year, we will be seeing a lot more of The Matador for a few seasons to come.