The battle for the 1992 World Rally Championship became incredibly intense during the final two rounds. Against the odds, Carlos Sainz emerged from the British mud to claim a second world crown
Had anyone been giving odds, after September's Australia Rally, that 1992 would not be the year that Didier Auriol would become the first Frenchman to win the World Rally Championship, he would not have had many takers. With six outright wins to his credit, Auriol was the favourite even though Carlos Sainz and Juha Kankkunen were not far behind on points.
Then came the disaster of the Sanremo Rally in October, when a wheel came off his Lancia on the first stage and he flew off the road and out of the rally. Nevertheless, he still led the series. Each of the three contenders gave the Bandama Rally a miss, but they were all in Spain in early November for the Cataluna Rally.
It was not a qualifier for the makes' section of the World Championship, but drivers' points were at stake and all eyes were on the tussle between the three contenders for the title. All six men in the three crews are good friends off duty but resolute rivals in competition, and in this particular event no holds were barred. It was a flat-out contest from the start, each of them going for outright victory rather than second or third.
Alas, it became just a two-way fight after the first stage of the second day, for Auriol suffered another component failure when a broken power steering hydraulic hose resulted in his Lancia going off the road and out of contention.
Martini Racing had Lancia Delta integrales for Auriol/Occelli, Kankkunen/Piironen and Andrea Aghini/Sauro Farnocchia. Alessandro Fiorio/Vittorio Brambilla drove a similar car of the Astra team, whilst others in Lancias were Gustavo Trelles from Uruguay and Spanish drivers Pedro Diego and Jesus Puras. A Group N Lancia was driven by Carlos Menem Jnr from Argentina.
Unlike Lancia, Toyota had been testing considerably in Spain prior to the event, and test driver Armin Schwarz, who won the rally in 1991, drove one of the two Celicas in the event, with Arne Hertz. The other was driven by Sainz, partnered as usual by Luis Moya.
Various changes had been made to the Celicas, notably to their suspensions and transmissions, but Toyota people were reluctant to talk about them. Sainz was the man the team wanted to win, but Schwarz had done all the testing and it was rather odd (but not the first time) that the two cars were different. For instance, Sainz had a viscous coupling (FF Developments) centre differential on his car whilst Schwarz used an electro-hydraulic (Xtrac) unit.
Ford's Spanish driver, Josep-Maria Bardolet, has been using a prototype Escort Cosworth 4x4 in the Spanish Rally Championship (dirt roads) throughout 1992, largely for testing prior to full use of the car after its January ratification. It was natural, therefore, that he should have a car for his country's premier event. He and Josep Autet drove a works Sierra Cosworth 4x4, as did the team's French pair, Francois Delecour/Daniel Grataloup.
There were two notable Group N versions of the Sierra Cosworth, both prepared in Great Britain. Fernando Capdevila/Alfredo Rodriguez drove a car built by Mike Taylor and Mohammed Bin Sulayem/Ronan Morgan one from the Mike Little workshop.
Having been shortened from four to three days in order to demonstrate readiness to comply with FISA's World Championship requirements for 1993, the rally ran through 28 special stages. Having tarmac and dirt roads in the same event is not popular since it increases both work load and cost, but at least they were well separated in Spain. All 11 of those on the first day were on tarmac and those of the next two days were on dirt roads.
Start, finish and both night stops were at Lloret de Mar, and there was a short regrouping stop at Cardona during each of the first two days.
Two significant things happened on the first stage on the Monday morning, a 10-miler on tarmac. Firstly, Menem went off the road and out of the rally, disposing of his Group N chances. Secondly, Sainz was fastest, followed by Schwarz, the Spaniard beating Aghini, the fastest Lancia driver, by 14s.
The Lancia people could hardly believe that Sainz had been so much faster than their cars, even on tarmac, and some of them began to question the timing. But there had been no mistake, although at one stage the next day some apparent errors did show up.
As the day progressed, so the fight intensified, but Sainz steadily increased his lead until it had reached 1m 41s that evening. He had been off the road on one occasion during the day but had hit nothing and lost only a handful of seconds. Team-mate Schwarz was finding the handling of his car not to his liking, and was even without his advance note-making crew for the second part of the day — their car had blown its turbocharger — but he was still in the leading bunch immediately behind Sainz.
Meanwhile, Bardolet had been losing both power and time and was on his third turbocharger by the time the day was out. Ford hopes diminished even further when Delecour lost grip and rolled off the road, tearing the front right suspension off the car. He struggled to the end, had the suspension replaced and continued, albeit with his brakes not working properly, but by the time he had got to the next stage he had lost so much time that it would have been pointless to continue.
Fiorio lost a little time when his steering lost its power-assistance, and earlier he was given quite a scare when his seat broke loose on a special stage.
Behind Sainz at the end of the leg, only eight seconds separated Aghini, Schwarz and Auriol, in that order, whilst Kankkunen was another 35s behind.
On the first of the next day's stages Bardolet, his turbocharger then providing full power, demonstrated his experience of Spanish dirt roads by making best time in his Sierra. Although Aghini was only two seconds behind, it was certainly not an encouraging opener for the Martini team. Kankkunen lost time by first having a puncture and later going off the road and stalling his engine. But that was not all. Auriol had a power steering hydraulic pipe come off and, when a tricky road situation came up, he couldn't turn the wheel fast enough and went off the road, getting stuck on some soft earth. He eventually got away but lost something like half an hour and dropped to 33rd place.
To make up for his time loss on the first dirt stage, Kankkunen pulled out the stops and after three more stages he was up to third place, just 3s behind Aghini. Meanwhile, Auriol was having a struggle fighting his way past slower cars. In the Toyota camp, Sainz was happier after he had been given harder shock absorbers left over from 1991, whilst Schwarz seemed to have again assumed the role of test driver, for various electronic and suspension changes were being tried out on his car. He certainly didn't like being the team guinea pig, but he had to accept it.
On the third stage after the mid-day regrouping stop, Kankkunen was given a time five seconds greater than that on Piironen's stop watch, whilst a Lancia man at the stage finish reported that his watch indicated that Sainz had been given a time eight seconds less than his actual time taken. The Martini team manager had been so suspicious of Sainz' times on tarmac that he had positioned a man at each stage finish to record all the leaders' times.
A complaint was later lodged and, that evening, it seems that the organisers referred to a 'back-up' watch and amended Kankkunen's time for this stage (SS21) to 7m 28s, which was neither the disputed given time nor the claimed time, but between them. It seemed more like a settlement of convenience than anything else and undermined the absolute confidence in the timing system that everyone must have if a rally is to work properly and fairly.
On the last stage but one of the day, Bardolet stopped when his propshaft broke, almost punching its way through the floor pan. They removed the broken part and continued with fwd only, but having lost much time. The shaft was then replaced, but Bardolet was over his 15 min maximum lateness at the start of the next stage and he was out.
Bin Sulayem had both battery and alternator changed after the latter stopped charging, and later had a broken front differential replaced. Fiorio's windscreen wipers stopped on one stage, which was particularly disconcerting as it had many muddy puddles.
That evening, Sainz still held the lead, but this time it was Kankkunen behind him, the gap being 1m 3s. Aghini was another 1m 10s behind, followed after another 1m 40s by Schwarz. Auriol had faught his way up to 14th place.
Chances of a change in the five special stages of the final day were pretty small. Both Sainz and Kankkunen seemed to slow fractionally, neither wishing to risk losing a place, but each keen to be ready to pounce should the other make a mistake. The man with absolutely nothing to lose, of course, was Auriol and he continued at unabated speed, making best time on each of the five stages and getting up to 10th place, thereby scoring one championship point.
Schwarz dropped a place to Fiorio after first his turbocharger then his centre differential failed, the latter stoppage sometimes causing his rear wheels to lock. Capdevila was delayed when much time was spent replacing various components in order to locate a mysterious electrical fault, eventually traced to a tiny electronic sensor. This handed the Group N victory to Bin Sulayem who became the first Arab driver to score a category win on a World Championship round.
Back at Lloret de Mar, the 1-2-10 of the three championship chasers made no difference to the general situation. Sainz had regained the lead, but Kankkunen was only two points behind and Auriol another one, which meant that the laurels were still up for grabs by the three contenders who would be fighting out on the Lombard RAC Rally, the closest last-round contest the series has seen.