The one that got away - Corolla coaster

Carlos Sainz: 1998 RAC Rally

It doesn’t get much tougher than to be just yards from a world championship – and have it snatched away. John Davenport explains

To paraphrase Lady Bracknell, to lose one world title may be regarded as a misfortune, to lose both looks like carelessness. At the start of the 1998 RAC Rally, the factory Toyota team had a chance to sweep the manufacturers’ and drivers’ world championships: it was leading the former by four points, while Carlos Sainz was only two points behind Mitsubishi’s Tommi Makinen and well clear of the rest.

Sainz: ‘The pressure was there, but remember this is the truest of all the world rallies that you do. It’s like taking exams — they are all important, but there’s more pressure on the last one.”

Toyota Team Europe boss Ove Andersson could afford to feel quietly confident. The new Corolla WRC was now fully competitive and his two drivers, Sainz and Didier Auriol, were at their peak, having chased Makinen hard in Australia two weeks earlier.

There would be no repeat of that Oz battle, though, for Makinen hit a concrete block on the first day. The impact ripped a rear wheel off his Lancer and he was forced to retire — despite a high-speed, three-wheeled public-road dash that endeared him to his fans, though not to the local police!

The title, it seemed, had landed in Sainz’s lap. All he had to do now was finish fourth and the drivers’ title would be his. “It was only Mitsubishi that worried us,” he says, “and it looked as if Subaru would do the job for us in the manufacturers’ — for Colin [McRae] was flying. For me, the job was to stay on the road.”

The First warning sign came early on the second day when Toyota’s back-up driver, Marcus Granholm, went out with an engine fire. But Auriol was sticking with the leaders, and when the Subarus of first Ari Vatanen and then Colin McRae retired, it looked as if Toyota would indeed net both titles. But that is not the way rallying works. First Auriol all but drowned in the Sweet Lamb ford, and then his clutch started to play up. On the next stage, his gearbox cried enough and he was out.

This left Sainz as the only chick in the Toyota nest. Should he speed up and go for the win, brushing aside Richard Burns in the Mitsubishi and Alister McRae in the remaining Subaru? “I talked with Ove and he told me that it was silly to risk losing both titles when at least the drivers’ crown seemed secure. So it was decided that I would run steadily in third place — and be careful.”

Just before this conversation Sainz had made a small error and shot up a firebreak: ‘Reverse didn’t work and we had trouble getting out.” A couple of minutes were lost, but more worryingly, was he about to fall victim to the transmission problem that had stopped Auriol?

The final morning was particularly nerve-wracking as the initial stages were wreathed in fog. These weren’t the right conditions in which to be fighting, as the younger McRae discovered when he left the road. Behind Burns, the Ford Escort of Juha Kankkunen had muscled past Sainz, but it didn’t matter since the only one other car, Bruno Thiry’s Escort, was in range of his third place.

So Sainz and co-driver Luis Moya began the last stage, the 16 miles of Margam Park, with a reasonable expectation that within 20min they would be the world champions again: “It was going well, I never used more than 8000rprn and the car felt good. We could see the finish line. And then there was this bang. The car went onto three cylinders and then it just stopped. It was a truly terrible moment. Unbelievable.”

It was a moment he shared with millions of TV viewers, who witnessed a spellbinding example of sporting failure, live. A wide-eyed Sainz, stunned; a tearful Moya exploding, performing a Basil Fawlty car-kicking act before hurling his helmet through the back window.

A later inspection of the car revealed that a conrod had let go. It was a catastrophe for Toyota, a bitter experience for Sainz: ‘The next day, they changed Didier’s gearbox and clutch and took his car testing. It went 4km before a rod went through the side!”