Old master flying high

Double world champion Carlos Sainz turned up to watch Rally Portugal – and take on a Peugeot 208 R5 

Rally Portugal had some pleasing statistical symmetry. Not only was the event 50 years old, but Sébastien Ogier scored his fifth win there (equalling Markku Alén’s record for the highest number of victories in Portugal) and 40th career success. Alén’s last Portuguese win had come 30 years earlier.

That event marked another significant milestone, because the 1987 Rally Portugal also heralded Carlos Sainz’s World Rally Championship debut. And the Spaniard went on to do what only Ogier has done since: win his very first stage in the top class of car at the time. For Sainz, it was a Group A Ford Sierra on the Estoril stage, which made use of Portugal’s F1 track. For Ogier, it was a Citroën C4 WRC on an icy Rally Great Britain in 2008.

Another thing both have in common is Malcolm Wilson’s M-Sport. Sainz drove for Wilson after his two championships and the M-Sport boss famously poached Ogier for this season after VW pulled out of the championship. In Portugal, Wilson compared Ogier’s approach to that of Sainz; just about the highest praise that can be given to any driver, not least because Sainz was renowned for his work ethic and attitude towards testing. 

Sainz was there to watch – and publicly admire – Ogier’s latest win, as a few days before, the two-time champion celebrated the 30th anniversary of his debut with a special drive through Fafe, Portugal’s most famous stage. Manufacturer contracts being what they are, Sainz (who drives for Peugeot on the Dakar Rally) was at the wheel of a 208 T16 R5 – the stepping-stone category to the top World Rally Car class, where Peugeot isn’t currently represented.  

But although it hasn’t yet been proven – and it would be fascinating to do a proper test – even R5 cars are likely to be faster over a complex gravel stage than the old Group A or even Group B cars.

Fafe was run as a televised stage on Sunday and quite a few drivers came to grief. If you have time to kill on YouTube, look up Quentin Gilbert’s accident. His Skoda performed the automotive equivalent of a face plant, while it’s impossible to explain how Citroën driver Khalid Al Qassimi’s got away with his spectacular landing – one hell of a save.

It’s the suspension technology that has come on most compared to Sainz’s early days – especially dampers. As previous-generation dampers were never able to cope with the sort of loads that they can handle now, teams had no choice but to run very stiff springs, which had a knock-on effect on handling. That’s a big reason why today’s cars – even in the WRC2 class, like the Peugeot – are a lot quicker than their ancestors, as well as being considerably easier to drive.

In fact, most things were a lot harder back then. “When I first came to Rally Portugal, the country was very different: there were no big highways and places weren’t clearly marked,” remembers Sainz. “Just getting to the stages was a big navigational challenge. It wasn’t just the drivers having a more difficult job.”

Unfortunately, after that stellar first stage in Estoril, things didn’t go quite so well for the Spanish legend: the Sierra’s dampers overheated, then it lost a wheel and finally the turbo broke. Sainz had to wait until 1991 (and 1995) to win in Portugal. But he’d answered an important question.

“Before I started that rally, I had absolutely no idea about how I would perform,” Sainz recalls. “I believed I had a certain talent, but you never know until you measure it against the best. What’s sure is that I never expected then to have the career that I did. But of course, I dreamed of it… and dreaming is free!”

For Sainz, the dream is still alive at the age of 55, as next year the plan is for him to take part in the Dakar Rally once more, aiming to repeat his 2010 win.

“I feel I am still competitive there, and for as long as I am competitive and passionate, I will carry on,” he says. “You always know when it’s time to stop. I chose to quit my WRC
career with Citroën at the end of 2004, but actually, I already had a contract for 2005 with them.”

Nonetheless, Sainz was called up for a handful of rallies in 2005 to replace the wayward François Duval, who was being ‘rested’ by the team. And so Sainz definitively finished his World Rally Championship career with a podium on the Acropolis: the same event on which he had taken his first win, 15 years earlier in 1990.

Being a perfectionist, Carlos appreciates statistical symmetry, too.