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Sainz of the times

Sainz of the times 01

The chance of a lifetime
Thirty years ago, a 24-year-old driver who shaped the history of Spanish motorsport made his debut. Not many people had heard of him at the time, and even he wasn’t sure how he would get on, but he was immediately fastest. And then he went on to win two world titles, both with Pirelli, and become one of his country’s biggest heroes.
That driver was Carlos Sainz Cenamor (as opposed to Carlos Sainz Vazquez de Castro). Carlos Senior, as he’s better known, actually started out as a racing driver rather than a rally driver: only because it was easier back then to get hold of sponsorship to go racing. Or rather, less difficult. “You have to understand that motorsport in the 1980s in Spain was pretty small,” says Carlos Senior. “We didn’t have many circuits, and in rallying it was just a little national championship. So, if you wanted to move on, you had to look elsewhere.”
And that’s how Carlos found himself at the start of the 1987 Rally Portugal, making his WRC debut, in a Ford Sierra RS Cosworth emblazoned with fluorescent orange Marlboro logos. The same cigarette company had given Sainz the money to compete in the Formula Ford finals in England a few years earlier, but rallying was what he’d always wanted to do. And now at last he had his chance, in front of the greats of the sport such as Markku Alen, Miki Biasion and Juha Kankkunen. But he still had it all to prove. No wonder he was nervous.

Sainz of the times 02

Dream debut 
“To be honest, I wasn’t really sure of my abilities back then,” says Sainz. “I was timid, quite shy: I didn’t even know who the main journalists were in the world championship or who I should be talking to. But you can dream… and dreaming is free. I always dreamed that maybe one day, I could drive like some of huge names I was competing against in that rally. Did I know that I could? Absolutely not. I felt I had a certain talent, but until you measure it against other people, how do you know if it’s true?”
The young Carlos was just as astonished as everyone else by what happened next. On 11 March 1987, at just after 09:15 in the morning, Sainz and co-driver Antonio Boto nosed the Sierra RS Cosworth into the opening stage of Rally Portugal; a 13-kilometre mixed-surface road close to Estoril. Just under six and a half minutes later, he completed the stage. Faster than anyone else. On his debut.
“Although it was a long time ago, I still remember the emotions now,” says Carlos. “Happiness, excitement, also relief.” But typically, given that he’s probably the world’s ultimate perfectionist, he still wasn’t happy. “I knew I could be fast, but I wanted to get onto the proper gravel stages to see what I was made of,” he points out. “Coming from Spain and with experience on circuits, people expected me to be fast on asphalt. But what about on gravel?”
He never got the chance to find out in Portugal, as the Sierra subsequently expired with a series of calamitous mechanical problems: the shock absorbers overheated, then it lost a wheel, then then the turbo broke. But Sainz had proved his point. And his own experiences of being a young driver freshly arrived in a sport of legends, with all the self-doubt and pressure that the situation entails, puts him in a perfect position to mentor his son Carlos Jr, who he accompanies to many Formula 1® races.

Junior rally driver?
Carlos Senior will be at the Spanish Grand Prix this weekend, before he heads to the following week’s Rally Portugal, to re-live his triumphant debut of 30 years ago as a TV commentator. 
Carlos Junior no longer needs his father’s guidance really, having established himself as a star in his own right. But the Sainz family never stops learning, and Carlos Junior maintains a strong interest in his father’s career: including that astonishing debut 30 years ago. “Junior likes rallying a lot: from time to time we’ve been out in a few cars together and he wants to know more,” says Sainz Senior. “And, of course, he’s asked what it was like when I first started, and I gave him all the advice that I could. But I don’t think you can really compare his debut with my debut; the circumstances and pressures are very different. Formula 1® now is in a different spectrum to rally back then. But in the end, there is maybe one thing in common: you must work hard and perform to the very best of your ability. That’s the same in rallying as it is in Formula 1®.”
Like father, like son. 

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