Nearly 40 years ago, a Spanish rally driver made his debut in a SEAT Panda. He eventually went on to win two world titles, both with Pirelli, and become one of his country’s biggest heroes.
That driver was Carlos Sainz. Carlos Senior, the father of Ferrari’s current F1 star, 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.
But eventually 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 Festival 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.
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.
But typically, given that he’s probably the world’s ultimate perfectionist, he still wasn’t happy. He was anxious to measure himself against the very best on gravel: the surface synonymous with rallying.
He never got the chance to find out in Portugal, as the Sierra expired with a series of calamitous mechanical problems. But Sainz had proved his point and success would quickly follow – thanks also to his unstoppable work ethic.
Three years later Sainz claimed his first victory at the 1990 Acropolis Rally in Greece: the same year that he claimed his first world title, with Toyota. Two years later, a second world title followed – again with Toyota – although in reality there should have been many more. Sainz finished second in the world championship on another four occasions and third on another five occasions: making him probably the most relentlessly consistent driver rallying has ever seen. From 1990 to his retirement from the WRC in 2004 he won at least one rally every season, with only three exceptions.
But his retirement from the WRC didn’t mean retirement from motorsport. Carlos has also won the legendary Dakar Rally three times, most recently last year at the age of 57, and he’s currently taking part in the new all-electric Extreme E series this season. And he still somehow manages to find time to accompany his son Carlos to a few Formula 1 races every year…