Carlos Sainz is not a man to take anything for granted. But flying out of Buenos Aires at the end of July in 1991, he must have started to think about becoming the third driver in succession to celebrate back-to-back titles (following Juha Kankkunen in 1986/87 and Miki Biasion in 1988/89).
By the end of Rally Argentina 12 months earlier, the Spaniard had ‘only’ won twice and he went on to dominate the first campaign in the ’90s.
The WRC’s 1991 trip to South America provided Sainz with his fifth win in seven starts. He headed east across the Atlantic 32 points ahead of Kankkunen. And that advantage came off the back of one of the then defending world champion’s finest ever performances.
With Sainz and Toyota looking increasingly in control of the championships, Lancia fielded four factory Delta HF Integrale 16vs in an effort to pack out the podium. Toyota Team Europe’s response was a Celica GT-Four each for Sainz, Mikael Ericsson and Middle East star Mohammed Bin Sulayem.
The event got off to something of a bad-tempered start, with the crews cross that a Buenos Aires start wasn’t canned in favour of running over the ramp in Córdoba. The reason for getting the event underway in the capital was entirely promotional but, with a superspecial planned, it was impossible to change.
Once SS1 was dropped, the crews petitioned the organisers not to start in BA. That plea fell on deaf ears.
So, at 9pm on Tuesday (July 23) night, top seed and 1990 Argentina winner Biasion crossed the start ramp and began the near 500-mile road section through the night to the first stage in Villa Carlos Paz.
The penultimate test (SS4) of leg one looked to have ended Sainz’s challenge when he dropped a minute and a half with a puncture. Arriving in service just after lunch on Wednesday, Lancia looked well in control with Deltas in the top three places. Only Jorge Recalde’s car was playing up, with the local hero feeling it was down on power. Didier Auriol was out front in a Fina-liveried car.
In the hills west of Carlos Paz though, shortly after 7am on the first full day of competition, Sainz started a magnificent fightback. Actually, that’s not quite right – he’d started it on Wednesday afternoon’s final stage, taking a second out of Auriol on a short dash around a new kart circuit on the edge of the city.
Sainz stopped the clocks at the end of Mataderos 13s up on everybody; Lancia pointed out that its cars were all running Michelins too hard for the chilly stage. The message from Abarth: don’t panic.
Sainz had passed Kankkunen for third and Biasion’s second place was just 28s away with two days to run. Auriol, he felt, was still out of reach, more than a minute ahead
But Sainz kept on coming with a run of fastest times and, while Auriol was able to respond with scratch times of his own, the stress was starting to tell on Lancia. With the four Deltas landing into service in quick succession, mistakes were being made. Kankkunen’s car got a time-consuming full suspension change, even though the front dampers had been changed at the previous service; Recalde was told to soldier on with a down-on-power Delta.
Respite for Lancia came at the end of El Condor, the final leg-two test, and a second split turbo pipe on the Sainz Toyota. Worried too much oil had been lost and not wanting to try turning the engine over for fear of more serious damage, Sainz sat and waited for Bin Sulayem to arrive at the end of the stage. Once he arrived, Sainz calmy requested a shove… all the way back to service in Carlos Paz.
Job done, Sainz admitted the day hadn’t been too bad. He’d passed Kankkunen for third and Biasion’s second place was just 28s away with two days to run. Auriol, he felt, was still out of reach more than a minute ahead.
Unfortunately for the Frenchman, a turbo pipe came adrift on Friday’s third stage. He dropped two minutes and promoted his Italian colleague to the lead.
On the event’s northern-most roads, the race was on. Biasion held the advantage for two stages before Sainz moved ahead, but two-time champion Biasion put his Martini Delta back to the top for SS21 before the Toyota went to P1 for the next two stages.
The lead Celica was put into parc fermé ahead of the final leg with a one-second advantage.
South to Santa Rosa for Saturday, and any remaining finger nails were chewed away on the opener as the pair tied at the top of the leaderboard.
That was as close as Lancia would get, though. Sainz took two seconds out of his rival on SS25 and kept piling the pressure on. Out of the penultimate stage, a 12-second lead with just over eight miles of competition looked to be enough. Sainz ceded four to Biasion and won by eight.
A win that had seemed impossible after the first leg was his. The customary donuts provided one final drama for Sainz at the finish ceremony in Córdoba stadium. The GT-Four’s transmission cried enough and forced the winner to reverse over the ramp.
He stepped out and offered a smile and shrug to Ove Andersson and his overjoyed TTE squad.
Lancia had looked to stop the rot in South America, but it had managed only to shoot itself in the foot with a burden too big even for the might of the defending world champion team to manage.
That wouldn’t be the end of the matter, however. An Australian roll and a Flying Finn called Kankkunen ensured there was plenty of spice left in this season.