Why Ford and M-Sport signed Sainz

The two-time world champion brings something extra and something special. What is it?

Dakar Rally 2024

It would have been shortly before his 10th birthday. Quite possibly standing in the kitchen at home in Cumbria. Matthew Wilson knew then. And he knows now. Carlos Sainz had it then. And he’s got it now.

Talking to Wilson about the Spaniard delivers unparalleled reverence. Sainz has been a fixture, friend or foe, throughout the M-Sport director and Dakar team manager’s life. In 1997 the Madrid star was the first driver Wilson’s father Malcom turned to when he was awarded the contract to run Ford’s World Rally Championship program.

After two years with Toyota, Sainz was back at M-Sport for three seasons aboard a Focus. Slightly older, Wilson Jr’s memories were stronger of a halcyon period at Dovenby Hall.

“I remember being in M-Sport when Carlos walked in,” he told DirtFish. “I don’t remember why, maybe he’d been on a test or maybe it was around Rally GB time. But he walked in and there was almost silence coming down in the place.

“You don’t get that with many drivers – we would see it maybe with Colin [McRae], but it was always a bit different with Carlos. He had… presence. You knew when he walked in that he was somebody special. It wasn’t arrogance, just complete confidence.”

Rallye de Portugal Estoril (POR) 11-14 03 1987

Sainz was a big hit with Ford from day one. This is him leading Rally de Portugal, his first ever WRC round, in 1987

Nothing’s changed.

Sainz remains supremely confident in his ability.

“If I didn’t think I could win,” Sainz told DirtFish, “I wouldn’t be competing.”

He says it with such emphasis and solemnity that you’re left wondering why you asked in the first place. This is Sainz… why did you ask? His victory this year left the watching world in no doubt what he remained capable of. That fourth Dakar win was a classic.

A fifth would likely be an even greater triumph.

Carlos Sainz and Family

Family Sainz was on hand to celebrate a sensational fourth Dakar win in Saudi earlier this year

Having learned off-road by way of a 2024 Dakar program shared with South African team Neil Woolridge Motorsport, M-Sport remains short on experience by comparison with the likes of Toyota and a Prodrive-engineered Dacia squad.

Sainz can – and will – make the difference. January will be his 18th start at the marathon event. He’s driven Dakar in cars as varied as factory machinery built by Volkswagen or Audi on the back of massive investment and the Red Bull-branded SMG buggy.

I’ve spoken with Sainz about every car ahead of every Dakar and each of those interviews is pretty much a carbon copy. It’s the same this time. He’s 100% committed to every aspect of the process.

He wants to know everything. Why are the spare wheels a couple of mill higher? What about widening that roof vent by an inch or two; has every suspension proposition been tested? Tested thoroughly? Where? How? Who drove? How many miles? Did it rain? What was the rebound like in the dry? What about when it was drying?

Rally Italia Sardegna, Olbia 05-08 05 2011
Just when you think you’ve thought of everything… Carlos thinks of something else. Then wants to test it. David Lapworth

Prodrive’s technical director David Lapworth knows Sainz as well as anybody. Talking to him a few years ago, he summed the two-time world champion up when he said: “Just when you think you’ve thought of everything… Carlos thinks of something else. Then wants to test it.”

There’s nothing new with drivers who like to test. Or those who bring Sainz’s super-analytical and data-driven thinking. What’s rare is to have such an approach allied with a competitor who can tailor a strategy to precisely what’s required to deliver a victory.

How many stages did Sainz win on the way to his fourth Dakar success in January? None. Undoubtedly, he doesn’t have the same turn of absolute speed as when he led his first ever World Rally Championship round driving a Ford Sierra RS Cosworth in 1987. He was 24 then. He’s 62 now.

But he’s got more than enough pace to remain at the sharp end of a Dakar. And, when things get complicated, he’s got more experience, intelligence, insight and perception to out-psych, out-think and outwit just about any rival in the field.

Sainz Ford

Back in blue: more than two decades on from his last outing with the Blue Oval, Sainz is back with Ford and M-Sport

From the moment he pulled on a blue shirt for the first time in 22 years, Sainz was as dedicated as ever to delivering on his end of the bargain. The Blue Oval wants a Dakar win and Sainz will work tirelessly in that direction. And so will everybody else. Sainz doesn’t cajole or coax those around him. They’re compelled by the sheer force of his ultra-competitive character. Together. We. Will. Win.

The whole Wilson household knows that better than anybody.

And that’s why Sainz is driving a Ford. Again.