How it Started: Carlos Sainz

El Matador was talented at many sports, but rallying was his chosen path and he excelled

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Somewhere in a parallel universe, there’s a 20-something Carlos Sainz jogging out onto a soccer field, possibly alongside the likes of José Antonio Camacho or Rafael Gordillo in the red of his home country, Spain.

Alas, we’ll never know – nor will the man himself – just how history might have panned out had he progressed past his Real Madrid trials as a teenager growing up in the 1970s.

One thing for sure is that on July 11th, 1982, the Carlos Sainz who was thrashing around a Seat Panda on the final day of Rallye CS in the northern region of Bilbao would have been far happier than his soccer alter-ego.

Not just because Spain had been well and truly knocked out of their home World Cup, but also by this point, the man they call El Matador, was approaching the end of his second full season of rallying and having the time of his life.

“At that time, when I was 18, 19 years-old, there was not a lot of interest in rallying in Spain,” Sainz tells DirtFish.

“I discovered rallying first through my brother-in-law and then by watching it on TV, what I could watch, guys like Walter Röhrl, Stig Blomqvist, Sandro Munari, Björn Waldegård who I eventually raced against in the future.

“It wasn’t easy to follow rallying at this moment, except for a few programs on the TV, but one day I went to a shop and bought a Super 8 film and remember watching it until it broke because it burned; there was no video on it in the end!”

The youngest of four siblings, Sainz had been quick to embrace a variety of sports as a youngster. He dabbled in athletics and boxing – and was even trained once by the Olympian Miquel Velasquez – but it was soccer and squash which Sainz eventually pursued into his teenage years. At this point, motorsport was not necessarily on the radar.

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As soon as I got my driver’s licence, I was desperate to drive all the time, to race as well Carlos Sainz

“I have always been a bit of a dreamer, since I was a young boy,” Sainz says.

“In my teenage years, I played a lot of soccer, and actually I was very active as a child in all kinds of sports really. I did squash, boxing, I loved, and still do love, a lot of different sports.

“I was very good at squash and became Spanish national champion at 16, beating a lot of players older than me, but once I discovered rallying, I had to make a choice.”

Sainz’s first forays into rallying came via his sister Carmen, and latterly Carmen’s friend and future husband Juan Carlos Oñoro. The story starts with an 11-year-old Carlos working the steering of Carmen’s recently purchased Seat 600, a tiny city run-around car, while his sister operated the pedals.

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Years later, Sainz was drawn in by Oñoro’s motor racing activities and subsequently tried out motocross and hillclimbing before making his rallying debut alongside Juanjo Lacalle in 1980 aboard a Renault 5 TS on the Rally Shalymar in Madrid.

“This was an important moment in my life, discovering rallying,” said Sainz.

“I was about 11 or 12 that I first found motorsport, and then through my brother-in-law I got my first taste of it.

“When I was 18, I started to compete in very small events and from there, step by step, I managed to grow my career and I am very lucky to be able to fulfil some of my dreams I had when I was a kid.

“As soon as I got my driver’s licence, I was desperate to drive all the time, to race as well. We used to take the car on small gravel roads, and I would always beg my sister and brother-in-law to have a go.

“Then I slowly began to make some rallies and move up.”

Lacalle and Sainz remained with each other for the next two years, competing in the regional Castilla Rally Championship and concurrent European Rally Championship rounds, achieving two top-five finishes in 1982 before going on to take nine overall victories and two titles over the next two years.

Next up on the career ladder was graduation to the national championship, based primarily on asphalt and pitching Sainz against the likes of future WRC contemporaries Miki Biasion, Jesús Puras and Bruno Saby.

Although he would eventually capture a brace of world titles and subsequently be regarded as one of the best all-round, all-surface drivers in the WRC, it was the black stuff that Sainz had the most experience of. It also had a detrimental impact on his early years in the world championship.

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“Maybe one of the bad things about the Spanish championship was that it was pretty much all asphalt,” Sainz explains.

“Which is why when I moved to the world championship and Toyota was looking for an asphalt specialist, I was a little bit upset at the time because I wanted to fight for the world title, not just do asphalt rallies.

“I wanted to be an all-round driver, and everyone was saying: ‘all the Italians, the Spanish and the French are Tarmac drivers, and all the Scandinavians are gravel drivers.’

“One of the things I worked very hard on, and I think I succeeded, was to break through that [stereotype] and prove everybody wrong, that we could be competitive on gravel, to be fast on the 1000 Lakes, the RAC, Sweden…and allow me to be [self-congratulatory], but I think I helped contribute to breaking that opinion.”

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Sometimes, I would look at guys like Blomqvist and watch how he did it but most of the time, I would just trust my instinct on the stages Carlos Sainz

Sainz didn’t just break that stereotype when he burst onto the WRC scene in the late 1980s, he smashed it to smithereens. It’s pertinent to note that Sainz wasn’t completely without gravel experience, having finished seventh in the Spanish gravel championship – run concurrently with the national asphalt championship – in 1986, winning one rally.

Having traded in his Seat Panda for a Renault 5 Turbo in ’83 and switching co-driver from Lacalle to Antonio Botto for ’85, Sainz picked up two Spanish Tarmac titles in ’86 and ’87 (the latter using a Ford Sierra Cosworth) in convincing fashion. The next step? The world championship, of course.

“My first WRC event, Portugal 1987, I was very fortunate to win my first ever stage, then I won another one on the same day but then I retired very early. It was the year of the Group A coming in and all the manufacturers were not really prepared for such a quick change to the regulations, changing from Group B to Group A.

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“So, I think especially the local teams, I was driving a Ford Spanish team which had been suffering a lot against some of the newer cars in the championship.

“I remember that year when we drove in Corsica, we had many, many problems and then at the RAC at the end of the year, it was crazy because it was snowing, and we were in a two-wheel-drive car with no studs! So that was a learning year in ’87.

“The following year, I was with the Ford factory team, and I had a difficult Rally Portugal, but I think we managed to be competitive in some rallies, like in Sanremo in the rain and fog, we led the rally for two days, which helped me catch the attention of Ove Andersson at Toyota for 1989.”

It’s a little bit ironic that, for all that Sainz wanted to display his overall ability on all surfaces, it was the familiar environment of asphalt in which his talents seemed destined to be perpetually recognized.

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Indeed, Sainz admits that Andersson “was like a second father to me” and it was the Swede who ultimately convinced this young, up-and-coming rally star of the future to take a punt on a four-wheel-drive factory Celica GT-4 for 1989 – a year in which he well and truly showcased his gravel prowess, by getting mightily close to winning the 1000 Lakes as the Finnish locals, Juha Kankkunen, Ari Vatanen and Markku Alén had all struck trouble.

Sainz was impressively quick on the fast, loose, gravel roads and actually led the event before being usurped by eventual winner Mikaël Ericsson. Undeterred, Sainz mounted a stirring fightback but rolled on SS27, ending his victory chances but leaving him and co-driver Luis Moya – with whom he’d teamed up for the first time the previous season – third on the rostrum at the finish.

“For me at that time, I was young, ambitious and maybe brave,” he says.

“I wanted to prove to everyone how good I could be. Sometimes, I would look at guys like Blomqvist and watch how he did it but most of the time, I would just trust my instinct on the stages.”


He made sure that his ’89 performance was no fluke the following year, by becoming the first non-Nordic driver to win the 1000 Lakes, en route to the first of his two world titles.

“I was so full of adrenaline to win there, and was so happy to finally do it, particularly after the build-up to the event.

“I had a big crash before the rally and I was in a lot of pain, and even thought that I might not be able to do the rally. That’s where the adrenaline kicked in and I was able to ignore it for the weekend.

“I think it showed a lot of people that non-Scandinavians could win in Finland, and it was a big confidence boost for the rest of the season.”

The conversation deliberately avoids talk of possibly Sainz’s most devastating memory in his long and illustrious career. Not only did El Matador’s face crunch up at the mere mention of Margam Park and that infamous ending to the 1998 WRC season, where Sainz’s Toyota Corolla conked out within yards of the finish and a third world title, but it is a story long told and retold over the years.

There’s also the Subaru days, the battles on and off the stages with McRae, reconciliation at Ford and then the final chapter at Citroën where victories still came well into his 40s.

Instead, our story ends even before Sainz’s first world title. Like many of the stages he would have followed throughout his WRC – and subsequent Dakar – career, there was more than one fork in the road during Sainz’s adolescence.

It’s clear either one of these would have produced an elite athlete at the highest level of competition. Thankfully for us, it was straight down the rallying path, at one pace only. Full gas!