Three wins from four rallies. I know what you’re thinking. Kalle Rovanperä has already got this year’s World Rally Championship sewn up.
It’s true, he holds a clear advantage, and if he’s going to be stopped somebody is going to need to put their head above the parapet and produce an almighty string of results.
I can hear you now, saying that that’s incredibly unlikely, but it’s really not that insurmountable. The exact thing happened to Carlos Sainz in 1991.
Sainz had a great start to the 1991 WRC season. Fresh from winning his maiden WRC title in 1990, he started his defense off with a bang, leading almost the entire rally to win in Monte Carlo.
The Toyota driver led the event right through until the final day, and temporarily fell to second place after losing 11 seconds on SS19. From there a gigantic battle with François Delecour broke out, the pair running over four minutes clear of the rest of the field. They were untouchable.
That was until the final stage. Delecour ran into an issue and lost over six minutes, and while Sainz also struggled, ending up sixth fastest on the Moulinet – La Bollène Vésubie test, it was still enough for him to march to victory with a 4m59s advantage over Miki Biasion in second place.
The same result occurred on Sainz’s next event in Portugal, the third round of the season. Most of the championship protagonists skipped the second round in Sweden, but when they returned to the Portuguese gravel, Sainz exerted his dominance, beating Didier Auriol by 47s.
Sainz faltered in Kenya, with Juha Kankkunen going on to claim victory, but with Kankunnen absent in France, Sainz went on to beat Auriol for a second time to claim three race victories in four events.
Leaving France, Sainz had 60 points on the board, compared to Auriol’s 32 and Kankkunen’s 30. He was a mile ahead; who could realistically catch him?
That sentiment was only extended when he finished second to Kankkunen on the Acropolis before the result was reversed in New Zealand, with Sainz claiming victory.
Another victory for Sainz followed in Argentina, and with five rallies to go, it looked as though he’d pretty much got the title covered. But then everything quickly unraveled.
Sainz didn’t have the pace to match Kankkunen’s Lancia in Finland, ending up fourth and nearly three minutes off the lead, while his rival claimed victory, and then on Rally Australia, Sainz threw his chances of another rally victory away when he spectacularly crashed out on SS14.
His accident allowed Kankkunen to seal yet another win and close the gap in the championship, but Sainz was at least afforded some respite when Kankkunen retired in Italy.
But unfortunately for Sainz, he couldn’t take full advantage of his rival’s misfortune. He was sixth in Italy, meaning the pair went into the final two events of the season separated by 16 points: Sainz on 131 and Kankkunen on 115.
It was still advantage Sainz, but not for much longer.
Armin Schwarz romped to victory on Sainz’s home event in Spain, with Kankunnen ending the event as runner-up.
And Sainz? Well, his Celica let him down at one of the most important points in the season.
Sainz couldn’t match Schwarz for pace on the opening stages of the rally, but he was running in second, taking full advantage of Kankkunen’s lack of speed.
The Lancia driver was stuck down in sixth position at the end of SS7, with a deficit of a minute to Sainz, but on the following stage, the electrical system on Sainz’s Corolla decided it’d had enough and gave out, causing him to retire on the spot.
It meant Kankkunen had closed to within just one point behind Sainz in the championship, with all to play for on the final event of the season.
Sainz gave it absolutely everything on the RAC Rally, and it created one of the most exciting rallies that year. The lead was closely fought for, and by SS12 just two seconds separated the top three.
Colin McRae was the rally leader, closely followed by Sainz and then Kankkunen. In order to secure the title, Sainz needed to win, and by the end of SS14 everything was going to plan.
Auriol was fastest of all on Hafren, but Sainz was second; 24sdown on Auriol but importantly six seconds faster than Kankkunen. That stage result promoted Sainz to the rally lead, with Auriol moving up to second ahead of Kankkunen, while McRae slipped to fourth. But two stages later the tide had turned again, with Auriol moving into the overall rally lead.
The order moved about yet again on SS20, with Sainz regaining the rally lead but by SS28, he’d slipped down to third. Auriol led, with a 47s margin to Kankkunen, with Sainz a further two seconds back in third.
It wasn’t over by any means, but the outcome didn’t look great.
On the 32nd stage, the lead switched again. It looked like it might initially offer a glimmer of hope for Sainz, but he ended up being at a bigger disadvantage than before.
Auriol ran into problems, losing over half a minute, demoting him to 13th, with Kankkunen claiming the lead. But Sainz was unable to reclaim second, with Kenneth Eriksson completing the Shepherdshield test just four seconds slower than the Lancia to move into second overall.
From there, Kankkunen ran clear. He won the rally by 2m52s over Eriksson, while Sainz was six minutes behind. Kankkunen had won the championship by seven points, denying Sainz the chance to successfully defend his title.
It was a cruel way in which to lose the title, but it’s something that Rovanperä must be mindful of. It’s never over until it’s over and anything can happen right up to the very last moment.
It might look like this year’s championship already belongs to the young Finn, but as Sainz can attest, everything is still very much to play for and there’s still plenty of time remaining for it all to completely unravel.