DirtFish’s Spin, The Rally Pod has offered fresh insight into the conclusion of one of the most hotly fought battles in the World Rally Championship’s history – and asked the question of whether Toyota got it wrong and potentially cost Carlos Sainz the 1998 title.
The Spaniard was on course to lift a third world title when his Corolla WRC famously suffered an engine failure within sight of the finish of the final stage of the season on Rally GB.
That failure allowed Tommi Mäkinen – who had retired on the opening day after sliding on oil dropped by a Hillman Imp competing in the historic section, taking the right-rear wheel off his Mitsubishi Lancer E5 – to come through and collect his third straight title. That result would also hand Mitsubishi its only manufacturers’ crown.
Talking on Spin, The Rally Pod, then Toyota team manager George Donaldson has opened up a potential new line of thinking on the incident for the first time.
Relaying a conversation he had with a senior Toyota engineer following the engine failure on Sainz’s car, Donaldson said his colleague questioned whether the team had turned the boost too high on the Corolla.
Donaldson said: “When Tommi was out of the rally, Carlos’ strategy changed entirely. I think he had to be in the top six [to be champion] and he started to drive the car slower, doing only what he needed to do to survive.
“He was using lower RPM in the car and I was told long after the event by one of the chief mechanics ‘they kept making the boost higher and higher on Carlos’ car because the engine wasn’t being revved’, I can imagine there was some reasoning behind that action (if this did happen) but I never pursued the answer within the team. It was a sore point as our engines were generally super reliable. We moved on into 1999 with that experience behind us.
“The bottom line is, we, as a team, made a mistake, either overboost which I tend to believe, a faulty batch of parts or something similar. That engine had no history of failures prior to this event or afterwards. It was being driven as gently, carefully and sensibly – bearing in mind what was at stake – as Carlos could and it just let itself go. He did nothing at all to deserve that end!”
Sainz himself poured cold water on the overboost suggestions and reminded DirtFish that Toyota had suffered a spate of conrod problems – saying it was that issue which cost him and co-driver Luis Moya a third title.
“To be honest I remember from that period there were some problems with the conrods on the cars,” said Sainz.
“On the first or the second day of the event, Marcus Grönholm’s car had gone with the same problem and then Didier Auriol’s car had the same problem at a press day the day after the event.
“At the end of the day, I don’t think we were running too high boost – I was cruising for three days.”
In a further twist, Donaldson said another team decision on the previous round could have cost them dearly.
Mäkinen was accused of jumping the start at Rally Australia, where countdown lights were being used in association with the clock to start stages for the first time. The Finn claimed – and Mitsubishi protested – he’d left the line when the lights went green rather than waiting for the timed countdown.
“When we heard the decision I decided not to protest it, I had no valid grounds to counter-protest, it would have been thrown out” said Donaldson.
“Carlos didn’t think I’d made the right decision, but basically I had some things in hand. I had requested the footage from Tommi’s car; I got a copy of the video of the in-car cameras, the BBC ran them. We looked at the footage and you could see the clock and the lights were perfectly synchronized and you could see Tommi jump-started by very nearly two seconds. I prepared a protest.
“I went in with the protest. The stewards got a technical expert in to agree the footage was unequivocal and there should be a retrospective reinstatement of the penalty.
“In the end, after some discussion between the Clerk of the Course, [Toyota team principal] Ove [Andersson], Carlos and I, I marched back into the stewards’ rooms and asked them to withdraw the protest. I won’t discuss why.
“We were doing it to save the reputation of our sport and our team. If we’d left that protest in, there would have been an awful mess and it would have been bad for Toyota to be part of that awful mess.
“Personally speaking I was absolutely furious. I know damned well the decision was coming down well in our favor – there was nothing else to happen. Tommi would have had a penalty, but something else might have happened that could have knocked Carlos down the numbers a little bit as well.
“Me going in there pulling that protest ultimately cost us our manufacturers’ championship, but we would have won our championship on the basis of a protest.”
Donaldson’s discussion of that 1998 season provides some of the most spellbinding listening from what went on to be an iconic era in the sport.