Colin McRae, Carlos Sainz and team orders. Immediately you’re thinking of the title run-in of 1995, right? When Colin refused to slow and let Carlos win Rally Spain as had been agreed, but eventually relented and clocked in one-minute late?
And why wouldn’t you? That was one of the most famous team order debacles of World Rally Championship history, let alone between the Scot and the Spaniard.
But it wasn’t the only time the two WRC champions found themselves at odds with one another when an instruction from above was involved.
By comparison, the events of the 2000 Acropolis Rally were far more docile than what unfolded five years earlier when the pair were Subaru drivers. Now at Ford, the instruction to hold positions was the same, but the timing – and the side of the equation each driver was on – was very different.
Heading into what was round seven of a 14-round campaign, the talk wasn’t centered on Ford though.
Rather Subaru, which was celebrating its 10-year anniversary in world rallying with its star driver, Richard Burns, leading the championship as he returned to the scene of his first Subaru victory 12 months earlier.
Burns said he had “very good reason to be optimistic”, but was tight-lipped when asked to predict what would unfold over the upcoming three days.
“All of the drivers are going to get very hot and bothered, and all of the cars are going to get very tired,” he said.
“And at the end, the strongest combination will win.”
That rather undersold what proved to be a bruising, dramatic and, at times, controversial instalment of the WRC.
Despite starting as high as second on the road, it was Peugeot’s Marcus Grönholm who set the pace on the opening stage, and he was closely shadowed by Petter Solberg.
But the rally soon got away from both of them. Solberg went off and lost seven minutes as spectators were initially reluctant to help him back on the road, while things were more severe for Grönholm.
There was some concrete pole in the bushes and bam! Suddenly we were on the roofMarcus Grönholm
“I cut one corner, one very, very slow corner, too much and there was some concrete pole in the bushes and bam! Suddenly we were on the roof,” the Finn explained.
“But we came on the wheels again, so we lost in the roll only 10 seconds but then to drive without suspension and everything broken, [we lost] five minutes.”
With the Peugeot driver’s challenge punctured, the focus was on the Fords. Solberg may have dropped out of contention, but experienced hands McRae and Sainz soon established an early one-two with McRae leading Sainz and extending his advantage as the day wore on.
By the end of Friday, McRae led his team-mate by 38.5 seconds. Meanwhile François Delecour had snuck up to third ahead of Subaru drivers Juha Kankkunen and Burns.
It had been a troubled day for the points leader who battled through shock absorber and brake problems, and then the unthinkable when co-driver Robert Reid passed out at the end of a stage.
Unlike previous years, competing crews had been instructed to wear full three-layer race suits in the cars instead of just T-shirts. Heat exhaustion became a problem as a result, and the typically steady Burns was irate.
“If we were wearing T-shirts in the car we were wearing T-shirts for a reason,” he told TV crews.
“We’re the ones who are in danger inside the car. The reason we have to wear these [overalls] is for our own safety, and personally I believe that we’re putting ourselves at more risk at the moment wearing these and raising our own temperatures.”
Burns’ message was as loud as it was clear, and it was ultimately received. Overnight the stewards allowed crews to ditch the overalls if they wished.
The story of the rally was unchanged though. The Fords were bulletproof; the rest were anything but.
Delecour lost a rear-right wheel and briefly had to contend with a fire, while Kankkunen’s suspension collapsed. Both Hyundais, both Mitsubishis and both Seats had already exited the contest by this stage, as had the Škoda of Luis Climent, and then it was Grönholm’s turn – his 206 WRC’s engine draining itself of oil.
That left just six of the 14 manufacturer-entered cars left, and Ford was well in the clear with a three-minute advantage over third-placed Burns.
“Tomorrow I should be able to take it a bit steadier and be more careful all the time,” predicted McRae, who ended Saturday 48.1s to the good.
“It just depends what Carlos is going to do.”
Prophetic words indeed, because Sainz had no designs on playing the support role.
As the final day dawned, the Spaniard was already gambling. On such rock-strewn stages, he went against the grain and bolted just one spare tire into the rear of his Focus WRC – not the conventional two.
But the initial story of the final morning was the demise of Burns, as his Impreza’s engine lost all power and he retired. He felt he was “lucky” to have emerged from the weekend with his 14-point championship lead still intact, but Reid took a dimmer view.
“It’s fair to say we haven’t had the best of rallies here,” he said. “We’ve had a bit of bad luck already and we saw the final straw that broke the camel’s back.
“We were, and obviously are, not very happy about it but there we go, it’s going to happen some time.”
While the Britons were left to lick their wounds, the other UK crew was seemingly untouchable out front. And Ford’s plan was for it to stay that way with team boss Malcolm Wilson seeing no reason for his cars to risk it all with a needless fight.
And nor did McRae, who was asked if there would continue to be a battle for the win.
“Not after this service there won’t be,” he said. “It’s absolutely crazy – we’ve got 16 manufacturer points, there’s no point in fighting between each other.
“What’s the point in doing it? We’ve got to finish in the position we’re in.”
Wilson added: “Now that Richard’s out of the equation, we’ve implemented team orders: the positions will stay as they are.”
Except they didn’t. Sainz heard the message, but he didn’t comply.
“We’ve basically driven cautiously to save the car,” pointed out McRae’s co-driver, Nicky Grist. “We’ve kept a nice pace through these last three, exactly the same pace throughout, and obviously things have happened,” he smiled.
After 18 of 19 special stages, Sainz was now ahead and a healthy 1m37.4s clear of McRae. Would he do what was asked of him and finish second behind his team-mate?
Yes – but he couldn’t have made his point any more obvious.
Stopping the Focus cheekily within 100 yards of the flying-finish, Sainz even jumped out and opened the hood to suggest there was maybe some sort of problem. There wasn’t, of course.
Kankkunen’s Subaru speeding by was the clearest indication that two minutes had passed, so the two Spaniards jumped back in and completed the stage.
Wilson got on the radio: “Carlos and Luis, many congratulations for the professional job. Thank you very much.”
McRae won the event, and by a sizeable 23.1s.
“The main thing was just to keep the car on the straight and narrow and avoid all the rocks,” he said. “We had such a gap behind that it was a fairly easy job.”
Was he surprised by Sainz’s attitude?
“Yes, a bit. There was no need really to push that hard – it was putting the car at risk and the brief was to get two cars to the finish.
“That’s what we were doing.”
Sainz’s feelings were very apparent.
“Obviously I’m disappointed not to be able to fight until the end, especially because I knew this situation could happen,” he said.
“We discussed it at the beginning of the year and I thought it was clear that until the end of the season, no team orders will be applied.
“If at the end of the year somebody has to help the other I think it’s normal, but at the moment it must be fair until the last time control.”
It wasn’t so much the orders, but the timing, that angered Sainz. Although neither driver would last the distance in the championship race, this orchestrated result did move McRae above Sainz in the points table.
Ford was reprimanded for the episode, but the result stood.