Repsol first rally was in the Costa Brava Rally in 1969. Three cars sported the company's R: two Lancia Fulvia HF 1300, and one Lancia Zagato GT. Back then, the World Rally Championship did not exist. The WRC was inaugurated in 1973, the year in which Repsol decided to retire from competition.
It was not until 1989 that Repsol and the WRC met again. That year, Toyota offered a spot on their team to a Spanish driver who had started to make a name for himself during the previous season. At the time, Carlos Sainz was relatively unknown, but he had already managed to impress Ove Andersson, the director of Toyota Team Europe, in the 1000 Lakes Rally with a Ford Sierra RS Cosworth. As Ove himself said,
"I had heard his name before, but that was before I really started to take notice. Carlos’s personality played an important role. The first time we met and had a chat, I had no idea what the future held for him! I left with a good impression, and I wanted him on my team – not just because I wanted a driver specialised in asphalt, but because I had a good feeling about him I still cannot explain to this date. When I talked to him, I was very impressed and thought to myself, here’s a young man who really has what it takes to become a star".
The agreement signed between Toyota Team Europe and Repsol came about largely thanks to the Madrid-born driver as Repsol had already sponsored Carlos previously. Stepping back into the world of rallies seemed like an attractive option, especially since this was a World Championship. That being said, the path ahead seemed anything but easy as Lancia dominated competitions at that time with its Delta Integrale.
In addition to Carlos Sainz and his inseparable co-driver, Luis Moya, the team included other noteworthy competitors such as the world champion Juha Kankkunen, and the outstanding driver Bjorn Waldegaard. It had a new car, the Celica GT-Four, the first four-wheel traction model manufactured by the Japanese company. Repsol was, therefore, supporting a promising team with boundless potential to place on podiums and snag victories.
First race of the year
The Team's first rally in 1989 was the Monte Carlo rally. The Toyota drivers did a good job and Carlos proved he could keep up with the best, but even though his technique was good, the uneven terrain and inadequate tyres ended up pushing him off the track. A problem with the engine also forced Bjorn to pull out of the race before the end. Only Kankkunen made it to the finish line, coming in a rather impressive fifth position that signalled a promising future for the Toyota Celica.
Rally de Portugal
The Rally de Portugal started particularly well for Sainz, who dominated the first asphalt stages, and even managed to reach the leading position. However, after a puncture and trying to make up for lost ground, he suffered an accident in the 16th section that meant he had to kiss the race goodbye. His team mates did not fare much better: Kankkunen’s engine gave out and Bjorn had issues with the transmission in what would turn out to be his last race of the year. Unfortunately, Toyota walked away from the Rally de Portugal with 0 points, but a fierce determination to improve the Celica's reliability.
Tour de Corse
Toyota made new and important improvements to the Celica's suspension, as well as important mechanical updates, following the tests for the Tour de Corse on the island of Corsica. These changes definitely made an impact as the drivers were now inching towards the top half of the leaderboard section after section, and even managed to make it to the top in some stages. Sainz did not, however, translate his great skills into points, as his vehicle suffered a strange engine breakdown. Kankkunen, on the other hand, placed on the podium for the first time representing the Toyota team, coming in third position in the Rally.
Toyota added Kenneth Eriksson to its team of drivers. Eriksson had previous experience on Greek terrain. After the first stage, the results were promising with all three drivers were in the top five positions. The first obstacle came when Eriksson’s engine unexpectedly caught fire, preventing him from continuing in the race. After the second stage, Sainz was in fourth position and Kankkunen in seventh, but the Rally was turning out really tough on the vehicles.
During the fourth stage, the cracked frames finally called it quits after their strenuous effort to stay in the fight for the title. The Toyotas had to retire once again, in spite of the welding and supports – however, they did walk away having learnt one or two valuable lessons.
1000 Lakes Rally
This Finnish Rally is where Carlos had shown off his speed in the previous season and managed to catch Ove Andersson’s eye. That event heralded in a new era where things finally started to look up. From the start, Sainz set a fast pace, managing to stay in first position despite a few issues with the car’s transmission. Kankkunen, who was also cruising at a steady pace, saw his car catch on fire, forcing him to pull out of the race. Finally, Erikkson climbed up a few places and reached fourth in the overall scoreboard. Carlos continued to breeze through to the finish line, giving the Team its second podium win when he managed to rank third in the rally.
This race turned out to be a raving success for the team, although Sainz did not participate. The team's results were outstanding and helped it finally take that step up, which many had predicted after Finland. The car responded as expected on the fast earth and gravel tracks. Juha Kankkunen managed to snag a long-awaited victory in these circumstances, while Eriksson also stepped onto the podium, giving the team the double-podium win that sent a very clear message to other teams: Repsol Toyota was a force to be reckoned with.
In the team's second-to-last race, Sainz and Kankkunen hopped into the arena to defend the team’s colours. It was a mixed rally with both asphalt and gravel stages, and the top spots were highly contested with the winners changing after each stage. Carlos managed to stay in the top 5 positions every day, and, when he finished, his third position was only 25 seconds slower than the winner’s time – a mere 25 second difference after 7 hours of total race time! Kankkunen came in fifth position, giving the team valuable points.
The last race of the year saw one of the most difficult routes: 55 stretches in 5 stages, with a total of 603 timed kilometres. The team had its three drivers ready to give it their all and see the year out on a happy note. As is tradition in Britain, the rain and fog made their usual appearance in the first stages, but by the end of the first day the weather had cleared and Kankkunen was leading the pack, followed by Eriksson and Sainz in fourth position.
During the second stage, the fog decided to return and the tricky Welsh tracks made short work of a good few participants. When the day finished, Kankkunen was still in first place; meanwhile, Sainz had clawed his way up to the second position just 19 seconds behind his team mate. Eriksson followed them closely in third position, 29 seconds behind the race leader.
On the third day, Sainz whizzed to the front of the pack and managed to keep hold of the first position until the fourth day, even though the fight for the top positions was becoming increasingly fierce. Finally, on the last day, and despite his efforts, Sainz’s vehicle failed when the main differential on his Toyota broke, effectively robbing him of his win. The Repsol driver came in second, while Kankkunen followed him in third position (completing the podium), and Eriksson in fourth.
Despite their difficult start, the Toyotas gained stability throughout the season, placing on a few podiums. Juha Kankkunen finished third in the overall leaderboard with 60 points. Kenneth Eriksson achieved sixth position with 47 points, and Sainz came in eighth with a total of 39. Toyota racked up 101 points in the IMC sub-championship. The first step towards the World Championship had been taken, and victory was not far behind.