1991, the Year when Carlos Sainz Came So Close to Winning the Championship

8 minutes

With the 1990 World Championship in their back pocket, Toyota Team Europe and Carlos Sainz once again prepared to take on the dirt, gravel, and asphalt of the world. The Celica GT-Four ST165 could handle all terrains and had additional improvements added from the lessons learned over the two previous years.

Carlos Sainz en 1991, gana el Rally Montecarlo
1991, the Year when Carlos Sainz Came So Close to Winning the Championship

Carlos Sainz y Luis Moya en el Toyota Celica

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After the success of 1990, Toyota repeated its formula from the previous season with a team of two drivers, and the occasional presence of a third car. Defending the championship, Carlos Sainz returned to action with his co-pilot Luis Moya and Armin Schwarz, who drove the team’s second car, this time with Arne Hertz to his right.

That season, they would compete in 12 races, with the new race being the Rally Catalunya Costa Brava, which had just been added to the World Championship schedule. There, Sainz started as the favourite and would be boosted by the support of his fans.

Monte Carlo was once again the first race of the season. It was a rally with a number of conditions that lasted throughout the entire event. Asphalt with sections of ice, dry asphalt, and fully iced-over tracks led to an endless number of complications for the participants, but, in turn, the difficulty of that rally had always made it one of the most prestigious. Sainz went for it, using all the Toyota’s horsepower. Despite leading in the first few days, at the beginning of the last day he lost the lead to French driver Delecour. Nevertheless, nothing is decided in competition until the finishing line has been crossed, and the mechanical issues in Delecour’s Ford Sierra Cosworth lifted Carlos to first place. The Spanish driver started the year with a fantastic victory in a legendary rally.

The Rally de Portugal was marked on the team’s calendar as an unlucky one. The two previous years we had left Portugal without any of the vehicles finishing. That year, Luis Moya was still recovering from a recent accident, but that did not stop him from accompanying Carlos and going head-to-head against their rivals. The rally was marked by poor weather conditions, which, combined with the long stretches of broken dirt track and asphalt made the stages into survival tests. Accidents and mechanical issues plagued all the drivers, as well as torrential rain and even some snow. In the end, after a hard fight, the Spanish driver was able to overtake them all, winning the rally by more than 45 seconds over Didier Auriol’s Lancia Delta.

The team’s next event was in Kenya. For the Safari Rally, in addition to Sainz, the team once again worked with guest drivers Bjorn Waldegaard and Mikael Ericsson. The event had a promising start, with Sainz leading the first day over his teammate Bjorn, despite having had to drive with the windscreen wipers broken by a stone thrown up by another car. In spite of the good start, the Safari Rally really puts vehicles to the test, and Sainz’s Toyota engine called it quits, forcing him to retire from the race. Ericsson was able to finish second and Bjorn fourth.

Corsica again hosted the Tour de Corse, an asphalt rally with 626 km of timed stretches. The competition was so fierce that on practically every stretch there was a change to the leadership board. Sainz lost the lead on the second stretch, but on the last day, with 10 timed stretches to go, he began a spectacular recovery without losing first place and was able to finish the rally more than one minute ahead of Auriol. The three victories from the four rallies would allow the team to dream of another championship.

Carlos Sainz taking a corner with Corsica in the background
Carlos Sainz taking a corner with Corsica in the background

From Corsica, the World Championship travelled east to Greece. At the Acropolis Rally the team boasted the participation of Mikeal Ericsson, who was driving the third Celica. The almost 600 km of gravel track was often treacherous. After winning the year before, Sainz once again set the pace, but the difficulty of the rally took its toll on the tires and after two punctures, Carlos was relegated to second place, behind Juha Kankkunen. Schwarz and Ericsson finished fifth and sixth.

The championship travelled to the other side of the world for the Rally New Zealand. This year, the competition did come to the event, but there were numerous mechanical and strategic issues. Carlos, having been the only official Toyota driver at the race, did not have any issues in knocking out his rivals. From the third timed stretch on the first day, Sainz did not leave first place and ended the rally comfortably with a more than one-minute lead over Kankkunen.

The cars travelled to the Rally Argentina and the Lancia rivals were ready to put the pedal to the metal. If they wanted a chance at the championship, they were going to have to stop Sainz at any cost. The Spanish driver started off with a few problems and bad luck, but his rally picked up and he started slowly gaining ground on his rivals. With 10 stretches left, he started nearing first place and with just five stretches remaining, he didn’t lose hold of first place, though he did have to fight Biasion tooth and nail to defend his it, winning the rally ahead of him by only 8 seconds.

Carlos Sainz in a dirt track in Argentina
Carlos Sainz in a dirt track in Argentina

Leaving South America with a comfortable points cushion the team travelled with the World Championship to the mythical 1000 lakes of Rally Finland. That is where things began to fall apart for Carlos Sainz. Luis Moya’s notes were stolen, with all the details and notes from previous years. This did not stop the Spanish driver from once again flying over the tracks that he loved so much or holding the leadership position for more than half the rally. Unfortunately, in one of the final stretches, the car went off track on a jump and was severely damaged. In spite of it all, he was able to finish the rally in fourth place.

With the Lancia team approaching Sainz’s point count, Toyota headed to Rally Australia, where the previous year Sainz had seen good results. It seemed like this time luck would not be on Carlos’s side. Several flips, including one with six whole rolls, compelled him to abandon the race. Despite the Celica’s grit, Toyota found itself in a position that would let its competitors overtake. It wasn’t all bad news, though, since Armin Schwarz had finished third.

Rallye Sanremo continued to drag down the Spanish driver’s hopes of a championship. The difficult gravel terrain turned out to be insurmountable that year. Despite Sainz having won 11 stretches, rival rider Didier Auriol was immovable and Sainz’s trusty Toyota had a rare breakdown in one of its transmission bearings. Sainz was only able to finish sixth and Schwarz eighth.

Finally, the highly anticipated Rally Costa Brava arrived. It was the first time the race was included in the World Championship. Sainz could delight his fans on his home soil. The second Toyota, with Schwarz at the wheel, started off strong and Carlos was always only a few seconds behind his teammate, waiting for the right moment. Unfortunately, an electrical problem before the eighth special stage left Sainz without a car. The eventual victory of Armin, the first German to participate in the World Championship, provided a positive counterbalance for the team.

The final race of the season was again the RAC rally in England. With Kankkunen leading the championship, Sainz absolutely had to finish ahead of him in order to have any shot at victory. With the team title already decided for Lancia, the Toyota team only had Sainz’s car. While he was fighting for a spot at the top, mechanical problems with the cooling system did not allow Sainz to repeat his previous year’s win, relegating him to third place. With his victory that day, Juha Kankkunen ensured his third title just seven points ahead of Carlos Sainz, who resigned himself to looking ahead to the 1992 season.

Carlos Sainz con Repsol Toyota en 1992

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