Fresh from victory in Argentina, Carlos Sainz Sr's World Rally Championship future was under serious consideration in 2004 as bigger priorities emerged. In Autosport's 29 July issue, the Spaniard hints at what was to come both for himself and the WRC
Up on the podium after Rally Argentina, Carlos Sainz's face was a picture of satisfaction. But there was also a furrow on his brow. His latest, record-breaking win might just have made the biggest decision of his career even harder.
Should he stay or should he go? It is a good question that has been ringing in the 42-year-old Spaniard's ears for many years now, but only because other people were asking it. In the past 12 months, though, even he has had to concede that it's a question he has to face up to.
"At the moment I am feeling a little guilty," he says. "I have a daughter and a son at home in Spain and I have spent such a long time away from them. That feeling is getting stronger. This summer the children have a month and a half away from school, but I can only be with them for a week and a half. It seems a little incorrect."
Sainz's decision won't just affect him and his family. After 16 full seasons in the top flight he has an iconic presence that makes him a figurehead and focal point of the World Rally Championship.
Sainz is the most charismatic of drivers. Right now the championship is in a transitional period in terms of characters. Sure, there's Petter Solberg, who can certainly entertain, and Marcus Gronholm has his moments of off-the-cuff comedy, too, but with the recent departure - permanent or temporary - of legendary figures such as Tommi Makinen, Colin McRae and Richard Burns, the WRC can scarcely afford to let another slip through its fingers.
On the other hand, there are those who believe Sainz has had his day. There's a danger that stars can stay in a sport too long, in the way Jimmy Connors did in tennis or George Foreman did in boxing. The difference with Sainz is that he's still winning and few can offer an alternative to his consistent points-scoring, his ambassadorial status in the sport, his near-obsession with testing - and getting everything just right.
His former team boss at Ford, Malcolm Wilson, remembers that final characteristic with a wince. Sainz spent three years working with the M-Sport squad from 2000 to 2002 and is credited with turning the Focus into a consistent winner. His determination set him apart from other drivers, but it came at a price.
"He has enough patience to be thorough with something until he is satisfied it's right. And then, when his judgment on something was right, which it usually was, he had the ability to put pressure on the team and everybody until he got his way" Colin McRae
"He pushes people to the edge," says Wilson. "He certainly did it with me. There were times when Carlos pushed on with something in testing even when it wasn't doing him any good, or even helping his own situation, but just because it was good for the team. It was great to have someone like him, who was willing to try everything in testing."
Sainz's team-mate throughout that period, as well as at Subaru in 1995 and 1996, was McRae. The Scot was quick to praise the Spaniard after his Argentine win took his career tally to 26, one clear of McRae's own mark, and freely confesses to having enormous respect for the way his one-time rival goes about his work.
"Carlos's biggest strength is his perseverance," says McRae, echoing Wilson's praise by highlighting his standout characteristic. "He has enough patience to be thorough with something until he is satisfied it's right. And then, when his judgment on something was right, which it usually was, he had the ability to put pressure on the team and everybody until he got his way, which helped with development."
But this season hasn't been a classic for the two-time world champion, who has struggled to get the Citroen Xsara WRC to suit his driving style. Yet, in Argentina, that was never an issue, and he set about demolishing his opposition at the front. Even his Citroen team-mate Sebastien Loeb, who has become used to taking seconds off his rival as a matter of course, had to concede that the best he could hope for was to match Sainz's times.
McRae offers another insight here, arguably that the image of Sainz as steady rather than spectacular doesn't really ring true. You don't, he reasons, win on so many surfaces in such varied conditions as the Spaniard has done without being a special talent.
"Carlos doesn't have any weaknesses," says the Scot. "He does some things better than others, but look how long he's been at the top; he couldn't do that if he had a weak spot."
Yet the one thing that won't be driving Sainz on to another year in the WRC is a quest to push his record win total even further. Despite a keen appreciation of the sport's history, and a great respect of its traditions and past, he remained impassive in the aftermath of his 26th victory.
"It is just a number," he says. "It doesn't mean as much as the fact that I have won another rally 17 years after I started in the WRC and 13 years after I won my first event. Argentina was a very nice place to do it. It's a good rally and the sport is very special to the people here - they are passionate about it."
Passion is another area that those closest to Sainz highlight when talking about his qualities. He is an open critic of the championship's drive into areas where the fans don't have the same fervor as traditional WRC haunts, such as Argentina. He's not keen on the current car market and media-driven ventures to places like Turkey.
He says: "In Argentina, everyone is very welcoming to the rallying family. That is important for rallying. It's the same way in Portugal. Sometimes people say there are too many people on the stages, but I can't see that.
"You need good organisation. The public should never be a problem. The more people who come, the better it is for manufacturers."
That's typical Sainz: always happy to state an opinion, but always making his point in a dignified and thought-through fashion. Given his age and status it would be easy to label him rallying's elder statesman - until you remember that these are qualities that have set him apart since he first burst onto the world scene.
Juanjo Lacalle, part of his management team, sums it up, saying: "His charisma shines through in everything he does. Carlos the rally man is an extension of Carlos the man. He works really hard and hates losing, even at a game of Ludo. But he's a great sportsman, and when he loses he gets over it and thinks about what's next. He's the leader in the WRC, just as he was the leader of his gang as a kid."
However, having all-round talent hasn't always served Sainz well, and he admits his adaptability - a similarly quick pace on gravel and asphalt - didn't do him many favours when he was searching for his first factory drive.
"To be the best driver, you have to be competitive everywhere. Look at [Walter] Rohrl, he never went to Finland. I couldn't wait to go to Finland" Carlos Sainz
Looking back, though, he reckons the fact he has won almost everywhere (Sweden the only glaring exception, although he didn't contest the event until 1995 and was second there in 1996) enhances his reputation.
"When I came into the sport, teams were all about specialists, they had this driver for that surface and another for the next," he says. "When I came in and said I wanted to rally everywhere I was quite upset that people said, 'Carlos Sainz is not a specialist'. But to be the best driver, you have to be competitive everywhere. Look at [Walter] Rohrl, he never went to Finland. I couldn't wait to go to Finland."
It's an apt point, made all the more striking by the lack of all-rounders in today's WRC. Only two others have won on loose and sealed surfaces. Solberg took his first win on asphalt in Corsica last year, while that man Loeb has been busily mixing gravel prowess with his asphalt wins all season. With Loeb winning in Sweden as well this season it's little wonder Sainz thinks he could be the man to topple his victory tally.
"I'm sure that Sebastien can win the title a few times," he says. "He has a very big talent."
The trouble is the Frenchman won't know for at least a few more months, possibly another year or more, just how high that target he's aiming at is going to be.
Sainz's top 10 wins
1. 1000 Lakes Rally 1990
Toyota Celica GT-Four
It hadn't started too well. Sainz crashed preparing for the event and began the rally wearing a trainer on one injured foot and a racing boot on the other. By the end the pain in his foot didn't matter. He had just become the first non-Scandinavian to beat the locals at their own game.
2. Acropolis Rally 1990
Toyota Celica GT-Four
Sainz's first world championship win had an angle for all to celebrate. It was the first win for a Spaniard at this level and the first European win for Toyota in 15 years. Most of all, it silenced those doubters who had foolishly labelled him as an asphalt driver early in his career.
3. Catalunya Rally 1992
Toyota Celica Turbo 4WD
His first win in front of his beloved home fans. It had been a difficult year for Sainz and his Toyota struggled to match the speed and consistency of Didier Auriol's Lancia Delta. With the undiluted support of thousands lining the route, Sainz gave the fans what they had come to see.
4. Safari Rally 1992
Toyota Celica Turbo 4WD
The fact that his Celica Turbo 4WD might still have been a little weighty for the European rounds didn't matter in Kenya. This was when the Safari Rally was the endurance event. After weeks of testing for the African adventure, Sainz won one of the championship's toughest rallies.
5. Cyprus Rally 2000
Ford Focus RS WRC
Fired up by the fact that he hadn't looked able to cope with Colin McRae's pace in the sister Ford Focus WRC, Sainz started Cyprus like a man possessed. Throughout the rally nobody could touch him for speed or consistency through the Troodos mountains.
6. Rally Argentina 2004
Citroen Xsara WRC2004
When Sainz went head-to-head with Marcus Gronholm in a Peugeot 307 WRC that was doing what it was supposed to, few would have tipped Sainz to come out on top. In the end Gronholm made a mistake while being reeled in by Sainz, and the Spaniard went on to make history.
7. RAC Rally 1990
Toyota Celica GT-Four
This was the first pacenote-free RAC. Sainz arrived in the middle of a furious title battle with Lancia's Juha Kankkunen. The odds were stacked in Juha's favour - a non-Scandinavian hadn't won for 14 years. Sainz, buoyed by the fact that he'd already won the title in San Remo, blitzed it.
8. Rally of Turkey 2003
Citroen Xsara WRC2003
For the inaugural Turkish event, Sainz got his pacenotes spot-on. This was his first win with Citroen, and his first without Luis Moya, his co-driver from the start of his WRC career. It was new recruit Marc Marti who celebrated joining Colin McRae on a record 25 wins.
9. Acropolis Rally 1994
Subaru Impreza 555
Sainz had had a barren year in 1993. He'd left Toyota as '92 world champion for a semi-works drive in a Lancia Delta HF Integrale. It didn't work out, so he left the Italians and headed for new WRC big-hitter Subaru. Four rallies into the new partnership, he won in Greece.
10. RAC Rally 1992
Toyota Celica Turbo 4WD
Sainz needed to win the previous round in Spain to set up a title fight with Lancia's Didier Auriol on the final round in Britain. He did, and the titanic battle was on. Sadly, Auriol's Lancia was silenced by an electrical glitch, so Sainz pounced. It was another win and another title.
The whispers of retirement grew louder over the coming weeks in 2004 before Sainz made the decision official during Rally Catalunya. Fate would initially deny Sainz a proper send-off as a crash during the recce at Rally Australia ruled him out of the season finale.
But, with Francois Duval struggling for Citroen in 2005, Sainz returned for a two-event outing midway through the year - taking fourth place in Turkey and third place in Greece - to provide an unexpected goodbye almost 12 months on from his final WRC win.
Life as a competitive driver was far from over, as Sainz began a new chapter in his career that focused around the Dakar Rally.
He made his debut at the event in 2006 competing for Volkswagen - who he also tested for before its era of WRC dominance with Sebastien Ogier - winning the unofficial 2008 Dakar when it was run through central Europe before repeating the achievement, this time officially, in 2010 with the Dakar Rally at its new South American home.
Sainz has been a near ever-present figure at the Dakar since, but failed to finish the gruelling event between 2013 and 2017 until his fortune transformed for 2018 as he claimed victory with Peugeot.
Following Peugeot's withdrawal from cross-country rallying, Sainz found a new home at X-Raid Mini for 2019 and a further success followed earlier this year as the Spaniard won his third official Dakar Rally - moving him to joint-third on the all-time Dakar Rally wins list.
At 58 years old, Sainz is targeting a fourth triumph and the defence of his Dakar crown in 2021 with the X-Raid Mini squad.
Want Autosport magazine delivered to your door each week? Subscribe today and never miss your weekly fix of motorsport