Long live the King | Pirelli

Long live the King

Long live the King 01
Long live the King 01

A living legend

He may be 58 today, but his reign continues. Greyer around the temples, certainly, perhaps a few more wrinkles around those intense brown eyes, but still indisputably ‘the King'.

Or ‘The Matador' as he is also known: more for his uncompromising desire to hunt down and despatch every rival, rather than merely for his Spanish nationality.

Carlos Sainz is one of those drivers who manages to be a name as well as a sportsman. When he was younger he was a professional squash player, and he's also got two world rally titles behind him (both with Pirelli). He once tested Toyota's GT-One Le Mans car and was reportedly faster than the regular drivers. He's apparently close friends with the Spanish royal family too.

Sainz has become the legend that he is because of his compelling personality, making him the sort of person around whom myths grow up effortlessly. It doesn't even matter if they are true or not: it's enough to know that they could be.

And now, Carlos has another – more reluctant – item to place on his CV, alongside his Dakar campaign: celebrity parent.

Long live the King 02
Long live the King 02

From father to son

Not that Carlos believes for a minute that Carlos Sainz Jr's achievements, which have culminated in him leading the way at McLaren, have anything to do with him – apart from instilling the unstinting work ethic that's always necessary to reach the top.

“It's all down to him,” is Sainz Sr's simple verdict. “I always said that if he worked hard and focused on his goal it was possible for him to achieve it. And now he has.”

But there's one thing that Carlos Sr desperately wanted for his son that he never had for himself: the parental support to get a motor racing career off the ground.

The automotive scene in Spain back in the 1980s, when Carlos Sr was carving out a career, looked very different to now. In Formula 1, Spain's last driver was Emilio de Villota, while in rallying the man to beat was Antonio Zanini – who may have been a big star at home but was practically unheard of abroad.

This was the bleak motorsport landscape in which Sainz was raised, so it's little wonder that his first instinct was to try to become a footballer: he had a youth trial with Real Madrid, the team he still avidly supports now.

Sainz's first rally car was an unlikely beast: a Seat Panda. He won the inaugural Copa Panda convincingly enough to attract outside backing, which led to a massive step up thanks to funded drives from Renault and Opel in the Spanish rally championship, and then finally the world championship with help from Ford of Spain.

Fittingly for a driver who had started his competitive international career in single-seaters – taking part in the 1983 Formula Ford Festival – Sainz's very first stage win, on the 1987 Portugal Rally (his WRC debut) came on a race track with a Ford, at a special stage held round the Estoril grand prix circuit.

Three years and 20 rallies later he clinched his first WRC victory on the Acropolis Rally.

Long live the King 03
Long live the King 03

Turning the tide

But this is not Carlos's favourite WRC victory (and he has 26 to choose from). Instead, he says that if he had to pick one, it would be the 1990 Rally Finland. Up until then, no non-Scandinavian driver had ever won in Finland. The perception of Latin drivers like Carlos was that they were only good on asphalt, but Sainz killed that view almost single-handedly.

“I think that is the thing I am most proud of: I helped to change things” says Sainz. “When I came into the sport, you still had a lot of specialists. So I realised that to beat them, I had to be a specialist everywhere. And I applied myself to that.”

This is pure Carlos in one sentence. He's staggeringly fast, but he's never been the absolute fastest everywhere because that's not necessary to win rallies (although he's still third on the all-time list of stages claimed, after Sebastien Loeb and Markku Alen).
However, he's always been consistently quick. It's this crushing persistence that tends to grind his rivals down: every metronomic stage time another arrow in their backs, until the final plunge of the matador's sword comes almost as a relief.

“Looking back, nearly every year I won a rally – from the start all the way to the finish,” adds Carlos. “That is another thing that makes me pleased. It means that I was competitive all the time: I didn't drop off. And it was important for me to stop with the WRC while I was still competitive.”

After that first win in 1990 he only had three winless years throughout his full-time WRC career (1993, 1999, and 2001) until announcing in 2004 that he was calling time at the end of that season: during which he claimed his final WRC victory (in Argentina) at the age of 42.

But then Sainz was recalled to Citroen for two rallies the following season to replace the impetuous Francois Duval. What became definitively Sainz's final rally ended on the podium on the Acropolis: an event he had first won 14 years before. In total, he had 196 WRC starts: the second-highest total in the history of the sport (after Jari-Matti Latvala).

The fire still burns

But Carlos didn't stop competing. Following his WRC career, he embarked on the Dakar: the toughest rally of them all, which crosses entire continents. And he won it three times: first in 2010 with Volkswagen, then in 2018 with Peugeot, and the third time this year with MINI, at the age of 57. To celebrate the occasion, Pirelli prepared a special cake at the Barcelona test in March, a couple of months later.

“I still compete because I still like the challenge,” he said, before taking the start in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, this year. “If one day I feel that I don't like it anymore, I will stop. But for now it's exactly the same as it always was.”