Tuesday 19 January 2010

"El Matador" sets another record

The magnitude of Carlos Sainz achievement in the Dakar in recent days captures the sheer ability and tenacity of the man Spaniard, who for decades has been Spain's leading sportsman, equally as renowned for his fanatical support of Real Madrid. Although competing in sport overshadowed by the national obsession with La Liga, Sainz has maintained a profile in his country by competing at the highest level of the world rallying which has made him akin to royalty.

Having started four years ago to compete in the gruelling Dakar rally, he has now achieved his objective on the fourth attempt and emerged victorious once again in a rally event. In a very careful and calm race this year Carlos won the race in Argentina by two minutes, making up for some of the risks of previous years. So when he finally reached the service park in his Volkswagen Toureg last weekend his face was lit up with elation.

On landing in Madrid Airport on Tuesday morning, totally exhausted but delighted, he first thanked the Spanish public that had supported him, saying he was unable to deal with all the text messages and phone calls from well wishers.

Although he came to Ireland in the seventies to learn English in Bunclody, County Wexford, he stills finds English hard at times but has fond memories of his days in this country.  I came to know him in Spain many years ago through work and a few years later when a close friend wrote his biography. To this day we have all remained friends and the reason is simple; Carlos Sainz is an absolute gentleman. However he is a ferocious competitor, with an ice cool streak along with the suave good looks of a movie star.

Having met him on many occasions I came to know you never underestimate his ambition, determination or stubbornness. Even on a golf course, he measures distances and angles in detail before striking the ball majestically with metres of the pin. He is also a former Spanish squash champion.

In everything he approaches Sainz absorbs every meticulous detail and his preparation is always to perfection as he believes that if you don’t put in the work the results won’t come.

For many years he was a team mate of the more flamboyant Colin McRae and with the Ford World Rally team, Carlos Sainz would arrive for the Shakedown prior to every rally and test the car setup for hours. In contrast Colin McRae would do a few runs then chat with the team engineers before heading for the motor home or hotel on his mountain bike.

in his wake would be Sainz still asking the mechanics to set a variety of options for brakes tyres or dampers in a multitude of alternatives so he could try each one before going home exhausted for the night. His focus on hard worked and graft still remain to this day despite enough money to live a very comfortable celebrity lifestyle.

Many times he drove McRae mad even though both men had God given talent behind the wheel of a world rally car. They approached their roles very differently and McRae was always the more flamboyant oozing talent effortlessly. Even on the Dakar Rally their styles were different with the Scotsman making his debut with Nissan in January 2004, where he scored two stage wins on his way to a memorable finish.

He returned to the Dakar in 2005 and was fastest on two of the first three stages in Morocco, before crashing out of the rally towards the end of stage six. So heavy was the impact of the crash it left him unconscious for several minutes.

Sadly the rivalry was cut short in September 2007 when Colin McRae crashed his helicopter near his home in Lanarkshire perishing along with his son Johnny and two family friends.

With comparisons always unfair, the one difference that always struck me about Carlos was his philosophical approach to sporting success and failure. None more so than in 1998 when he was only 500 metres from the finish in Margam Park in the RAC Rally about to secure his third world title when the engine of his Toyota failed leaving him unable to complete the race within sight of the finish.

His rival at the time was Tommi Makkinen who was on his way to Heathrow when he got the call from his team to say Sainz had suffered mechanical problems leaving the Finn to retain his title despite crashing out the previous day.  In the hotel later that night Carlos was dining amidst his family and friends discussing his misfortune without rancour or bitterness.

His calmness had even been more obvious earlier that same day when he restrained his enraged co driver Luis Moya after he smashed the rear windscreen of the Toyota Corolla with his helmet.

In career spanning three decades Carlos started out with Ford in 1987 moving to Toyota in  1998 for four years where he won two of his world titles in 1990 and 1992. After a year with Lancia Sainz joined the fledging Subaru team led by Dave Richards in 1994 where his dedication, experience and technical know how took them to a World Championship victory in 1995.

In the final event at the RAC rally he was neck and neck with his young teammate, Colin McRae, and under team instructions it was the Spaniard who had to forego the win in favour of the local boy. This event never spoiled their relationship over the years as Carlos is the consummate professional. However in the immediate aftermath it did for a while.

In 1996 Sainz rejoined the Ford team with the Ford Escort and could do no better than third place in the Championship behind Tommi Makkinen in a Mitsubishi with McRae in second place with Subaru. So He then rejoined Toyota who were attempting to re-establish themselves once again in the WRC and wanted to use the experience of Sainz and Frenchman Didier Auriol. However Sainz finished no better than fifth and when Ford re-launched their rally programme with the new FOCUS under Malcolm Wilson, Carols Sainz rejoined them to help develop the car.

Again he would be alongside team rival Colin McRae.

His success at Ford was mixed and inevitably the team marketing was all around the UK pairing of Colin McRae and his co drover Nicky Grist. Who went on to score three wins in their second season. But a bad crash in the Rally GB ended their ambitions in the season finale. The dominance of Peugeot that season and the next meant that the podium finishes were usually between Richard Burns and Marcus Gronholm.

Effectively given no future at Ford, the Spaniard moved to Citroën for the 2003 and 2004 seasons, where he was to score his final world rally victory at the 2004 Rally Argentina. Despite formally retiring at the end of the 2004 season, with a possible view to moving into the World Touring Car Championship, he was to actually find himself invited back to the WRC fold on the request of Citroën, to replace the faltering Belgian driver François Duval. Although Duval was soon to reclaim his seat,

After his retirement Carlos decided in 2006 to challenge for the Presidency of Real Madrid FC but failed to secure the votes at the time with the election to become a matter of controversy years later in relation to the eventual winner. Notwithstanding that defeat he is still a season ticket holder and remains the avid fan today regularly attending matches at the Santiago Bernabeu.

But it was the bug of the Dakar in Africa in 2007 that really took his interest and for the past four years he has worked physically hard to be ready for the challenges that the event throws up. His fourth decade in rally delivered the result he has worked so hard for since that first Dakar attempt four years ago.

Overall Carlos Sainz has won the World Rally Championship drivers' title with Toyota in 1990 and 1992, and finished runner-up four times. Constructors' world champions to win with Sainz are Subaru (1995), Toyota (1999) and Citroën (2003, 2004 and 2005). The Madrid man holds the WRC record for most career starts, podium finishes and points. He was also the first driver not from Scandinavia or Finland to win the 1000 Lakes Rally in Finland.

Apart from the WRC successes, he has won the Race of Champions (1997) and the Asia-Pacific Rally Championship (1990) and now the Dakar Rally at 48 years of age.

When you read his honours it is clear why is he known within rally world as “El Matador”

Sunday 17 January 2010

Thornton 's Effort Rewarded in South Africa

Only weeks after the death of his Father, Simon Thornton completed his first two weeks as a member of the European Tour in South Africa having decided to fulfil his January schedule as planned. Naturally enough the decision was not an easy one to make.

On Sunday though a final round 69 in the Joburg Open secured a tie for 17th place giving an early indication of Thornton’s competitiveness and mental strength.

The County Down resident was playing in only his second event on the Sunshine Tour and had failed to make the cut last week at the Africa Open in East London.

In Johannesburg though it was different as an opening 70 was followed by a 65 in round two and a scramble for level on par day 3, when four hard earned birdies kept Thornton from slipping down the field after four bogeys threatened to damage his card.

On the last day a level par front nine kept the former Assistant at Royal County Down within the top twenty. Then two birdies on the 10th and 18th holes secured a 69 for 9 under par total and an aggregate 275.

The winner of the Joburg Open was local player Charl Schwartzel with 261, securing his second win in as many weeks. He finished six shots ahead of runner up Darren Clarke.

Michael Hoey ended in tied 25th with an aggregate of 277.

Next on the agenda for Simon Thornton is a return home for the more pressing matter of his Father’s funeral, which was originally being arranged for next week. As a result he is likely to forego events in Abu Dhabi and Doha.

Simon Thornton played the last two weeks though with the knowledge that it was his Father’s dying wish that he fulfil the commitments in South Africa.