Meet Sergio Cresto. A man who's place within rallying folklore bears an uncanny resemblance to a sphinx or gamayun. On the 2nd of May 1986, the Italian-American was directly involved in one of the most seismic incidents in the history of motorsport and yet remains something of a forgotten figure. While being criminally underrated is a cross nearly every co-driver is expected to bear, the fact that this one rose through the ranks the hard way, guided his superstar driver to victory at the oldest rally of them all and became a title favourite only to fall victim to the very sport he quite literally gave his life to, must surely entitle him to something more substantial. Regardless, on this day, the 65th anniversary Cresto's birth, I thought I'd pay tribute to the life and career of a man who can, quite comfortably lay claim to the title of World Rally Legend.
Born in New York, Cresto would spend much of his life in Ospedaletti near Sanremo. Growing up a stone's throw from the veritable hub of Italian rallying, it was only a matter of time before the allure of motorsport asserted an irrevocable death grip on Cresto. Lacking the raw talent to cut it as a driver, he found the logistical intricacies of the co-driver's seat to be a much better fit. His close friend and fellow co-driver Luca Pazielli, the driving force behind his decision to commit to the profession. His first foray into professional rallying was with Tonino Tognana at the national level in 1979. Starting out in an Opel Kadett, the pair would later score a drive with Fiat for 1981. The more powerful 131 Abarth lending itself better to Tognana's flamboyance, while both he and Cresto firmly found their feet within the team. Eighth place in that year's Italian championship was the net result.
A brief stint with Gianfranco Cunico soon gave way to a brand new union with Michael Cinotto for the 1983 season. Armed with one of Group B's most devilish offerings, the new pairing wrestled the Lancia 037 to two podiums and a sixth place finish before a crash at Rally Internazionale della Lana, following which Cresto was then drafted in to serve as Andrea Zanussi's co-driver for the final two events of the season. A sizeable shunt at Sanremo was far from an auspicious start, but respite would come in the form of a strong second place at the season ending Rally di San Marino.
For Cresto, this period was one used to sow his veritable oats, gain invaluable seat time and build his reputation as a pillar of detail and dependability, qualities that were beyond essential given the strenuous situations into which he was so frequently placed. His performances that year caught the eye of one Cesare Fiorio, who deemed Cresto worthy of an all out assault on the European Rally Championship for 1984. Carlo Capone was now on driving duties and lo another step was taken. The car was right, the talent pool was copious, sufficient backing was in order, it was now time to make for the top step to the podium. After local heroes dominated the opening rounds in Austria and Belgium, the Cresto/Capone partnership began their bid for glory with a crushing win in Belgium. But if either man thought a limp wristed waltz was all that awaited them, they were in for a rude awakening, courtesy of a certain young Finn by the name of Henri Toivonen. Already a winner at the sport's top level, the 27 year old was the custodian of an otherworldly array of talent. Something even he seemed at a loss to comprehend.
The year wore on with both crews constantly at each other's throats. Having secured the young Finn's signature for 1985, Fiorio decided to throw a spanner into the mix by prizing Toivonen away from his European campaign for the occasional WRC appearance as means of tipping the scales towards compatriot Capone. That said, the chance of a disingenuous championship quickly evaporated as Toivonen injured his back and was put out of commission for the remainder of the season. Capone and Cresto claimed four further victories and the championship with it. Having outpaced WRC aces Guy Frequelin, Jean Ragnotti, Jean-Claude Andruet and Jimmy McRae, the pair had got their hands on the biggest prize in European rallying. It was an astonishing achievement but one they wouldn't be able to defend, as come 1985 Cresto would receive a very special call up.
With a veritable juggernaut already under contract and a full scale assault on the world title in order, Fiorio wanted an Italian to complete his Lancia lineup. Enter, Sergio Cresto. With only seven fleeting appearances on the world stage under his belt, the Italian-American was something of an unknown quantity. Toivonen certainly thought so, believing his former rival to be much too inexperienced. Qualms aside the deal was done and the all new pairing psyched themselves up for the 1986 season opener. As first innings go, neither man could have asked for a more definitive baptism of fire (Or rather ice), for their first event together was the famed Rallye Monte Carlo. Dealing with the Monte's backstabbing goulash of ice, snow, tarmac and gravel is trouble enough for most rally drivers. Hurling an all new duo into the hills with a terminally unhinged turbo and supercharged Delta S4 as transportation? It doesn't bear thinking about.
But if this torrent of adverse circumstances affected the pair they certainly didn't show it. They set the fastest time on the second stage and seized the early rally lead accordingly. Reigning World Champion Timo Salonen hit back on stage 3, closing in on the leading Lancia. Toivonen and Cresto held firm and won the next three stages opening up a semi reliable buffer between themselves and the reigning champion. An elaborate game of cat and mouse soon took precedence, Salonen the pursuant, Toivonen and Cresto battling brake trouble and a wayward front end to remain the men in possession. Things appeared to take a turn for the worst after stage 12 where, having successfully negotiated a dozen of Monte Carlo's most treacherous offerings, Toivonen and Cresto very nearly threw it all away. A head on collision with a spectator's runabout on a road section put a temporary stop the the duo's progress. Toivonen nursing his crumpled steed back to service where the Lancia mechanics performed a minor miracle, and got the pair back out with both their car and rally lead intact. And so they pressed on, consistently holding the charging Salonen at bay. Victory seemed all but certain but as has been made abundantly clear over the decades, pace alone is never enough in Monte. An erroneous tyre choice cost the duo dearly on stage 22, with a punctured Pirelli giving Salonen all the impetus he needed. The lead was now his.
Salonen rode out in front for five stages before Toivonen and Cresto regained the initiative. A tantalising 25 seconds was all that separated the young pretenders from the incumbent champion but come the last day, another gear was found. The crew got their tyre choices spot on, Cresto's notes accounted for every last dip, crest and rogue patch of ice, while Toivonen entered a higher plain of driving. Judging the malleable grip levels to perfection and routinely getting the best out of a car that had every one of his more experienced contemporaries on the ropes. Salonen had no answer to this crushing pace, Toivonen and Cresto took the rally lead and drew out a scarcely believable four minute advantage on the very last day. The duo made the final pass over the Col de Turini to draw first blood in the 1986 title race handing Cresto his very first World Rally win. The Italian had finally done it, a decade and a half after shifting Ray Bands imported into Italy by his dad, Cresto had taken victory at the oldest and most prestigious WRC event in existsence. The pair cruised into Monaco with jubilation rife for both them and an exultant Lancia crew. Having taken a punt on slotting Cresto into the highest echelon of motorsport, Fiorio's faith had ben restored in full. Victory for a brand new team, in a brand new car at the very first time of asking. Henri Toivonen and Sergio Cresto had finally arrived. I think you'll agree, Not a bad way to celebrate a 30th birthday.
That emphatic win was very nearly followed by another, a blown engine forcing the pair to retire from the lead at round two in Sweden. A setback it may have been but their momentum remained very much intact. Portugal was famously marred by the tragic passing of three spectators as well as the injury of 31 others, national champion Joaquim Santos coming over a brow only to be greeted by an unavoidable wall of onlookers. Toivonen gave a statement of condolence before joining the rest of the factory teams in pulling out of the rally. Times, results and points of little consequence in Portugal. After missing the Safari Rally and returning to an old haunt in the European Championship (Cresto guided Toivonen to victory at the 1986 Rally Costa Smeralda) the duo made for the Mediterranean Island of Corsica for round 4 of the World Rally Championship.
Arguably the meanest of them all the Tour De Corse was, at the time, one of the most physically and mentally draining rallied on the calendar. Dubbed The Rally of 10,000 Corners (The 1,017 kms of special stages actually made for a corner count that was nearly double that), its endless myriad of blind turns, malevolent crests and unforgiving drops made for an eye watering mount of detail as far as pace notes were concerned, while the tight, twisty, visually deceptive stages allied to the lariest Group B offerings made for a near torturous ordeal for the drivers. An ordeal that seemed all the more insurmountable when Toivonen contracted the flu as proceedings got underway. Despite a sore throat and iffy neck muscles Henri rocketed into the stages with that same trance like precision. Crest remained flawless through the hundreds of Corsican bends and the pair battled tooth and nail with tarmac ace Bruno Saby, the former gradually pulling away for much of the first day. Despite being over a minute clear, Toivonen was far from content, citing extreme exhaustion as a result of trying to keep the 600 horsepower Lancia planted on the terrifyingly narrow stages. A feat made all the more arduous by the fact that the tarmac stages allowed that power to be put down all the more effectively.
As day two dawned, the duo resumed proceedings. As the eighteenth stage neared, their lead over Saby stood at 1:42 seconds but of course you know what happened next. On a tightening left hander at the seventh kilometre of Corte-Teaverna, Toivonen and Cresto's Lancia Delta S4 left the road, fell into a cluster of trees and caught fire. Having crashed in a remote, unattended area no marshals were in hand to help. Both Toivonen and Crest died at the scene and within 24 hours FISA announced the immediate cessation of all Group B competition cars. Given the seismic consequences that followed the accident, the mystery surrounding it borders on enigmatic. No one knows what happened on that lonely road in Corsica, why the Lancia left the road at the point where it did. It remains the darkest day the sport has ever known.
Awhile back I was sifting through the history of motorsport fatalities and began to wonder. There was a vivid, albeit cynical, argument for the notion that careers that are trageally cut short are in some way overinflated, glorified to an unreasonable degree. I've never seen much sense in that argument and I certainly don't think it holds water here. Both Henri Toivonen and Sergio Crest are bonafide victors at motorsports uppermost echelon and fully deserve every accolade they have received both in life and in death. I'm not one of acts of assertion, but to those of you who ask "Well, what would their legacies have been had they lived?" understand this: Had Toivonen and Cresto not perished that day, had they gone on to contest the entire season and beyond they would have carved out their legacies the old fashioned way: By becoming The World Rally Champions of 1986. Yes, I'm that certain. Cresto's adaptability and preparation was beyond admirable and, when allied to Toivonen's supernatural skill behined the wheel, the pairing would have been simply unstoppable. Henri Toivonen will always be a worthy custodian of the title of 'Rallying legend' but on what should have been Sergio Cresto's 65th birthday I would like to stick my neck out and say the world of rallying lost to one but two superstars that day.
Rest easy Henri and Sergio
The sport you both loved may have changed beyond recognition but you're collective exploits will never be forgotten.