Taking the rough with the smooth

Admit it, you thought drivers like this were last seen in the '60s.  As adept at storming special stages as taming Spa in 24-hour enduros, Marc Duez is a great all-rounder.  John Davenport unravels an incredibly versatile career. 

You’ll often find motoring writers banging on about the virtues of versatility and how the ability to perform in different cars and in different disciplines is a characteristics of greatness. Well, sometimes we miss what is right under our noses.

One of the most charming guys competing in motorsport today has driven just about everything but a Formula One car and has tackled every discipline barring rally raids. Along the way he has campaigned a range of cars from a Citroën 2CV to Porsche 962 via March single-seaters and Ferrari 550 Maranellos. He has notched up titles in rallying and racing, won seven 24-hour races and partnered drivers from Nelson Piquet to Lella Lombardi. 

The story of Marc Duez started in Verviers within earshot of the Spa circuit in 1957. His father was a hotelier with a successful business located in the forest right above Malmédy and the circuit. The young Duez was expected to follow in his father’s footsteps: “It was my parents’ dream, but not mine. There was a waiter in my father’s hotel who had a Mini Cooper. He was a big fan of racing and used to do the hillclimb at Malmédy.  I used to follow him round and when I was about 10 he took me to see my first grand prix at Spa. After that I knew what I wanted to do.”

Duez Snr was something of a car fan himself – “He drove fast on the road in Opel Commodores and things like that: he was a bit mad” – so when his son wanted to start in karts there was not too much opposition. But shortly after getting his road licence he had an accident and damaged his back, thus ruling out further career development in karts. 

He chose to enter the Volant Teddy Pilette, a scheme intended to school young race drivers in Formula Vee. At the end of the 1977 season, involving races at Zolder and Zandvoort – but not Spa – Duez emerged as the winner. He was fortunate in having a friend who helped him find sponsorship to pay his way: “I had money to survive from my parents and I did some work in other people’s restaurants, but even that was not enough. My friend convinced the PR from Toyota Belgium to lend me a Celica and I started racing it. I did the 600km at Spa and finished second in class. 

“That same year I had my introduction to rallies – as a co-driver. I went with a guy in his Porsche and read notes on the Boucles de Spa. Unfortunately I had no idea about timing. We would have been second but I checked in much too early at the service area and we came 11th or something. But he had good self-control and I survived!”

The 1977 season also saw him make the first of his 25 attempts on the 24 Hours of Spa, at the wheel off the same Toyota.

Duez’s debut as a rally driver was in the Boucles de Spa in 1978 when, having managed to get a proper works Celica from Toyota Belgium, he finished fifth: “At that time Toyota Team Europe had their cars in a section of a big Toyota dealership, so I was taken there and introduced to Ove Andersson. He thought I was a promising rally driver so I didn’t want to tell him that I really knew nothing about them”. The result was quite pleasing, especially as the Autosport report referred to him as “a local man known as Marc Duez, said to be on his first ever rally”. 

Among those he impressed was Ford’s Gilbert Staepeleare, who invited Duez to join him driving Escorts. This he did for two years in Belgium, but he drove a Toyota again in the Spa 24 Hours in 1978 – the last to use the old circuit – when he shared a Trueno GT with Lella Lombardi and Thierry Boutsen.

At the end of 1979 Fiat Belgium ran a competition for which the winner would apparently get a factory-spec 131 Abarth for ’80. Duez came out on top and drove a 131 twice in Belgian events at the end of ’79, only to discover that the full works Fiat drive for ’80 was the product of a PR man’s fertile imagination. So he picked up what he could with Ford and raced in the Belgian Formula Ford Championship, in which he took second place. For the second time he contested the Spa 24 Hours in a Capri before signing a deal with Belga to drive a Porsche 911SC on Belgian rallies in 1981.

That same year a Dutch entrant paid Duez to drive in the European Formula Ford series: “I had just one mechanic to travel around to the races and we could have won the series, but the organisers changed the rules near the end of the season and decided that one result could be dropped, so we were second.”

The rallies were much more satisfying: now teamed with Willy Lux, Duez was second on the Boucles de Spa and won both Condroz and the Criterium Bianchi. He also had his first contact with Tom Walkinshaw, who put him in a Mazda RX7 for the Spa 24 Hours along with Jeff Allam, Peter Lovett and Chuck Nicholson. The outcome was his first proper result in that race, a fine fifth overall. 

The Porsche/Belga deal continued in expanded form for 1982 and saw Duez win the first of his three Belgian Rally Championship titles. With a few trips further afield to other events he got enough points to be fifth in the European Rally Championship. He also somehow found the time to contest the European Super Vee Championship, in which he finished second. 

In rallying this was the era when the Audi Quattro was making its mark and Duez approached the Belgian importer for a drive in 1983. He in turn went to Audi Sport which suggested that Konrad Schmidt, one of its partners, could provide a car. And so it was that Duez and Lux started driving Audis in Belgian and German events. They started by winning the Boucles de Spa and went on to win Haspengouw and finish fourth in Ypres behind two Lancia 037s and a Ferrari 308.

The next most significant event for Duez at this time was going with an Opel Manta GT/E to the Portuguese Rally. The car belonged to Leon Lejeune, an experienced Belgian co-driver: “Leon said to me, ‘Forget everything you have done to date because my Opel is a really normal road car and this is a very tough rally. Just do what I say and we can finish.’ And so I drove more slowly than ever before and we did finish, without recce, and we won Group A and gave points to Opel for the WRC. For my career it was great as Michèle (Mouton) lent us her pace notes and I got experience of a long gravel rally.”

Duez and Lejeune entered the RAC Rally at the end of the year in the Opel, but this time the engine failed them after just five stages.

Duez was finding that travel did broaden one’s horizons. After the Mazda drive in 1981, he further impressed Walkinshaw by depriving the Scot’s Jaguar’s of the European Touring Car title when he came second in a BMW 63 5CSi at Zolder.

TWR was now preparing Rovers for racing and rallying and an introduction to Austin-Rover resulted in Duez netting a deal to race Vitesses alongside Jean-Louis Schlesser in the French Touring Car Championship plus some ETC rounds (incluing the Spa 24 Hours, where with J-L S he finished eighth).

At the same time he got a small programme of rallies in a Rover for 1984 in the Benelux countries, with the promise of a Metro 6R4 drive when the car was ready. This materialised during ’85, when Duez made his debut on a brace of British National rallies, finishing fourth on the Cumbria and second on the Audi – not bad for a man with little experience of driving sans pace notes.

Before that, Duez had been keeping his hand in by doing some German championship rallies in an A2 Quattro. He won the Metz Rally in 1985 when the two leading contenders, Stig Blomqvist in a Sport Quattro and Kalle Grundel in a Peugeot 205 T16, crashed into one another at the stop line of a stage. 

For 1986 Duez drove a Schmidt-prepared Metro 6R4 on a selection of European and WRC rallies, winning on the Hunsruck and taking the podium in Ypres and Criterium Bianchi, but suffering more than his fair share of mechanical unreliability on WRC rounds. The Rover racing was not much better and he sat out most of the Spa 24 Hours in a year that Rover and TWR would prefer to forget. But one bright spot was his ‘loan’ to Ray Mallock’s effort to win the World Sportscar Group C2 constructors’ title with an Ecosse C286 using 6R4 V6 power. Between them they pulled it off, with three wins at the Nürburgring, Spa and Fuji towards the end of the season. 

With the torpedoing of Group B rally cars at the end of 1986 and the end of ARG’s motorsport programmes, it was clear that Duez needed a new job. He found one with BMW and Prodrive. 

This relationship started with an M3 rally car. Duez was immediately successful, not just in Belgian events but also on occasional WRC rounds such as the Tour of Corsica. He did his first Monte Carlo Rally in an M3 in 1989 and finished eighth, though for him that is not the most memorable thing about that event; “It was where I met my wife, Florence. She was driving a Mazda, and on a recce she had a little accident and I was able to help her.”

When the BMW/Prodrive train ran out of steam, Duez too his Fina sponsorship and got behind the wheel of an RAS Sierra Cosworth. The programme was the Belgian Rally Championship, which he won comfortably from Bruno Thiry while, for his regular summer date with the Spa 24 Hours, he remained true to BMW and finished second in an M3 shared with Christian Danner and Dieter Quester. 

Rallywise, the wheel was about to turn and he found himself associated with TTE again. He joined the WRC team for 1991 and was plunged straight into the Monte Carlo Rally: “This was a big mistake on my part. I didn’t know the car very well and didn’t have the chance to do the testing and practice that I would have liked. There I was in a team with Carlos (Sainz) and Armin (Schwarz) on the technically most difficult rally in the calendar and I knew that I was going to struggle.”

In fact Duez’s stage times were not bad, but problems getting the car to restart at the halt in Annot put him out of contention at the finish. 

Later in the year he notched up solid WRC results in the Celica GT-4 – fourth in Corsica and eighth on the RAC Rally – but it was hardly enough to earn him a regular drive. He was happy to spend the next few years testing for TTE and getting on with some racing. 

And here Duez finally came to establish himself as a 24-hour specialist. Driving for Gabriele Rafanelli’s BMW team he won the Nürburgring 24 Hours in 1992, finished second in the Spa 24 Hours in ’94-’96, won again at the ’Ring in ’95 and took both races in ’97 and ’98!  He also drove for the Bavarian marque for five years in the ice-racing Andros Trophy.

In 1997 Marc joined Justin Bell in an ORECA-prepared Chrysler Viper GTS-R and won the GR2 class in the Spa Four hours. By ’99 the Viper had become his stock in trade as international touring car racing declined and even the Spa 24 Hours went GT. It is not surprise therefore that he added another endurance win at the circuit to his CV in 2001 at the wheel of one of the American muscle cars. 

On the rally front Duez started his own business based in Monaco, from where he hired out rally cars. To promote the idea he drove the Monte Carlo in 1998 with a Mitsubishi Lancer Evo 4 and took fourth in Group N, only to improve on that with an Evo 5 in ’99, winning Group N and coming 10th overall. The business did not prosper and he sold it, but in the interim SEAT asked him to perform development and rallies with their Group A ‘kit car’ based on the Ibiza and this soon widened into a deal to help develop its Cordoba WRC car.    He drove both on a few rallies in 1998 and ’99, but once the programme petered out in 2001 he looked for another deal. 

This came in the form of a Belgian season for 2004 in a Super 1600 Polo, which he did not really take to: “The best thing you can say about front-wheel drive is that it is a good way to learn how to brake very late and be fast in the corner. But I don’t like them. For me it is correct to have the rears driven.”

And, by happy chance, his latest project sees him back in a ‘proper’ rear-wheel-drive car. This is the Porsche GT3 Road Challenge that is running in Belgium this year. The idea is to have a dozen identical GT3s prepared for rallies to a reworked N-GT regulation so that they can be accepted on Belgian national events. They can be hired by the rally or for the season and will replace some of the spectacle lost when the WRC cars are banned from all European rally series. Duez had a run-out in one of the cars on a rally in 2004 and is aiming to enter more in ’05. And he runs his own instruction courses at Spa – where else?

Could be that Duez-trained drivers will notch up endurance wins on the circuit that inspired him.