Rally Review -- Monte Carlo Rally 1991

The fortunes of British teams in world class rallying have been pretty impoverished since the fruitful days of the Ford Escort RS. British teams using British cars, that is. First Peugeot began monopolising victory rostrums, then Lancia, and it was not until Toyota began to notch up wins that the Italian team had any opposition at all. Then came other Japanese teams, but there was a distinct absence of a British car capable of taking on this Euro-Japanese opposition.

Ford had a car with a powerful engine, and another with a good four-wheel drive system, but they were separate cars and a fusion of the two was not homologated. Eventually, a combination car appeared, but it still took some considerable time to complete all the testing and to produce a competitive machine with both a powerful Cosworth engine and four-wheel drive.

Its initial appearances were not startling, but last October, when the works Sierra Cosworth 4x4s performed so well in the Sanremo Rally, eyebrows were finally raised. True, they had various problems on that occasion and of the three entered only one finished, in eleventh place, but whilst they were running they certainly made their marks, often putting up the best times on special stages. At last, a British car was being noticed again.

Technological expertise is a commodity in which Britain is rich, and for which she is highly respected, both in the domain of design and development and in that of the mechanic on the ground, the latter field being one in which many British 'mercenaries', as they are commonly called 'within the trade', are gainfully employed by foreign manufacturers' teams.

It is an extraordinary, if not curious, circumstance that we British know how to produce successful competition cars, but have not actually been doing so with our own raw material for some time. The explanation no doubt lurks in the decline of the homespun British car manufacturing industry, usurped by unchecked imports which have eventually led to multinational manufacturing on British soil.

In this situation, British bred cars have not excelled in recent years, but the writing is on the wall. We all know that Ford is really American, not British, but historically American and British Fords have been poles apart. Can you imagine a 1962 Anglia being considered American, or a Galaxie British? More recently, the Escort, Orion, Sierra etc have all had their nursery beds scattered, but although Fords can be German, Belgian, even Spanish, as well as British, it is the Union Jack which flies over Boreham.

That Boreham was on its way forward with the Ford Sierra Cosworth could not be doubted after the 1990 Sanremo Rally. During the 1991 Monte Carlo Rally, it demonstrated that it had actually arrived. Against opposition from Lancia, Toyota, Mitsubishi and Mazda, the car showed a clean pair of heels to everyone and took a lead which it showed no signs of losing. And this is only an interim car, pending full development and homologation of the Escort RS Cosworth in readiness for 1992.

Who was driving the car which created such a talking point? His name was Francois Delecour, but who was he? Where did he come from? How and why did Ford sign him up? These and similar questions were being asked by many at Monaco when this 29 year old Frenchman from Lille took over the lead of the Monte Carlo Rally and held it until the very last special stage when a completely unexpected component failure caused a delay which dropped him to third place.

To his compatriots and many international observers, Francois Delecour needs no introduction. He has been driving in the French Rally Championship for several years and, although he has never won a single event, has made a name for himself as a spirited and talented competitor. In 1987 he drove a Peugeot in his national championship and finished ninth, but the next year he used a BMW M3, drove in just three events and had a lean year. In 1989 he drove for Peugeot Concessionaires and finished fourth in the French Championship, but was obliged to accept the services of a co-driver other than his regular partner, Anne-Chantal Pauwells.

In 1990 those at Boreham were told of Delecour's prowess by their Ford France colleagues and the outcome must have been as much of a surprise to him as it was to others. He was signed to drive in five of the nine World Championship events which Ford has on its programme for 1991, starting with the 1991 Monte Carlo Rally. He immediately contacted his former co-driver and persuaded her to rejoin him, which may have been a difficult decision for her as she is a commercial helicopter pilot.

Five major teams were tackling the Monte Carlo Rally this year. Ford's entry consisted of three cars for Malcolm Wilson, Alessandro Fiorio and Delecour. They all finished in the top ten, although Wilson's performance was hampered by a painful recurrence of the effects of an old leg injury.

Toyota also had three Celica 2000 GT-4s for Carlos Sainz, Armin Schwarz and Marc Duez who had joined the Toyota Team Europe team from the Fina-backed Belgian Ford team. There had also been a reshuffle of co-drivers. Sainz had his regular partner Luis Moya, but Schwarz was partnered by Arne Hertz who was replacing Klaus Wicha on Ove Andersson's advice on the grounds that the German driver would benefit from Hertz' considerable experience. Wicha had moved to join Duez.

There were five 16-valve Delta Integrales in the Lancia line-up, two entered by Martini-Lancia, two by Lancia-Fina and one by the Jolly Club. Driving the latter car in the number one position was 1990 winner Didier Auriol, whilst the Martini cars were in the hands of Massimo Biasion, Juha Kankkunen. The two Fina cars were driven by Bruno Saby and Yves Loubet.

Mitsubishi had two Galant VR4s from its UK Ralliart base, driven by Timo Salonen and Kenneth Eriksson, whilst a third from Mitsubishi Germany was driven by Ronald Holzer.

The Mazda Rally Team entered two 4wd 323s for Hannu Mikkola and the team's Spanish newcomer Jesus Puras, whilst two others had been entered privately by Finnish Lady driver Minna Sillankorva and the Belgian Gregoire de Mevius, the latter back in a Group N version of the car.

The only British crew among the 164 starters was Malcolm Wilson/Nick Grist, a far cry from years past when a long cavalcade used to set out from Glasgow's Blythswood Square. On the other hand, there were plenty of British faces among management and engineering staff, not to mention ice-note crews. The starting points this year were Rheims, Sestriere, Lausanne, Bad Homburg and Barcelona. There was no start at Monaco itself.

Some years ago the organisers introduced special stages at the end of the concentration runs in order that there might be a significant classification when the cars reached the Principality. This, they said, was in response to complaints from newsmen that the arrival fell flat because there had been no competition. This gave rise to a converging control somewhere in the Alps, and what was called a 'Classification Leg' to bring competitors to Monte Carlo. This year the Classification Leg took place after the first arrival in Monaco, and the Concentration Run was left without any special stages, as it used to be years ago.

The rally also began two days earlier than before, thus finishing on the Wednesday morning instead of the usual Friday. The concentration runs lasted from the Thursday to the Friday evening, after which the entire field set off from Monaco from 7 am on the Saturday. There were night stops at Aubenas, Digne and Monaco, and the competitive legs numbered three, containing six, twelve and nine special stages respectively. The final night, traditionally in the Alpes Maritimes since the post-rally circuit race was abandoned in the Sixties, took place at night, looping several times to include two trips each over the Col de la Couillole, Col St Raphael and Col de la Madonne, and three over the Col de Turini.

Tyres play an important role in any rally, but in Monte Carlo they are crucial. Road surfaces can vary enormously, and it is vital always to have the type of tyre which provides optimum grip. The tyre suppliers aim to provide teams with enough variations of compound/size/tread/stud to cover all eventualities, but it is the ultimate responsibility of drivers to make their own choice from these varieties. Hence the need for ice-note cars.

It is not unusual for teams to have three ice-note crews per competing car, and all of them, armed with copies of their competitors' pace notes and a supply of coloured pens, drive over the stages as late as possible before they are closed by the police. Their job is to note every single feature of the road surface, marking the notes accordingly. Snow must be categorised — fresh, packed, slushy etc — and if it appears only in patches, then the exact positions must be precisely located in the notes, even down to whether the patches are on the left, centre or right, on the braking point into, the apex of, or the acceleration distance from a corner. Ice must be similarly pin-pointed and categorised.

A stage which is entirely covered by snow is easy to note. So are those which are entirely snow-free, although in the latter case wet or damp patches must be shown in case the temperature drops and they freeze. Temperature readings are also taken regularly.

After making their observations and carefully recording them, the ice-noters must then return to the stage start in order to give them to their competing crews, and that is not always easy along roads often thronged with spectators. It is possible to pass the notes by radio, but this is not the best solution as mistakes can often be made, and even the most slightly mislocated red line on the notes can very easily send a competitor flying off the road. Furthermore, it is always best for confidence that competing drivers talk personally to their ice-note crews before choosing their tyres for a stage.

This year, one British ice-note crew found its way back to a stage start hampered considerably by spectator traffic. It became obvious that they were not going to make it in time, so the enterprising navigator and note-maker of the crew stopped a passing motorcyclist who was more than happy to take him on the pillion to his team's pre-stage service point, where he arrived in time.

This year the surfaces of all the stages were predominantly dry, but there were patches of ice and snow, so accuracy was vital. There were also wet or damp patches and, with temperatures hovering around the freezing point, they too were just as important. The ice-note crews certainly earned their money this year.

It was interesting to note that whereas a stage with many ice and snow patches would have been tackled on partly-studded tyres some ten years ago, the prominent choice for the same stage this year was slicks. This is due to advances in tyre development and the production of highly efficient rubber compounds. Tyre heaters were much in evidence, but Pirelli made much use of slicks made from its new 'C' compound which requires no pre-heating since it attains optimum temperature in less than a hundred yards.

The first special stage was a run up to the top of the Col de Turini from Peira Cava, along the road invariably used by spectators during the final night, when the other roads over the pass are used. Loubet commented afterwards, "There was more snow on the road than I had on my notes". Obviously, spectators had been indulging in some shovelling, a practice which was repeated several times during the rally, especially during the final night.

Salonen complained of understeering, Mikkola had his brakes catch fire, whilst Fiorio lost his turbo pressure. Ford mechanics changed the turbocharger, but on the next stage pressure was lost again. It was not until after two replacements that the engine ran properly at full power again.

Schwarz collected a puncture on the second stage, went off and badly damaged the front right of his Toyota. He emerged from the stage on the rim and various repairs were done, but the car handled badly for some time afterwards, until mechanics had the opportunity to replace the suspension. Later, the German driver suffered intercom failure and Hertz had to indulge in some loud shouting. Both Kankkunen and Saby spun on the second stage, the latter driver, who was not feeling at all well and was later sick, having to be pushed back to the road by spectators. Mikkola was slowed by what was said to have been a ignition problem. It certainly was not one which could easily be rectified, because he did not appear at the start of the third stage.

The third stage, over the Col de Corobin then on towards Digne, was very tricky indeed, with many patches of ice and snow. The number of bent and crumpled body panels at the end of the stage indicated that many had been off into banks and rocks. Delecour made such a hard landing after a jump that he thought he had destroyed all his shock absorbers. Ford at first said that they did not need changing, but later agreed that all of them had been replaced after the stage. Wilson, too, needed shock absorber attention. Stage Four was disastrous for Auriol. For no reason, his engine suddenly stopped and he was quite unable to discover the cause. He tried in vain many times to restart it, but it was not until after some nine minutes had passed that, equally suddenly, it burst into life again. Afterwards, virtually every electronic component on the car was replaced, but no-one was able to discover the cause of the failure. Later, the engine failed again, and this time Auriol was out. Actually, he went off the road, but this was caused by a sudden oil leak soaking his brakes.

Holzer needed a replacement gearbox, Eriksson had a rear brake catch fire and a hydraulic leak, whilst Delecour quite casually said that on the fifth stage he missed a gear several times and could go faster. Salonen had his front differential replaced.

At Aubenas there was a night stop signalling the end of the Classification Leg, after which the rally went on to the infamous stage on the high plateau above the small town of Burzet in the Ardôche, scene of several near riots in the past when snow stopped some two-thirds of the runners, and again when protesters deposited wickedly angled spikes on the road, causing a rash of punctures to police vehicles, officials and ice-note cars.

During practice there had been a light fall of snow on the plateau; not enough in itself to cause problems, but wind built up some bad drifts and for some time the road was completely blocked. Like the previous stages, during the rally it was predominantly dry, with snow and ice patches on the plateau and on the descent, which is on the shady side of the mountain. Tyre choice was tricky. Some chose studded tyres; others slicks, but most people were not quite happy with their choice.

Saby suffered fuel pump failure, whilst Delecour lost 15 seconds due to spinning. However, he was nevertheless very happy indeed to be in second place behind Carlos Sainz, a position he was determined to keep to the end. Fiorio lost front drive after just 2 km into stage nine, whilst Eriksson ran out of petrol after being misled by a defective gauge. He was fortunate enough to be near a friendly policemen who was very happy to let the Swedish driver have a couple of litres. All the time competitors were conscious of the fact that they had made their notes in standard cars. Many were having to upgrade them as they went along, mentally converting "fast" to "very fast" and so on. Alain Oreille, who was making ice notes for Loubet, told him, "You nearly killed me with your notes. You must have practised in a soapbox!" At the mid-leg stop at Digne, all teams carried out precautionary component changes, but it was perfectly obvious that Delecour's car was the one which needed least attention. It seems that he is quick, but also sympathetic towards his car.

Fiorio had had several problems, whilst Wilson was battling against the pain of his old leg injury and was certainly not in the best shape to repeat his sterling Sanremo performance.

After the restart, Schwarz had a slight engine oil leak, whilst Sainz needed his gearbox changed after two stages; Eriksson his rear differential. Holzer had retired after crashing into the side of a house, whilst Florio found himself fumbling when his gear lever knob came off and lodged under the pedals. Before arriving at Monaco, Delecour needed a new rear light cluster and bumper after going off slightly, but his determination to keep his second place had been so great that he had moved up to be just nine seconds behind Sainz. It was indeed going to be a close and tense struggle during the final night, provided unruly spectators refrained from upsetting the balance of talent by throwing more snow on the road.

After a night and a morning of rest, the field restarted from Casino Square at 3 pm and it wasn't long before Delecour had made up his small deficit and moved into the lead. The reaction was immediate among the watchers. Here was a man who had never won a rally in his life beating the World Champion! In fairness, it must be said that Sainz had been more than a little perturbed by the snow which had been thrown on to the road and was probably keeping just a little in reserve in case he encountered an unexpected and un-noted slippery patch.

During the first half of the night, Delecour went on to extend his lead to 44 seconds, and it seemed that there was no stopping this Frenchman and his lady co-driver.

Eventually, Sainz declared that there was no more point in trying to recatch him, and he resigned himself to second place. In the second half of the final night the pattern continued, Delecour staying resolutely ahead of Sainz, with Biasion trailing some five minutes behind. It continued, that is, until the very last stage, the third run over the Turini, when everything changed again.

The first reports indicated that Delecour had gone off the road and stopped. Then it was said that he had collected a puncture. In any event, he had lost so much time that Sainz had been able to retake the lead. Later, Ford explained that the left rear suspension support rose joint had broken, causing Delecour to think that he had a wheel loose. He stopped near a knot of spectators and asked them to check whether his wheel was intact and on firmly. They confirmed this and he carried on, but when he hit an unexpected snow patch he could not control the car and it went off the road. He was able to carry on, but he lost some six minutes and dropped to third place.

It had been a most remarkable drive on Delecour's part, but we will not imitate the sponsor that said in writing after Sainz lost the 1989 RAC Rally to Airikkala due to a breakage in the final stages that Sainz had been the moral victor.

Morals don't come into it, and mechanical reliability is as much part of rallying as skill and tenacity. Cheating apart, there is no moral winner of a rally, just a winner, and in this case the victory went to Sainz and Moya of the Toyota team.

However, Delecour, Pauwells and the Ford team performed magnificently, and one cannot help but commiserate with them over their final stage misfortune. Delecour not only proved himself, but the car too, and we look forward to hotly contested rallies in the future, with no one team holding a vast advantage. --GP

***

Monte Carlo Rally, 24-30 January, 1991

Round 1 of 14 rounds, World Rally Championship for Drivers

Round 1 of 10 rounds, World Rally Championship for Makes

Results (top five):

1st. Carlos Sainz (E)/Luis Moya (E) (Toyota Celica 2000 GT-4). Gp A -- 6h 57m 21s.

2nd. Massimo Biassion (I)/Tiziano Siviero (I) (Lancia Delta Integrale). Gp A -- 7h 02m 20s.

3rd. François Delecour (F)/Anne-Chantal Pauwells (F) (Ford Sierra Cosworth). Gp A -- 7h 02m 33s.

4th. Armin Schwartz (D)/Arne Hertz (S) (Toyota 2000 GT-4). Gp A -- 7h 03m 52s

5th. Juha Kankkunen (SF)/Julia Piironen (SF) (Lancia Delta Integrale). Gp A -- 7h 05m 07s.

164 starters, 75 finishers.