Didier Auriol’s victory on the opening round of the World Rally Championship might have been widely predicted before the start, but the manner of his success was not…
Had anyone suggested before the start of the final night of the Monte-Carlo Rally that, with just four special stages to go, the man who was third could make up an entire minute and a half by sheer performance and ability and win the event by a margin of 15s, that someone would have been considered either an inexperienced, unseasoned speculator or a very poor joker. Yet, that is precisely what happened in the Alpes Maritimes at the end of January.
Driving one of Ford’s new four-wheel-drive Escort Cosworths, French crew Francois Delecour and Daniel Grataloup completely dominated the event and looked all set to score their first ever rally victory and to restore Ford to the ranks of the world’s predominant teams.
But it didn’t happen. With an amazing turn of speed, their compatriots Didier Auriol and Bernard Occelli, having their first drive in a Toyota Celica after leaving Martini Lancia at the end of last year, forged ahead during that last night and staggered the pundits by snatching the spoil from the very mouths of the Ford crew, just as they seemed certain to devour it.
It was an occasion of both revelry and depression. Auriol, who established a record by netting six World Championship wins last year but still didn’t score enough points to become champion, was over the moon with delight, as were all the Toyota people. The Ford team, on the other hand, was stunned. What had seemed certain to be a first-outing victory for the new Escort Cosworth had been plucked suddenly away and the planned celebrations had to be abandoned. To win is to reap an abundant harvest; to be second is to scrape at mere stones.
It can legitimately be argued that MonteCarlo has delivered more shocks and sensations than all other rallies put together, so this sudden switch of fortune could be considered no more startling than events of the past which have been equally, if not more, amazing. However, a surprise is a surprise, no matter what has gone before, and when Auriol took the bit between his teeth and toppled Delecour, people just gasped in disbelief.
Notwithstanding this demoralising blow, the Boreham team had no cause to slink away with its tail between its legs. On the contrary, it was able to carry its head high. It was a great comeback after the long-gone, successful days of the old Escort — and we don’t mean the original model of the late ’50s, an estate car based on the Prefect — since which Ford has been in the doldrums.
The Sierra, firstly with either a Cosworth engine or four-wheel-drive and only much later with both, was really no more than a stop-gap. It was not as agile as its rivals, although at times it did put up a startling performance, as Delecour knows, having lost almost certain victory over more established cars in 1991 when he stopped in the final special stage due to the effects of a broken rose joint.
The new Escort Cosworth is an entirely different car, quite unlike its earlier namesake and equally unlike the Sierra. There are features which are similar, of course, and it is just as much an electronic complexity as all the others nowadays, but much of its make-up is nevertheless due to honest-to-goodness design, sweat over the drawing board (or computer screen, or the back of an envelope!) and old-fashioned, suck-it-and-see testing on the actual rally ground.
Were we to list the changes, we would consume all the pages available. Let’s just say that it is smaller, lighter, just as powerful and tractable as, but possessed of better handling than the Sierra. Of course, new FISA regulations have contributed and, whilst we do not agree with all of them, we cannot but welcome the move to reduce service opportunities and to reintroduce the need for at least some old-fashioned reliability.
In recent years, incited by FISA’s gradual but far-reaching rule changes, rally teams have adopted the attitude of their Formula One counterparts; build it to last just for the duration required. Tyres, for instance, are meant to survive just one special stage, and drivers are as upset by an unworn tyre as they are with one which has been totally destroyed. Turbochargers, gearboxes, differentials, suspensions, brake systems and many other components all became considered consumables. If something broke, mechanics would be on hand to replace it instantly.
Service was no longer provided only where team logistics could supply it. It had to be laid on before and after every single competitive section. Anything short of that and the chances of success were greatly diminished, even wiped out. At one stroke, service platoons became service regiments and costs escalated through the roof. Competitors only had to get to the end of a special stage and the might of their factories’ facilities would descend upon them to reconstruct their cars into new machines.
Reliability, the very essence of rallying, became eroded and entire events were transformed into series of short sprints divided by roadside fettling sessions that would do justice to those of a modern, fully-equipped workshop. Building a car to last was no longer essential. The maxim was, ‘Make it fast. Fragility doesn’t matter. If it breaks, we’ll be there to fix it …”
New rules which came into effect in January this year have gone a few inches of the way to rectifying that situation. A turbocharger may now be changed only once in each leg of a rally and the spare must be marked and carried in the competing car. Furthermore, gearboxes and differentials may be changed only once per rally. However, such components removed from a car may then be refettled and later refitted to the same car during the same event.
This is going at least some of the way to restore sanity to a sport which has become so engulfed by business and commercial interests that its roots are being eaten away. Everyone knows what happens to a tree when subjected to that sort of treatment, so the sooner FISA turns back the clock, forgets its moneyspinning F1 simulation measures and returns to the days of basic, honest-to-goodness rallying, the better.
Other new rules also came into effect in January. Maximum tyre width, for instance, has been reduced from 10 inches to nine, whilst maximum exterior tyre diameter, when mounted on wheels, has been fixed at 650 mm (why not 25.6 inches we cannot imagine). Minimum Group A vehicle weight (including spare turbocharger carried in the car) has been increased from 1,100 to 1,200 kg, and, for ratification (English for the French ‘homologation’, lest you had overlooked it!) in that group, the minimum production figure has been reduced from 5,000 to 2,500.
There is no longer any freedom as far as fuel supplies are concerned. In Europe, leading teams are obliged to use that supplied by FISA (unleaded 98 octane) whilst elsewhere 100 octane AVGAS may be used.
On the administrative side, both drivers’ and makes’ championships are now based on the same 13 events, but in the makes’ series only crews nominated in advance (minimum 30 days) may score points. This, we feel, is a retrograde step. If a private driver is good enough to get into the top 10 of a World Championship event, then the manufacturer of the car, as well as its driver, should be entitled to points.
In Monte-Carlo, Bruno Thiry took his two-wheel-drive Opel Astra to eighth place, a fine achievement, but, because Opel (or GM, or whatever) had not made an advance nomination of an official team, no makes points were awarded. The same happened in the case of Christophe Spiliotis who finished ninth overall in his Lancia Delta integrale and won the Group N category. His was the highest placed Lancia to finish and, last year, the make would thereby have scored 10 points. This year, Lancia gets nothing from Spiliotis’ fine efforts, merely because of the lack of nomination, and we feel that this is unjust, whether the driver was supported by the factory or not. To deny championship merit simply due to the absence of a piece of paperwork is ludicrous.
There were four nominated teams at Monte-Carlo, Ford, Lancia, Mitsubishi and Toyota, each having entered two cars. Several crews were having their first outings for new teams and the line-up was as follows.
The two Toyota Celica Turbos were driven by Auriol/Occelli and Juha Kankkunen/Juha Piironen, the former pair new to the team and the latter having returned after an absence of some years with Lancia. Both Toyotas were backed by Castrol and bore the colours of the Swindon company. In turn, Lancia had one crew which had just moved from Toyota, Carlos Sainz/Luis Moya. The second Delta integrale was driven by Andrea Aghini/Sauro Farnocchia. Both Lancias were entered by the Jolly Club, Sainz’ car being backed by the Spanish oil company, Repsol.
The two new Ford Escort Cosworths were driven by crews which were with the team last year, Francois Delecour/Daniel Grataloup and Massimo Biasion/Tiziano Siviero. Mitsubishi also had a new car, the Lancer which, unlike the Galant, did not have four-wheel-steering. Crews were Kenneth Eriksson/Staffan Parmander and Armin Schwarz/Nicky Grist.
There were two works Skoda Favorits driven by Pavel Sibera/ Petr Gross and Emil Triner/Jiri Klima, whilst the Opel Astra GSi was entered privately by Belgians Bruno Thiry/Gilles Favier. Swiss champions Olivier Burri/Christophe Hofmann were in a Ford Sierra Cosworth 4×4 and Monaco pair Christophe Spiliotis/Herve Thibaus in a Group N Lancia Delta integrale.
Among the ladies entered were lsolde Holdereid/Christina Thorner in a Mitsubishi Galant VR4 and Christine Driano/Marie-Christine Lallement in a Citroen AX GT.
As usual, the rally had several start points in European towns, Bad Hombourg, Barcelona, Reims, Lausanne and Turin, the distance of these concentration runs to Monaco varying between 656 and 755 miles. From each itinerary, cars arrived at Monte-Carlo on the Friday evening, after which there was a night stop before the restart from the Monaco quayside on the Saturday morning.
The weather was cold, but fine and dry with a little fog here and there. There was not a single trace of snow on any of the special stages and some may consider this to have therefore been an easy Monte-Carlo Rally, but that was not the case at all. Speeds were higher than usual, and the presence of the odd patch of ice made things very tricky indeed and placed considerable importance on the work of ice-note crews. Tyre warmers were much in evidence at the start of every special stage.
The first stage crossed the well-known Col de Turini, from Moulinet to La BoIlene Vesubie, a road which is more closely associated with the final night of the event than the first day. Aghini was fastest here, with Delecour just one second behind. Sainz collected a puncture whilst Auriol lost about a minute after hitting a wall, breaking his left rear strut and losing the wheel. Biasion had a halfshaft break and covered the last five miles of the stage with just two-wheel-drive.
There were huge crowds of spectators and, some three or four miles from the end, there was a large pool of oil on the road. The story was that this appeared because there was no snow for the crowd to shovel on to the road this year, but this was not confirmed.
After the Turini, the route crossed the Var river to the 14-miler which started at Pont des Miolans, climbed the famous ‘chute’ and finished just after the narrow, twisty gorge at St Auban. This was damp in parts, frosty in others and foggy for most of the way. Delecour made best time here and took the lead, but Auriol had more trouble when his front left tyre began to deflate slowly. He finished the stage on the rim.
Schwarz slid off the road after a puncture and damaged a driveshaft. Other transmission damage was also caused which led to a string of further halfshaft failures due to stripped splines. Indeed, later in the event Mitsubishi’s stock of halfshafts was being used up so rapidly that an aircraft was despatched overnight to Birmingham to collect a further supply.
The Fords were performing extremely well, but they could have done even better had not an engine misfire become evident, particularly on Biasion’s car. This persisted for much of the rally and it was not until a few days later that Ford engineers were able to cure it.
After another stage over the Col de Corobin and into Digne for a 15-minute stop came the familiar stage over first the Col St Jean and then the Col de Perty. Here again there were spectators all over the place, the price of starting the event during a weekend. Indeed some drivers said that they were unable to use maximum acceleration out of hairpins for fear of sliding wide and hitting someone.
Auriol lost a little more time on this stage when his handbrake jammed on at a hairpin and his Toyota spun. It was not being an encouraging first day for Toyota’s new French driver.
On the stage between La Motte Chancalon and St Nazaire-le-Desert in the Drome region, which is as desolate an area as the name suggests, Jean-Pierre Ballet (Peugeot 309) hit a 73-year old man, breaking his leg, and it was tragic that he later died in hospital after a heart attack.
Biasion’s engine was still misfiring and Auriol’s handbrake still sticking. Schwarz said that his car was bouncing around too much, probably due to suspension which was too soft.
The final stage of the day was on the west side of the Rhone, in the Ardeche region. This was from St Pierreville to Antraigues, where Schwarz had to stop to change his right rear wheel after a puncture and where Delecour found himself with a clutch which refused to disengage. Indeed, he had trouble leaving the start line. The stage was late starting, and many crews said that tyres which had previously been warmed were cold again before they were able to start.
At the night stop in Aubenas, Delecour had opened out a 90 second lead over Aghini, whilst Biasion was just another five seconds in arrears. Auriol was another 32 seconds behind, followed after just a single second by Sainz. Kankkunen followed another 39 seconds back. Eriksson and Schwarz were seventh and 10th respectively.
The next day began with a stage over the cold but snow-free plateau above Burzet, scene of much drama in the past due to blockages by snow. One year four-pronged nails were even scattered on the road, causing ice note cars, route-opening cars and police vehicles to have punctures. Yet again, Auriol spun at a hairpin, this time stalling his engine.
But at least one thing had pleased the Frenchman; he had been limited to 5,500 rpm and found that his engine was not giving its best at that speed. When he was allowed to go to 7,000 it improved dramatically.
After St Bonnet-le-Froid, as cold as it always is but this time snow-free, the stage from Lalouvesc to the Col du Marchand had to be stopped after some 25 cars to allow an ambulance to enter and collect a spectator who had hurt himself falling off a wall. Schwarz again suffered halfshaft failure — the front right.
At Rosans, Aghini collected a puncture soon after the start and had to stop to change the wheel, whilst Thiry rolled his Opel right on the finish line. He was able to continue, however. Delecour needed a new air filter after this stage.
On the last stage of the day, disaster struck the Jolly Club team. The road from Plan de VitroIles to Sigoyer crosses many small bridges and, since most of them are in the shade, they are notorious for being icy. When the ice note crews went through they were merely damp, but the ice soon formed afterwards and this is no doubt what caught out Sainz and Aghini.
Sainz hit one bridge and Aghini another. The Spaniard rolled but was helped back to the road by spectators and was able to continue, albeit with his front left wheel missing and leaving a trail of oil. Aghini was less fortunate as he could not get his car back to the road. At what seemed like one stroke, the Jolly Club lost one of its cars and had the other drop to 76th place.
There was a rest stop that night at Gap, but as it was not the end of a leg there was no change of order for the Monday restart and Sainz left just behind the leaders, his car having been completely refettled. Delecour was still in the lead, but this time it was team-mate Biasion who was behind him, by 1m 29s. Their nearest rival was Auriol, another 48 seconds behind. Kankkunen was fourth, but off the pace and another 2m 22s behind. The Finn has little liking for tarmac roads and only enjoys the Monte when it is very snowy.
The next morning, another oil patch mysteriously appeared on the first stage. Some cars spun; other drivers managed to avoid it. On the scond stage, from Sisteron to Thoard, both Delecour and Auriol went slightly off the road. They recorded identical times, six seconds behind Sainz who was fastest. Indeed, Sainz put in some excellent times during this day, determined to claw back as many places as possible.
Between Malijai and Puimichel, Schwarz found himself yet again with just two-wheel drive and he had to complete the remaining stages of the day like this before it was possible to replace his entire transmission system. Team-mate Eriksson found that his centre differential was not working properly and this had to be locked manually. Delecour’s engine was sounding healthy but he had been hampered on the stage when his brakes jammed on and refused to release for about a mile. Biasion still complained of a nagging misfire.
At the end of the leg all the teams had service arranged at La Turbie, high on the Grande Corniche overlooking Monaco. Here, considerable replacements took place, some cars being fitted with gearboxes which they had used on the first day and which in the meantime had been stripped and rebuilt.
The Tuesday was pretty well a day of rest, for the restart was not until 11.15 pm. Some drivers went up to the hills for a last-minute recce; others stayed in bed as long as they could or relaxed in other ways. But for mechanics and ice noters it was a different story. Service vehicles had to be restocked and taken out early in order to secure good positions, whilst the ice noters began their first runs as soon as possible, if only to record damp patches. Later in the evening, they kept a close watch on the movements of their thermometers, for damp patches can turn to ice in seconds.
The final night consisted of just one loop through five stages, and there were some who complained that this was a waste, that it should have been extended to two loops. Strange that, last year, there were complaints that two loops were dangerous and that just one would have been much better!
The first stage was over the Col de Turini, and when Delecour set best time the tension within the Ford team became noticeable. The Escorts were first and second, but would they be able to stay there to take a resounding one-two victory on their first outing? It certainty seemed that way, for their only close rival was Auriol who had well over a minute to make up on Delecour in just four stages.
It certainly seemed unlikely that Auriol, who had trouble with his brakes on the descent of the Turini, could gain that much time, but then, as another driver put it, “Something must have come loose inside Auriol’s head. He just went berserk”
That he did. Over the Col de la Couillole he beat Delecour by no less than 25s, an amazing feat. Tongues began to wag, as only they can in Monte-Carlo. Was Toyota doing something it shouldn’t? All manner of rumours began floating around, some concerning turbochargers (Auriol’s car was fitted with a new one after the Turini) and some concerning a fuel additive piped from a reservoir separate from the main tank. I saw no evidence of either irregularity, nor did I speak to anyone who did. For that matter, spot checks and final scrutiny revealed nothing amiss with the Toyota, so we’ll dismiss those stories. After all, Monte-Carlo is renowned as the greatest rumour-factory in the whole of rallying.
Having moved up to second place on the Cuillole, Auriol moved even closer to Delecour in the Entreveau stage, one which used to figure in the old Alpine Rally. The Toyota beat the Ford by just over half a minute, and then the gap was down to 20s. The tension could be cut by a knife. Was this really going to be a last minute snatch, or would Delecour hold on to his lead?
Meanwhile, Jean-Manuel Jenot put his Sierra Cosworth off the road and handed the Group N category to Spiliotis who very nearly lost it to Serpaggi when his Lancia refused to start after service and he lost a little road time.
Kankkunen hit a bank which contained a stone, causing a suspension bolt to fracture. The wheel began to flap and, thinking they had a puncture, they stopped to change it. When they saw the actual problem, they hastily carried on to have the damage repaired at their next service point.
On the last stage but one, Auriol continued to forge ahead, this time beating Delecour by 22s and moving into a 2s lead. The Ford driver was speechless. He really thought that he was heading for his first ever rally victory, to give Ford its first Monte win for 40 years.
On the last stage, Auriol made quite sure that he wasn’t going to hand back the advantage. He made best time yet again and thereby took an amazing victory by 15s from Delecour.
Auriol is fine driver who richly deserved his victory, but we must also give praise to the Ford team. Boreham certainly made a great comeback with the new Escort, and we look forward to many more stirring battles of this nature