Winning potential: but is that enough?

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After 29 years on this planet, Francois Delecour has never won a rally. Any kind of motor rally. Yet the Frenchman led his first World Championship event for Ford the 1991 version of a modest little qualifier they run down in Monte Carlo and remains the one man consistently tipped by rivals as a regular contender for victory.

So why is he so respected without actually having won?

I would draw a corollary with men like Jochen Rindt and Ronnie Peterson, both of whom took their time to score debut Grand Prix wins, rather than take a rallying example.

For Delecour is cast in the heroic driver mould, far from the patient technocrats who succeed in rallying and racing these days. If I had to draw a rallying role model for Delecour, it would be An Vatanen, albeit without the persistent total destruction that accompanied the most human of Finns. It’s a fitting comparison, for it was 1981 world champion Vatanen’s recommendation to Peter Ashcroft that persuaded Ford’s erstwhile competition manager to pluck Delecour from a works-backed Peugeot 309 GTI to the Ford factory team of muscular 4×4 Sierra Cosworths. Meeting Delecour for the first time in 1991, I found an engaging personality but a barely formed professional driver. It was just after he had led the Monte Carlo Rally with assurance, only for his Ford to suffer a last stage failure. A passenger ride over Siberian snows upon Boreham Airfield displayed shattering (that rear suspension defect abbreviated the display, once more) speed. Yet Delecour’s comments were so forthright and his experience so limited by comparison with the front running adversaries he faced in World Championship events that I remained unconvinced about his potential over all eight World Championship rallies that Ford tackled in 1991.

I am glad to say that I was wrong about his multi-surface speed, but remain sorry to write that he still has not earned a World Championship win. Last year, there were third places in Monte Carlo and Spain; in the first two events of 1992, he finished fourth on the Monte but reaped no reward for outpacing the field over the opening 14 stages of the Portuguese Rally.

I caught up with him on the Monte. Instead of a cafeteria in the midst of swirling snow flurries, we had to overcome the crowded lobby of the Beach Plaza and his status as a major French celebrity in contention for Monte Carlo victory. None of it made any difference to the man. He remained almost as forthright as ever, and the driving ambition that used to take him out on unauthorised night flights in his father’s car as a teenager remains equally undimmed. Delecour also carries with him a considerable physical presence, one far beyond his average height and the haircut of an untrimmed monk.

Anyone who can persuade you out of the driving seat of your road car and into accompanying a stranger’s first assault on right-hand drive around a snowy circuit has personality. He bubbles with laughter as he then proceeds to spin in fourth gear and confesses: “I have never driven a Sierra with no 4×4 before!” Safely seated in Monaco, I asked Delecour first of all to summarise his first major season in World Championship rallying. The response was prompt, and candid. “I was not happy. We had some mechanical problems with the car that have stopped us winning, but I have enjoyed Ford very much in that first year. I was nobody, then they gave me a World Championship chance.” A ‘nobody’ he may have been outside France, but within his homeland Delecour had made a considerable impact since his 1981 debut in an Autobianchi A112 which he shared with then girlfriend Anne-Chantal Pauwels. The pair from Cassel – midway between Lille and Calais – were competing on the Monte Carlo Rally by 1984, their Talbot Samba finishing 67th overall.

The Peugeot Talbot group and the enchanting Anne-Chantal were to provide the motivating forces in his driving and personal career for most of the ’80s, but he now has Daniel Grataloup co-driving to his entire satisfaction. He established a reputation for special stage speed at the wheel of front-drive 205 and 309 GTI hatchbacks, the monthly magazine Echappement electing him as its most promising driver of 1987. This honour had previously been held by his southern French predecessor at Ford (the only man thus far to win a World Championship event in a Sierra of any kind), Didier Auriol.

Although he had enough experience of rear-drive to take a BMW M3 into third place on the 1988 Antibes Rally (a French Championship qualifier), Delecour continued to fare best for Peugeot. A factory 309 GTI made World Championship contenders outside France take notice of the Delecour pace, for Francois infiltrated the top 10 on the 1990 Monte Carlo (battling with Ari Vatanen’s Mitsubishi en route, which led to that Ford recommendation) and was hurled into the top five of the Tour de Corse.

Of his 1991 outings for Ford – which multiplied, after the initial Peter Ashcroft gamble on Monte Carlo – Delecour feels: “The best was not Monte, nor Corsica, even though I led both. For me the best result was the one nobody sees a sixth place on the RAC Rally. This was a very difficult event for me, especially with seven gears (“it’s crazy”, he shrugs in reference to Ford’s technical triumph) and no experience of the RAC.”

Technically, that was true, in that he had not contested Britain’s World Championship event before but he had hitch-hiked to Britain to see it, before he could drive. . .

Delecour continues: “You know Auriol was also sixth on the RAC for his first time, but there was never a good time for him. Me, I was third on Grizedale. For me this was fantastic. All the others knew this stage, but I was third fastest on my first experience. Often on this RAC, we would be flat, absolutely flat out. This means 6800 revs in seventh gear, which can be 205 kmh (127 mph) with our short gearbox ratios, or 225 kmh (140 mph) with the long gears. . . and you must do this in the mud, between trees! This RAC made me very happy, happier than I had been in Monte Carlo.

“For me Acropolis was a low point. It was just impossible to go fast enough.” Francois denies, however, any suggestion that he is typically French and prefers tarmac surfaces only. His preference is for the most slippery surfaces “when you can feel everything the car is doing”, and not the physical fight that he finds is involved in making the Ford a front-runner on tarmac.

Delecour admits that Portugal last year was: “A big mistake for me. It was, maybe, the best chance of the year for me to win, although it was also my fault that we did not win in Corsica. In Portugal I was second, behind Armin (Schwarz, Toyota) and we are racing in the snow. fog and gravel. I go off. . .then three days in bed to think what a big mistake I make!”

He was not the only one. None of the Ford drivers made the finish, all these DNFs down to driver errors, not mechanical unreliability. “I also think we make a wrong decision on tactics in Spain last year,” continues Delecour. “More than anything, I want to finish the rally and I go slow on the last stage, to make sure of third position. I could have been second because Kankkunen was in that place and he spun, but still beat me to the finish by five seconds.”

Ford factory insiders are not so harsh in their judgment. “Sure, he should have had second place,” said one, “but what he has not said is just how bad the gravel tyres were, so he lost a lot of time on the loose surface tests, until we could borrow (from Toyota) some competitive rubber.” Delecour also failed to impart that he was fastest of all on 15 of the 19 tarmac stages. . .

In Monte Carlo, Delecour’s new team-mate Miki Biason made stinging criticisms about the Sierra rally car (Biasion finished second in Portugal after Delecour’s demise), but this was one area in which Francois was more diplomatic than last year. “The Sierra has changed 100 per cent from 1991 and it feels completely different to drive now. Very good. The evolution of the turbo engine, with the 38 mm restrictor, has lost a few horsepower, but we win some back and it still has a good spread of power. And the body, the body is now very strong and weighs a little bit less this year.

“The seven-speed gearbox still has a change that is a bit slow from first to second, this can cost us time in places on Monte Carlo (Turini hairpins were cited) and in Corsica. I would like to try a six-speed, but I must say the Sierra is fast, very fast in seventh gear. Here in Monte I prefer the short gears and we do 205 kmh. That is flat out, maybe for 1.5 kilometres at a time, it accelerates so fast,” grins Delecour.

That near 130 mph velocity is quite a daunting thought, when you have seen the Monte Carlo tests and know that ice and rock faces are an ingredient to most of them. Current WRC drivers certainly earn their wages, even if Delecour is apparently some way from the reported $5 million/three-year contract secured by team-mate Biasion in the transfer from Lancia. Ask Delecour how he views the prospects for the remainder of 1992 and he chuckles: “If we have no more turbocharger troubles, we can win 10 from eight events! No more jokes, I mean we do not have a problem with the speed of the Toyotas, just Lancia, who have made a big evolution forward with the latest Delta look at the speed now of Kankkunen on tarmac! But we can go just as fast; in Monte Carlo, take my penalties for turbocharger troubles away, and we are in a position to win over Lancia, and the rest.” All it needs now, according to the Gospel of sainted Ford drivers Francois and Miki, is for the big Ford to hang together long enough to rack up some long overdue victories.

Ford Motorsport has invested in some extra engineering talent (including ex-formula car engineer Steve Ridgers) and has a 1992 change in competition management. Now former marketing man Colin Dobinson requires two-car durability and the modicum of luck that you need to succeed.

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