Didier Auriol’s Monte Carlo Masterclass: 30 Years on
Written by Apostolos Papageorgiou, Edited by Sameena Khan
Now that the dust has settled on the first round of the second season of the still new hybrid Rally1 cars, we can all agree it was a little underwhelming, with Sebastien Ogier being untouchable over the four competitive days. But what happens when you put not one, but two Frenchmen against each other? This is exactly the story that took place 30 years ago in the French mountains, starring French drivers in not-so French cars.
The end of the 1992 season saw Lancia leave the WRC for good after three decades, leaving Toyota and the upcoming Subaru and Mitsubishi teams to make the sport an all-Japanese championship. But there was one team who would take the fight to the beasts from the East: Ford. The only Western brand had just the car for the job. The result of a shortened Sierra, the new Escort Cosworth was set to make its competitive debut in the snowy Monte Carlo mountains.
Along with the car, Ford also tweaked their lineup for the Monte, hiring two-time world champion Miki Biasion. Their leading man, however, would be Francois Delecour. He had been with the team for a while and was renowned for his pace on asphalt, almost winning the event in 1991, mechanical problems robbing him of his maiden victory. This year then, he was out for revenge.
One man who had won the rally previously-twice-was Toyota’s new signing, Didier Auriol, replacing the two-time world champion Carlos Sainz. Auriol had proven his worth in the Lancia team, although he let the previous year’s title slip through his fingers. He was determined not to make the same mistake twice and prove to the rallying world and, above all, himself that he could beat anyone. This then was a battle of two very similar and equally big egos, as well as talents, fighting over national and personal pride. As a side note, this was the first-ever rally where Toyota would use its iconic Castrol livery.
The Fords were looking quick off the blocks, Delecour and Biasion running one and two in that order after the first loop of stages. Despite his determination, Auriol and his relatively new Celica couldn’t keep up with the blue ovals on day one. A broken wheel and a puncture in the first couple of stages didn’t help him. Things didn’t improve for the Frenchman, who found himself sitting over two minutes behind Delecour at the end of the day. Not content with letting the men in blue and white have all the fun to themselves, Auriol made a small step closer to the Ford duo by winning the final two stages of day two, though he was still almost two minutes behind the pair.
In complete contrast to his compatriot, Delcour was living a dream come true, and a first ever win on the most prestigious-not to mention his favourite rally seemed a real possibility. But Delecour also knew things could quickly change as they did in ‘91. The Frenchman’s fears slowly started to materialise when Auriol made a terrific, all-being late, charge to close up to Biasion, just eight seconds behind the experienced Italian with five stages to go. The gap to Delecour’s Escort, however, was still over a minute. With just those above five competitive special stages to run, all of them after midnight, the Ford man’s win seemed almost a certainty, barring any late mechanical dramas. Delecour made his victory seem all the more likely by winning the first of those night stages.
Auriol had to perform a miracle if he was to win practically, and on any other occasion, he probably wouldn’t and couldn’t have. But in the dark and icy mountain roads of Monte Carlo, he decided to throw caution into the wind and drive as he’d never done before. His co-driver, Bernard “Bruno” Occelli, said Auriol went down the mountain as if he was possessed, and Didier himself admitted that he hoped he wouldn't have to drive like that again. The craziest thing is it worked. The Frenchman managed to make up more than a minute on the Ford in one of the most dramatic finishes in WRC history.
In truth, both Auriol and Delecour were bested by Juha Kankunnen on his way to a fourth title throughout the season. Auriol would have to wait another year before he joined that elite club of world champions. While it never happened for Delecour, at least he got his wish of winning his favourite event, the Monte, a year later, making up for his second cruel loss in three years. The Frenchman hasn’t entirely managed to repeat the feat since then, but he’s still going strong in 2023, competing with a brand new Skoda Fabia in WRC2. Who knows, maybe history will repeat itself once more.