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GP Week : Issue 152
Never take Francois Delecour for Granted! You take Francois as you find him, and if you don’t find his character fills a craving void in your sport, it is you that has the problem! Francois never seems to be far away from the rallies, in one form or another. Next week he competes on the Tour deCorseattheageof49asaworks driver for Renault Sport in one of their remarkable Megane RS cars. In this day and age, isn’t front-wheel- drive just a bit passe? Renault are clever people. For asphalt rallies the traditional four-wheel-drive Class 3 Mitsubishis and Subaru have either disappeared or progressed to the R4 Class 2. Hence the open door for the turbo-charged front- wheel-drive Megane. Surprise comes all the time in Delecour’s life. He won a stage in the IRC 2010 Monte Carlo Rally at the age of 47 as a result of a canny tyre choice – and good friends along the route he could telephone for the latest weather information. Last year he went to Romania to make a rally in a Dacia Logan Cup car. All he wants is a challenge. The Tour de Corse in the Megane is his latest. Delecour started rallying at the age of 21, co-driven by his stunning girlfriend Anne-Chantel Pauwels, –10 years later they became professional rally people in the WRC for Ford. They had progressed to the four-wheel-drive level after five years of spectacular events in two-wheel-drive Peugeots and a BMW M3. His debut with Ford at the Monte Carlo Rally in 1991 was astonishing. He was leading on his first rally in four- wheel drive with one stage to go, but the suspension failed and he struggled to finish in third place. He drove for Ford for five seasons, interrupted only by a spell when a road accident left him with broken legs. He was driving in his own village when a car shot out of a side road and impacted the Ferrari F40 he was driving. The other driver, it transpired, was practising for a local rally.... Bad and good luck has followed him all the way, but he never let uncertainty get him down. His Monte Carlo disaster in 1991 was followed by three podium positions in the next four years. In 1993 he won three world rallies, Portugal, Corsica and Catalunya and then Monte Carlo in 1994: “We had a lot of retirements during that period in which I felt we were let down by the cars. And Ford is a company where the politics seem to be strange. In 1993 I was one point behind Juha Kankkunen in the world championship when Ford decided they would not enter the next event, the 1000 Lakes Rally.” For 1996 Carlos Sainz left Subaru and went to Ford, Francois went back to Peugeot to drive their remarkable front-drive 306 Maxi – and immediately finished second at Monte Carlo. His experiences with Peugeot bought him a seat in the 206 World Rally Car when this was launched in 1999. In two years he gained four podium finishes before moving back to Ford and then to Mitsubishi, each for one more year. Delecour’s career never had a pattern: “It was at the last moment that I decided to go to Ford in 1991. It was all the result of a chance phone call. That Monte Carlo misfortune was both the worst and the best at the same time. Nobody knew me at that time, now they did, but when I saw Carlos Sainz shaking the champagne which I should have been shaking, that was difficult to accept. “Then I made a bad mistake at the end of 1994. The road crash effectively ended my days in the Ford team at Boreham, but I had an offer from Prodrive to go to Subaru. The Ford engineer Philip Dunabin, who lived nearby to me in northern France came round to see me and changed my mind. He persuaded me to drive for the private RAS Ford team based in Belgium. That agreement only lasted one year, but I opportunity still got second places in Monte Carlo and Corsica. “That road accident was terrible. I remember hearing the doctors discussing if they should amputate, Then people started wondering if I would ever walk again. My legs are now fine, but only due to the efforts of a specialist who looked after me non-stop.” Delecour was welcomed back by everyone in the service park when he appeared with a Peugeot 207 S2000 on the Monte Carlo Rally in 2011, even if he could not maintain his earlier excitement when he made his demon tyre choice in the middle of the second day. For 2012 Monte Carlo he had a Fiesta WRC. He has found a new sponsor, much of which had been due to a lucky meeting with a near-neighbour where he now lives in the South of France: “He was working with the Romanian authorities in France, and saw the opportunity for mutual promotional benefits.” Not a major budget, but enough to be able to do the Monte Carlo Rally, in which he finished sixth overall. No fastest stage times this year – but two second fastest! “When the opportunity came up I rang Malcolm Wilson, with whom we have had a good relationship from our early Ford days, and asked if he could find a Fiesta for us. He said why not. He then came down to watch Jari-Matti Latvala at the Rally du Var, and the deal was done in a restaurant. No sooner had the deal been done than Prodrive got in touch and asked me if I wanted to drive a Mini on the Monte. I hadn’t actually signed anything with Ford, but anyway, I said no to Prodrive. Again.” He has a Megane in Corsica, reliving his Peugeot ‘traction avant’ days of old, and he has for a second time persuaded an old co-driving colleague to come out with him again. The partnership with Dominique Savignoni has always gone well. His relationships with co-drivers has been legendary, not only for the closeness of their work but also, in one particular case, loyalty. Daniel Grataloup has special but painful memories of working with Delecour. Twice they crashed in Rally Australia, causing Daniel to be kept in hospital on the other side of the world while all his rally colleagues had gone back home. And how the cars have changed over the years! “I was very surprised just how easy it was to drive that Fiesta, and it was such a beautiful looking car, I was immediately in love with it!” Love, rallies, lady drivers, friendships, agonies, ill fortune. Francois has seen the lot in the 31 years he has been driving rally cars. The chance to go back to the Isle of Beauty, as Corsica is known, was too great to resist. Hurry up, Francois. Enjoy it all while you can. You will be 50 in August! Old friends (l to r): Pierre Campana, Dani Sordo, Francois Delecour, Sabrina de Castelli, Dominique Savignon. 34 GPWEEK.com // PARTNERS: RALLY >>> FEATURE