You won’t find Francois Delacour’s name writ large in the rallying history books, nor will you hear it mentioned in the same breath as some of his more statistically successful contemporaries. Delecour’s was an immense talent, make no mistake, but one destined to go largely unrewarded by dint of pure misfortune. Yet make no mistake, for a period in the early ‘90s, this serious looking Frenchman was considered the hottest properly in World Rallying, the driver Ford planned to hang its championship ambitions off of. Titles might well have eluded him, but Delecour remains a Retropower Hero, no doubt about it.
Delecour exploded onto the world stage in 1991, having been plucked from relative obscurity by Ford, partly on the recommendation of Ari Vatanen. The Finn’s backing was important, as while Delecour’s pace in a Peugeot France-back 309 GTI was plain for all to see, he’d yet to actually win a rally – any rally.
The sheer speed shown by the twenty-eight-year-old was enough to convince Ford of his potential though, and Delecour found himself drafted into the Works Sierra Cosworth squad for 1991. It was a brave move for Ford and one not without risk for Delecour, as while it was true he was now in possession of one of the relatively scarce Works seats, said seat happened to be in the Sierra Cosworth 4×4.
While far from a bad car, the Sierra was undeniably something of a stopgap. Ford had been slow to develop the RS200, then caught napping by the switch from Group B to Group A in 1987 (though in this they were far from alone, of course). This meant that the Sierra found itself thrust to the fore, first the rear-wheel drive three-door variant, then, formic 1990, the 4×4 variant of the Sapphire saloon. This at least nullified the Sierra’s traction disadvantage, but it remained a heavy and somewhat cumbersome prospect when compared to the mighty Delta Integrale.
Not that you’d have guessed from Delecour’s debut performance in the Sierra, the 1991 Monte Carlo Rally. Granted, this was an event Delecour new well from his Talbot and Peugeot days, and granted he had some luck with several of his chief rivals retiring early on, but this shouldn’t detract from what was a truly spellbinding performance. It should also be noted that that year’s Monte was an especially cold affair, replete with trecherous patches of black ice and Rally Sweden-ish snowbanks lining the stages. In short, not the kind of rally you’d select to learn a new car.
Not that liberal quantities of ‘the white stuff’ speared to phase Delecour – he was on the pace from the off, throwing the big saloon around in a manner few of his peers had managed. He soon found himself vying with no less a talent than Carlos Sainz, and the Spaniard would eventually have to relent, ceding first place to Ford’s newest signing. Delecour then appeared to throw caution to the wind, eeking out a lead of 44 seconds on the Monte’s notoriously tricky night stages.
It wasn’t to last. Delacour’s lead would be snatched from his grasp in the cruellest of circumstances, and, for a Frenchman at least, the most painful of stages – the Col de Turini, and the last stage of the rally. It was here that the Sierra’s rear suspension collapsed, a shattered rose-joint eventually deemed to be the culprit. Delecour’s initial assumption was that it was nothing more serious than a loose wheel, though he was swiftly relieved of these illusions some km further down the stage, when the big Ford slid wide on compacted snow and went off the road. He re-joined and was able to limp back to the end, but he’d lost a full six minutes and any chance of fighting for the win. 3rd place overall was a poor reward for such a mesmerising debut.
That season brought further solid results for Delecour, but no wins. Indeed, the Sapphire would spend the entirety battling for a victory which would never come, though it most certainly wasn’t for lack of effort on the part of Delecour.
1993 promised more, much more: the newly homologated Escort Cosworth was a cutting-edge bit of kit in line with polished Group A rivals like the Celica ST185, and expectations were correspondingly high. The new car was a far better machine all round than its Sierra predecessor, and thanks to the his involvement in its initial development, better suited to Delecour’s driving style.
It showed. 1993 would prove to be Delecour’s most competitive season in the WRC, and he’d end the year in 2ndplace overall, 23 points behind Juha Kankkunen. He netted Ford a trio of wins along the way, with Portugal, France and Spain all falling to the Frenchman in the be-winged Escort. It all looked incredibly promising for the following year when it was generally assumed by all that Ford and Delecour would challenge for overall honours.
It certainly started off to script, with Delecour finally securing his maiden Monte Carlo Rally win at the third time of asking. It was a result as emphatically won as it was richly deserved and appeared to set Delecour up for the perfect championship challenge, but it wasn’t to be.
Mere weeks later, and Delecour’s title 1994 championship aspirations were in shreds. He’d been offered a spin in a close friend’s Ferrari F40 and, quite understandably, had leapt at the chance. A spirited blast around the roads near his home was brought to a premature end when the Ferrari supercar crashed into a Citroen ZX coming the other way (ironically driven by a local recceing for a road rally), and while both parties escaped the incident alive, Deleclour’s feet were badly broken.
His shattered feet kept Delecour out of action for most of the year and meant that an assault on the drivers’ title was out of the question. A late season return was somewhat muted, with a fine 4thoverall in Finland rather nullified by a retirement in Italy and exclusion from the RAC Rally.
It would be incorrect to say that the F40 crash ended Delecour’s career, especially as he remained a regular WRC competitor for a further ten years, but the frenetic pace which had marked his previous seasons was diluted somewhat. Spells at Peugeot (in both the 306 Maxi and 206 WRC), Ford and Mitsubishi followed, but none allowed him to ever challenge for the overall title.
This is in no way to suggest that Delecour’s career was a disappointment, because it wasn’t. His talent burned phenomenally brightly and would doubtless have delivered him a title had fate not intervened, but instead World Rallying got to witness one of the biggest characters the sport has known.