In the hills high above Ajaccio’s Napoléon Bonaparte airport, Bruno Thiry sat in the long grass and turned his back on the world. Like the famous French emperor, Thiry had come close to landing the biggest victory. His Waterloo?
A failed wheel bearing aboard his Ford Escort RS Cosworth after 20 of 22 stages. Until that point, he’d led for 20 stages.
Coming into the fourth round of the championship, most folk would have pointed to the French rather than Belgian-flagged RAS Sport Ford Escort RS Cosworth if they’d been asked for a potential Blue Oval victory. François Delecour won here two years ago, but missed last year’s event while he recovered from a Citroën ZX bouncing off his friend’s Ferrari F40.
Thiry finished a largely unspectacular sixth on the French island 12 months ago. But he did end the event on a high, with fastest time (his only of the event) on the 23rd and final stage.
Last Wednesday morning he picked up where he left off. Fastest.
He halved the 11-miler from Penitencier-Tassinca with Deleçour, but fastest times on the following three tests moved the amiable Belgian into the clear air of the lead for the first time in his career.
Reflecting on that 10-second advantage, Thiry was almost bemused.
“It’s a little bit crazy right now,” he said. “The first time for me. Right now it’s difficult for me, but I have to keep the pressure on and try to do my best.”
Leading was a novelty for the man out front and he wouldn’t be looking any further than the afternoon’s four stages carrying the cars back up north to an overnight halt in Bastia. Deleçour narrowed that gap by four seconds to close out day one six down on the leading sister car. Didier Auriol was half a minute off the lead in his Toyota Celica GT-Four.
The Frenchman has won five of the last seven starts in Corsica and success this time around would move him past the record he shares with Bernard Darniche for the most driver on the island.
Auriol’s was a lone Toyota among the leaders. Team-mate Armin Schwarz retired with alternator failure after Thursday morning’s opener, but the German had struggled for pace through day one. Juha Kankkunen’s never at his best on the island asphalt and the Finn, a minute down on Wednesday night, would endure another testing Tour. He recovered from a final day accident to finish round out the top ten at the finish.
Thiry redoubled his effort on Thursday’s opener, stopping the clocks a spectacular 10s faster than anybody. Fastest or joint fastest on half of day two’s six stages, he built a 35-second lead with one day to run.
Pulling into Calvi, he was wary of answering the question about thinking what might lie in wait back in Ajaccio a day later.
“I have got some good confidence now,” he said. “But still we have to remember Didier [Auriol]. He has pushed very hard for the last two days. Let’s see for tomorrow…”
Auriol had pushed hard, taking time out of Deleçour on four stages to slash the gap to just two seconds. The second-placed Frenchman’s fortunes hadn’t been helped by a gearbox problem aboard his Escort, but the final day was finally poised for an absolute thriller of a run back down the island’s west coast on what would be the longest leg of the rally.
Comfortably in the groove, Thiry was a man on a mission. Quickest on the first three Friday stages, he galloped into a 53 second lead. Now, surely, he could start to think about vicory. If he hadn’t, Auriol had done it for him.
“It’s impossible,” he said quietly. “Now I just try to stay in the second place.”
Auriol’s drive had been quite magnificent, taking a Toyota not made for these roads and using it to split a pair of Escort’s dialled down and totally in tune with the precise demands of Corsica and its 10,000 corners. His ability in running softer Michelins than his team-mates and making them last was testament to a man entirely at one with these roads – a point borne out by a late co-driver change. Bernard Occelli – Didier’s co-driver since 1983 – was forced home by a family problem leaving Denis Giraudet to step in. Auriol didn’t miss a beat.
Dropping three seconds to Auriol on the 20-mile SS19 was by no means the end of the world. The end of the world wasn’t, however, far away.
At a refuel just outside Albitreccia the wheels came off the #8 Escort. A nut holding the near-side front hub in place had come adrift in the stage. Thiry was beneath the car, pulling the driveshaft out to get a closer look at the problem. No nut meant no chance.
Prévot was close to tears as the harsh reality dawned. That reality harsher still with the RAS Sport mechanics all in attendance, having alighted a service truck full of the nuts and solutions which would allow Thiry to continue and realise his dream.
The service regulations which the teams and crews have berated since they were introduced in January claimed their highest profile victim on Friday afternoon. The team couldn’t touch the car or offer any assistance. Nuts. Or bolts.
It was a heartbreaker.
The rest of the teams stood at a respectful distance. Respectful, but still close enough to ensure no physical fix was passed in any direction. The mechanics could offer advice. And subsequent sympathy.
Mitsubishi team principal Andrew Cowan had seen enough. The competitor in him came out and the Scot shook his head, grim-faced.
“It’s a bloody shame,” he offered.
One by one Thiry’s rivals departed the refuel bound for two more stages which should have been a parade lap for the brilliant Belgian. Instead, the forlorn Escort rested alongside the service truck in an empty car park.
Thiry sat alone. Inconsolable.
Hours later, out of the oil-stained overalls, at a time when he should have been celebrating the highlight of his career so far, he faced the media.
“It just wasn’t possible to repair,” he said, his face still etched in disbelief. “The mechanics were there. They could have done it in 10 minutes.”
His voice trailed away. There was no more to be said.
Auriol was sympathetic. But jubilant in becoming the most successful driver in the history of the Tour de Corse.
“This isn’t an easy rally,” said the winner, “and the strong man is Bruno. But this is life and sometimes, this is rallying. I’ve lost victories before. It’s life.”
Auriol’s sixth Corsica win hadn’t just broken records, it had breathed life into a championship challenge which seemed a distant hope after a start to the season which had delivered a pair of fifth places and a Monte Carlo crash.
But this win – the Celica GT-Four’s first in the WRC – said more about Auriol’s ability than the Toyota’s pace.
Deleçour’s chances of containing Auriol went south when he damaged the car’s suspension after hitting as bridge on the final loop. He would have to settle for second.
Andrea Aghini repeated his third place of last year, this time for Mitsubishi rather than Toyota. Aghini made the most of the Rugby team’s latest Lancer, the RS-E3, which came with 18-inch wheels, improved aerodynamics and an improved anti-lag system.
Aghini’s team-mate Tommi Mäkinen was on his Corsican debut last week and admitted he’d started to figure the event out as it progressed.
“It’s been getting better slowly,” said the eighth-placed Finn. “Now I have an idea of how I should drive here.”
Talking about the new car’s debut, Cowan added: “We were under no illusion that this was always going to be a tough rally – even with a new car. We’re happy: Andrea’s gone well and Tommi has learned a lot.”
It was a similar story of education from Subaru chief David Richards,
“We’ve been learning all the time on this event,” he said. “We’ve made suspension changes to the cars and that helped.”
Championship leader arriving on the island, Carlos Sainz found more speed from the car following those suspension changes aboard his Impreza 555 and fourth place would be enough to keep him at the top of the table at the season’s halfway point.
Sainz’s team-mates Piero Liatti and Colin McRae switched positions, elevating Subaru’s full-time Scot from sixth to fifth in the final stage.
Corsican Patrick Bernardini brought the third RAS Escort home in seventh, helping himself to a handsome haul of French Championship points.
Philippe Bugalski placed his Renault Clio Maxi ninth, making the most of a rare mistake for team-mate and two-time Corsican winner Jean Ragnotti in the other factory front-wheel drive flyer.
Departing Ajaccio, the season’s next stop is Auckland for Rally New Zealand – a place which Subaru and McRae have made their own for the last two years.
If Auriol and Toyota are to build on a victory whipped from beneath the nose of the heartbroken Thiry, they will have to find more pace and consistency across the North Island gravel. Fortunately for Ove Andersson and his men, they’ve got the next couple of months to ponder and plot a potential downfall for Subaru’s Scot and championship leader Sainz.
Rallye de France Tour de Corse (May 3-5) Round 4/8
1 Didier Auriol/Denis Giraudet (Toyota Celica GT-Four) 5h14m49s
2 François Delecour/Catherine François (Ford Escort RS Cosworth) +15s
3 Andrea Aghini/Sauro Farnocchia (Mitsubishi Lancer RS-E3) + 57s
4 Carlos Sainz/Luis Moya (Subaru Impreza 555) +1m18s
5 Colin McRae/Derek Ringer (Subaru Impreza 555) +1m43s
6 Piero Liatti/Alex Alessandrini (Subaru Impreza 555) +2m27s
7 Patrick Bernardini/Jean-Marc Andrié (Ford Escort RS Cosworth) +3m05s
8 Tommi Mäkinen/Seppo Harjanne (Mitsubishi Lancer RS-E3) +4m50s
9 Philippe Bugalksi/Jean-Paul Chiaroni (Renault Clio Maxi) +5m36s
10 Juha Kankkunen/Nicky Grist (Toyota Celica GT-Four) +10m01s
Itinerary: Wednesday May 3, Ajaccio-Bastia, 8 stages (95.91 miles); Thursday May 4, Bastia-Calvi, 6 stages (92.71 miles); Friday May 5, Calvi-Ajaccio, 8 stages (115.90 miles).
Leaders: SS1 Bruno Thiry/Deleçour; SS2-20 Thiry; SS21-22 Auriol
Retirements: Bruno Thiry/Stéphane Prévot (Ford Escort RS Cosworth) wheel bearing SS20; Armin Schwarz/Klaus Wicha (Toyota Celica GT-Four) alternator, SS10.
Drivers’ championship points: 1 Sainz 50; 2 Kankkunen 38; 3 Auriol 36; 4 Deleçour 30; 5 Mäkinen 28; 6 Eriksson/Thiry/McRae 20.
Manufacturers: 1 Mitsubishi 168; 2 Toyota 163; 3 Subaru 145; 4 Ford 143.
Starters: 89 Finishers: 44
Next round: Smokefree Rally New Zealand (July 27-30)