There wasn’t a single dark cloud in the sky when the World Rally Championship landed in Sanremo in the year 2000, but there was a very real metaphorical one hanging over the rally’s eventual victor.
Thierry Neuville’s disqualification from last weekend’s Safari Rally Kenya for breaching reconnaissance regulations evokes memories of perhaps Peugeot’s most controversial ever win in the WRC, as Gilles Panizzi stood accused of practicing stages before the rally and went on to win.
But nothing was done about it.
As the 2000 WRC season reached its crescendo, four drivers were still in with a shout of the title.
Peugeot’s Marcus Grönholm led the way, but Subaru’s Richard Burns and Ford’s Colin McRae and Carlos Sainz were firmly in the race, too. Reigning champion Tommi Mäkinen was still mathematically in the picture, but his chances were thinning with each passing round.
It was a minor miracle that McRae was even in Italy though, considering his monster accident on the Tour de Corse just three weeks earlier.
With a fractured cheekbone and mental trauma to put aside, the Scot showed steely determination to compete – knowing he had a very real shot at the world championship. His end reward was the hardest-earned point of his WRC career.
Pre-event, a 206 walkover had been expected, given how convincing the two Frenchman – Panizzi and François Delecour – were in their French machines on French soil.
Panizzi beat Delecour in what became an orchestrated result. Four stages from home, the young upstart led his more experienced team-mate by just 0.9 seconds, and with Sainz’s Focus almost two minutes behind the call came from above for the pair to call off their fight and bring the result home.
Delecour, naturally, wasn’t in agreement with that decision.
“From my point of view I don’t like, for sure,” he said, “because I think it’s not the sport and they don’t understand.”
Fresh from a maiden WRC win, Panizzi was tipped for more success in Sanremo but just like he had in Corsica, Burns set the pace on the opening Apricale test in his Impreza.
It wouldn’t last, though.
Panizzi, who was just a second slower than the Englishman on SS1, restored natural order with a convincing 4.7s stage win on Perinaldo to lead Burns by 3.7s at first service.
Gilles and his brother Hervé were undoubtedly going incredibly fast. Too fast, some reckoned.
Rumors were beginning to swirl that Panizzi had recced the stages early, therefore gaining an unfair advantage and breaking the rules.
“I’m sure [he did it],” commented Sainz.
“We’ve had a lot of people who have seen him during the recce, but it’s nothing new.
“We cannot prove it.”
Sainz’s accusations were put to Delecour, who at this stage of the event was fourth and 12.7s off his team-mate’s lead.
“It doesn’t matter for me,” Delecour said. “It’s not my problem.”
But upon his return to service, the 38-year-old wasn’t cutting the figure of a man who didn’t see it as his problem.
Delecour was so upset, he didn't want to get back in the car
Peugeot team management did its best to pull back an enraged Delecour, who was storming towards Panizzi and determined to confront his team-mate.
For his part, Panizzi just sat there eating his lunch, kept his head down and folded his arms as the world’s television cameras caught it all.
Delecour was so upset there was talk of ending the rally there and then. He didn’t want to get back in the car, but he was eventually coaxed into it by his physiotherapist.
Taking his anger out on the stages, Delecour then set the pace on SS3 – but there was no stopping Panizzi.
By the end of the day Delecour had made his way up to second, however Panizzi had extended his advantage to 15.4s.
With rivals feeling a sense of injustice towards Panizzi and Peugeot, team director Corrado Provera had some explaining to do.
“When Peugeot was efficient but not reliable, nobody was scared about us,” Provera said.
“Now the problem is we begin to be quite harmful to the competition, and suddenly these types of rumors are coming out.”
He may have quickly become public enemy number one, but Panizzi blocked out all the noise.
Another flawless drive on Saturday upped his lead to 21.4s on a day where team-mate Grönholm’s title chances were given a serious boost as he climbed from sixth to fourth.
But the major news was the exit of Burns’ Subaru.
He and Robert Reid had been third overnight but Burns outbraked himself on SS10 and hit a stone wall with the front of his car.
From the outside the Subaru looked well, but all was not well under the hood. The radiator had been punctured and the engine lost all of its water. Despite the best efforts of the crew to make it back to service, and the best efforts of the mechanics to rescue the engine, Burns was out.
“To be fair the engine did well I think to get this far because it’s run a long time without any water at all,” the dejected Briton said.
“I thought if we got here [to service] we should be able to fix it, but it doesn’t look like that.”
Burns had therefore provided Grönholm with a golden opportunity, and if Peugeot’s Finn could leap ahead of Mitsubishi’s Mäkinen then there was every possibility that team-mates Panizzi and Delecour would be asked to cede their positions.
But Grönholm couldn’t live up to his end of the bargain – running wide and damaging his suspension on the final morning. That left Mäkinen free to claim his first WRC podium since Rally Argentina five months earlier as Panizzi cruised to a second victory in succession.
“I’m very happy,” Panizzi said.
“Two victories in three weeks is very good for me and my brother and for the team of course.”
Delecour insisted he was happy too.
“Still second, second, second but OK, it’s like that,” he said.
“You have to accept it’s so great for Peugeot and Gilles went fast.”
Whether it was unfairly fast is open to interpretation. Plenty reckon Panizzi was guilty, but with no hard evidence to incriminate him, a case was never made.
He would go on to win a further five WRC rallies for Peugeot over the next three years as Delecour departed for Ford at the end of the year.