In the current age of young upstarts like Kalle Rovanperä and Oliver Solberg making World Rally Championship debuts as teenagers with factory teams, it’s hard to imagine a time when drivers wouldn’t get their big break until hitting their fourth decade.
Winning the world title at 36 years old doesn’t make Didier Auriol a late bloomer in the grand scheme of things. There have been older champions – Hannu Mikkola won his title at 41.
“I am not so much into this internet stuff,” Auriol quips to DirtFish, giving away the fact he’s in free bus pass territory these days at 62 years old. “I don’t use my computer much, I am an old man!”
But Auriol wasn’t one to hang up his helmet easily. Hitting 40 wasn’t going to stop him.
When Toyota withdrew at the end of 1999, he could have retired. He’d already won the biggest prize – he’d proven his point. Instead, he gave Seat’s WRC program a shot. It didn’t work out, but keeping busy behind the wheel allowed an opportunity with Peugeot.
And what a time to join the French marque. Peugeot had just won the WRC title two decades ago this year and the field was closer than ever. At the end of the year, the top six drivers were separated by only 11 points.
On paper, Auriol should have been a member of that group. Instead, he finished third of the four Peugeot drivers, only edging out asphalt specialist Gilles Panizzi by a single point in the final standings for seventh overall.
It was not the outcome most – least of all Auriol himself – had expected. He only scored once in the first nine rallies, and by Corsica it had already been revealed that eventual 2001 champion Richard Burns would be taking control of his 206 WRC for 2002.
Another stint with a factory team would come in 2003 with Škoda but, realistically, his single season with Peugeot had been his last opportunity to drive a car capable of winning rallies and championships.
For me that was so logical and I was working like that with all my teams before. So I don't understand why they didn't accept thatDidier Auriol on his Peugeot struggles
Like most stories in rallying, a glance at the results sheet gives away little of the real story that unfolded.
“What I wanted to do was try to get the title with Peugeot, with the French team. That was my idea. But immediately, I can see and feel it was not as I imagined,” Auriol recounts.
“Unfortunately, I was fighting with some engineers at this time and I was not really enjoying driving.”
His 20th and final career victory in Spain that year was a case in point. He fought his rivals on the stages, and fought his team to have the car set-up as he wanted.
He won both battles.
“There was a long gearbox and a short gearbox, and I asked for the short gearbox,” explains Auriol. “But they [Peugeot] don’t want!
“They say ‘no, no, you must put the long gearbox’. But I did the test before the rally, I compared the two gearboxes and I was faster with the short gearbox. I said I want the short gearbox, and I fought until the morning of the start of the rally to have my short gearbox.
“They put my short gearbox, I win the rally, and still they have complained about me!
“I want to set up my car because I know what I want, I know when I feel well and I know when I can go faster. For me that was so logical and I was working like that with all my teams before. So I don’t understand why they didn’t accept that.”
Component failures were a constant in the first half of both Auriol’s season and reigning champion team-mate Marcus Grönholm. In the latter’s case, a first win of his title defense had to wait until round 10 in Finland, which was only the second time he’d finished all season up to that point.
It had been an equally painful start for Auriol but for one rally: round four in Spain.
Peugeot’s fellow PSA brand Citroën was debuting its Xsara WRC and it was rapid from the off. It was little surprise to see Phillippe Bugalski at the sharp end, having won the rally in the F2 kit car version of the Xsara two years earlier. But fastest out of the blocks was his team-mate Jesús Puras, amid controversy over potentially reusing pacenotes from other rallies for the WRC event’s stages.
However the potential pace-note violation was not the biggest concern for Auriol, as he settled into third place early on behind the two red cars.
“We were a little bit upset because we were practicing, we were making all the world championship and we have no time to practice more. And we heard at this time some drivers were practicing a lot, a lot, a lot on Tarmac,” Auriol says.
“So of course, if you practice three times in the stages, while another driver practices 10 times or 12 times, it’s difficult to fight. We were complaining, but it was not only me complaining about that.”
The tire was maybe a little bit cold on the back and suddenly, the rear goes poof! Straight towards the mountain; ai ai ai.Didier Auriol on the moment that nearly cost him the win
In the eyes of some, justice had been served when Puras’ Xsara ground to a halt on the road section at the end of day two. That left only Bugalski ahead for Auriol to chase, and in the end Bugalski would fall into his sights. Literally.
A clutch fault on Bugalski’s Xsara meant Auriol overtook his compatriot in the start control for stage 15. The resulting penalties for the sole remaining Citroën handed Auriol a lead of nearly a minute over the first non-Peugeot. The car held up its end of the bargain by not breaking, and Auriol held up his by bringing it to the finish in first.
That final WRC win nearly didn’t happen at all after a wayward moment on the final day’s opening test. It’s likely you’ve seen the moment in video at some point; Auriol grabs as much opposite lock as his hands can muster, then has to correct the other way, and the sequence repeats twice more.
“I remember the corner, yes!” Auriol chuckles. “It was not scary [feeling], let’s say, it was scary only to stop and lose the race.
“We started and it was a slippery type of Tarmac. After two [or] three corners, I arrived in one fast left corner, but the tire was maybe a little bit cold on the back and suddenly, the rear goes poof! Straight towards the mountain; ai ai ai.
“I was very lucky. I managed to come back making two or three right-left, right-left [on the steering wheel] and we touched nothing and continued. It was a bad moment but only a little stupid mistake.”
That victory over team-mate Panizzi was the only meaningful result Auriol had to show for the first half of 2001. But that outcome wasn’t a true reflection of his pace that year, as the man himself was keen to point out.
“With Peugeot, it was not a bad season,” reflects Auriol. “I was unlucky, I can say! But I was still very fast. OK, I win Spain of course, but if you look, I was leading Monte Carlo, the first rally of the season.”
Auriol had accrued a 20-second lead but hit a wall, ripping the left-rear wheel off the 206. But he’d still outlasted his team-mates; Panizzi had crashed out one stage earlier and Grönholm’s car had already broken down.
“I had a lot of rallies where I was fighting for the victory; we broke one turbo, another one we broke something else.
“And you know in 1000 Lakes, I was also close to the front and we broke one suspension, but I touched absolutely nothing. So it was really bad luck this season with Peugeot.”
While a driving mistake had led to the Monte Carlo retirement, the car didn’t survive the rest. Even his Safari retirement, which in some results sheets is down as an accident, was really down to spontaneous combustion in the engine bay.
I wanted to enjoy driving, I did not want to fight with my team. Unfortunately, it was a French team! But I don't want to fight anymoreDidier Auriol on his decision to cut his Peugeot contract short
It surprised few when Auriol was gone at the end of the year, even though he scored three podiums on the bounce in the latter half of the year. He wanted to quit – but not because of the 206’s woeful early-season reliability.
“They had a very, very good car but the team was not working 100% with me,” Auriol explains.
“On Tarmac, it was OK but still I need to fight with the team to set up my car [as I wanted], just to accept my decisions. I want this, I want that – no, they say! You put this on your car, you put this, and I say no. I never drive like that.
“I developed all my cars until ’86; [between] all my cars I have won every rally in the world, and Lancia, and Toyota, and you ask me to do something where I don’t choose [what goes on] my car? So I was a little bit fighting all the season with the team. It’s why I stopped.
“I had signed for two years with Peugeot but I took the decision to cancel my contract, because at this time I start to be, not old, but still old for a rally driver, let’s say. I wanted to enjoy driving, I did not want to fight with my team. Unfortunately, it was a French team! But I don’t want to fight anymore.
“If I was young [at that point], maybe I wouldn’t stop after that season. But at this time, I didn’t want to fight, I wanted to enjoy driving, so I took the decision to stop.
“But this season was not bad in pace. It was bad in the result of the whole season. But just the bad luck. When my car was OK, I won Spain!”
Auriol’s last WRC win was symbolic in a wider sense. It not only marked the twilight of his career, but was a final chapter before a change of the guard across the board.
Citroën got its first win with the Xsara WRC later that year in Corsica and subsequently introduced the world to Sébastien Loeb.
Panizzi picked up the mantle as Peugeot’s sealed surface specialist de jure, winning every pure asphalt event in 2002. And Petter Solberg stepped up to lead Subaru after Burns took Auriol’s place at Peugeot.
Auriol belonged to the previous generation. The one that didn’t bother with the internet, smartphones, and the like.
But at almost 43 years old, on that weekend in Catalunya, he reminded everyone that you can never write off a world champion.