Everyone in rallying, no matter what their role, has a story to tell. It’s part of what makes our division of motorsport so great. But few can match the roller coaster tale that’s been Jean-Baptiste Franceschi’s life of late.
Last season was a huge success for the French driver who, fresh from winning the French Gravel rally title in a Citroën C3 R5, took on ERC3 Junior in a Toksport Renault Clio Rally4 and came up trumps.
But that wasn’t even the best bit. Franceschi had assumed he would be destined for another season in the European Rally Championship, but there was a rather elusive prize attached to his success that he had no idea about.
“When I did ERC Junior last year and I won the championship, I didn’t know that I would go straight directly into Junior WRC,” he tells DirtFish.
“It was a big, big surprise for me and it’s like a dream because since 2018 I haven’t done any rallying in the WRC. If you want to do Junior WRC and pay for it by yourself it’s quite hard and now it’s amazing.
“It’s a big opportunity so I really want to give the maximum and to not have any regrets.”
Before throwing himself head first into preparing for the 2022 World Rally Championship 3 Junior season, Franceschi had one last outing in Rally4 equipment on Rally du Var. And it was going extremely well as he led the class – ahead of Stéphane Lefebvre no less.
But that’s where this story takes a turn for the worse. Franceschi crashed on SS12 of the 16-stage rally and violently hit a tree, 24 hours after another serious incident that left Ludovic Gal in a coma.
Franceschi was knocked unconscious and had to be extricated from the car before being taken to hospital and placed in an induced coma to allow his brain to recover from the trauma. He had a broken arm and his cervical vertebra was also affected.
Forget thoughts of Junior WRC – simply being alive was a massive thing for Franceschi last Christmas. But naturally, there were doubts as to whether his rallying career would survive.
The good thing about this accident is I don't remember anything because of the impact.Jean-Baptiste Franceschi
“After the accident I had to stay at home and do nothing for one-and-a-half months because it was impossible [to do anything],” Franceschi says.
“And you know when you are alone in the house and you cannot do anything you are always thinking about if it’s possible to come back in rally, if I come back maybe I will not be at the level anymore?
“That was my main question but after that I started to watch some videos again and everything, the feeling, came back. So after one-and-a-half months I was like ‘I want to drive again, please give me a car so I can go back again’.”
And Franceschi knew just the person to help him with that. Cyrille Féraud (Franceschi’s successor as French Gravel champion) is a close friend and when he planned to test his new car, he knew who would appreciate a call.
“He called me and said ‘if you want to come with me, you can drive the car’, so it was amazing – it was the first time driving a rally car since the accident and it was a [Citroën] DS3 WRC!,” Franceschi laughs.
“It was just amazing on gravel.”
But a test would not be enough – as epic a test as it was. Franceschi needed to get back into competition, and so he entered the opening round of the French Gravel series – Rally Terre des Causses – in a Mitsubishi.
“To be honest the good thing about this accident is I don’t remember anything because of the impact. Of course after that with all the problems I had, for sure before going back in the rally car I was wondering a lot about everything,” Franceschi admits.
“For example on the five first stages I was all the time thinking about the trees and all the things around the stage. I was not fully focused on the road.
“But after five stages it came back and I felt really good. It was important to do this rally for myself and my mind, so now the confidence came back very well and I feel like I can push again, and this is good.”
Trauma firmly put behind him, Franceschi’s season is now back on track – although his recovery process has put him on the back foot. Despite efforts to try testing a Ford Fiesta Rally3 in advance, the Rally Croatia shakedown stage this Thursday will be Franceschi’s first shot in a Rally3 car.
But at least he knows the right people to get advice from. “I have a quite good relationship with Ken Torn and Nil Solans,” Franceschi says, “so they helped me a bit, [telling me] about the car so that I can know some important things before starting to test the car and I feel confident to be honest.”
The other issue was Rally Sweden. The WRC3 Junior season opener fell two weeks too soon for Franceschi to be fit enough to compete, so he’s having to contest the rest of the season without the safety net of being able to drop a points score. The best four scores from the five rounds count.
“It’s one of my biggest questions,” he says when asked if that’s going to cause him a problem.
“It depends on the mechanical [reliability] and me – if I make a mistake for sure it’s over so I need to be focused all the time and not make any mistakes because for me it’s still possible, everything is possible so I will not give up. I will give the maximum.”
Franceschi isn’t promising to be “spectacular” in Croatia as he starts his first WRC rally since 2018 (pictured above) and only his second since his monster accident. Instead he wants to build his pace up as his confidence grows, but he’s equally sure that his confidence should come quite quickly.
If it does, Franceschi absolutely has to be considered a victory contender. And he could well be a dark horse in the title race too, as if he consistently drives at a high level his inability to drop a score could be irrelevant.
But after everything he’s been through over the past few months, Franceschi has an extra appreciation for the opportunity to just be on the starting ramp next week.
“After what happened on Rally du Var, my vision on life generally is different now. When you pass something like this and have all the injuries that I had, for sure you realize how important life is and that’s why I want to enjoy every moment.
“If I can give the maximum and do some good results for me it will be the best gift this year.”