Francois Delecour truly introduced himself to the top flight of the World Rally Championship at the 1991 Monte Carlo Rally with a stunning but ultimately agonising victory fight. TOM HOWARD revisits how the Frenchman came so near yet so far

Lockdown isn’t much fun, but it does give motorsport fans the opportunity to dip into the archives and relive some classic moments.

Last week, Autosport magazine marked the 30th anniversary of Ayrton Senna’s final Formula 1 world championship with a special 1991-themed issue covering the year’s best storylines, from arguably Senna’s greatest title to the rise of IndyCar talent Michael Andretti and the rivalry between Wayne Rainey and Kevin Schwantz.

And as the World Rally Championship kicks off this weekend with the Monte Carlo Rally, Autosport thought it only appropriate to continue the 1991 theme and with the help of, selected some highlights from a classic edition of the famous Alpine event.

Although the Group A period is rarely cited when it comes to discussing the WRC’s greatest eras, the 1991 entry list was packed with stellar factory line-ups as Toyota, Lancia, Mitsubishi, Ford and Mazda engaged in a hotly-contested battle. But while the year would be defined by the battle between Juha Kankkunnen (Lancia) and Carlos Sainz Sr (Toyota), it was a new force who emerged to take centre stage on the 1991 Monte – step forward Francois Delecour.

The Frenchman had impressed on the event in 1990 driving for the factory Peugeot squad, finishing as the top two-wheel-drive runner in ninth place overall.

Now picked up by the works Ford squad, Delecour burst onto the scene driving the relatively new and unproven four-wheel drive Q8-backed Ford Sierra Sapphire Cosworth, which had made its debut the previous year.

The rally began with reigning WRC champion Sainz beginning his title defence in the best way possible by powering his Celica into a comfortable lead. The Spaniard seemed imperious on the tricky stages that were unseasonably bereft of heavy snow, but filled with spectators creeping dangerously close to the cars as they swept through.

By the end of the opening day, Sainz held a 54-second advantage over the factory Lancia Delta of Miki Biasion and the Jolly Club-run Lancia of Bruno Saby, who had been feeling unwell all day.

Meanwhile, the unfancied Delecour had been setting impressive stage times but was flying under the radar nicely in fourth, 61 seconds from the lead.

It was on the second day that Delecour made his charge, giving chase to Sainz as Biasion faltered early on the only snow covered stages of the rally. These stages were familiar territory for Delecour as he successfully navigated uncontrolled crowds that lined the routes, shaving seconds from Sainz’s lead.

As the Lancia charge dampened, the rally looked set to be decided by a final day duel between Sainz and Delecour, the latter firmly in with a chance of an unlikely debut victory for Ford.

Delecour refused to relent on the final day and overhauled Sainz’s nine-second cushion, moving into his own commanding advantage ahead of the final stage. In fact, he realistically only needed to complete the 14-mile night stage at a reasonable pace to be assured of victory.

However, drama struck when the Sierra ran off the road and severely damaged the rear suspension, while also picking up punctures in the process. Delecour’s car came rolling to a halt at the end of the stage some five minutes adrift, ending any hope of what would have been a dream win on home soil.

Surrounded by crowds as he exited the car in tears, he rested his head forlornly on the roof as he came to terms with what had happened as Sainz snatched an unlikely victory – finishing four minutes and 59 seconds ahead of Biasion’s Lancia.

Delecour was left to console himself with third and would have to wait until 1994 to make up for his near-miss with victory on the Monte. In a top-flight career that continued until 2002, he won four times and finished runner-up in 1993, but it will always be the 1991 Monte for which he’ll be remembered as the breakout star who allowed victory to slip through his fingers.

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