Briefly, all-too-briefly, it looked as though it might happen. It looked as though Francois Delecour might win the Monte Carlo Rally. But then he didn't. Instead, another Frenchman re-lived the Delecour dream from 1991. Except, where Francois failed on the final stage, Bryan Bouffier held it together in the biggest moment of his career.
Delecour came close to a sensational victory © Sutton
It was hard not to get swept along in the enthusiasm for the potential Delecour result. Certainly, the press office staff in Valence made no bones about who they were supporting; Eurosport's stunning live television pictures from the eighth stage made it perfectly plain. Running on intermediate tyres, rally leader at lunchtime Juho Hanninen was lost. His Teflon covers made progress up the Col virtually impossible; doing it at any speed laughable.
Delecour, on the other hand, had landed himself on the right tyres (more, by his own admission by luck than judgement - his only stud-less snow tyres were too badly worn at the pre-event test to use on the rally). He had studs a super-soft compound and plenty of tread. And he made the most of all three. Hanninen's continued snail-like progress up the mountain drew the odd snigger here and there, while Delecour's ability to catch every slide and pile and extra 50 or 60 mph on the straight sections of the D178 just north of Vassieux-en-Vercours brought gasps of admiration and the odd cheer.
Delecour might have won this event in 1994, but the staff in the press office well remembered the heartache of three years earlier, when the then 28-year-old, driving a factory Ford for the first time, had the beating of Carlos Sainz and his Toyota. With one stage remaining, Delecour had more than half a minute in hand over the reigning world champion.
Unfortunately, that one remaining stage happened to be the Turini - not for nothing is the midnight run from Sospel to Moulinet known as the night of the long knives. Delecour dropped it and the massed ranks of French fans felt like they'd been stabbed through the heart.
But now, 20 years on, clocks had been turned back.
Unfortunately for Delecour and his dreamers, when normality returned to the Alps on Friday morning, his private 207 was no match for the factory car of Bouffier. Worse still, second became fifth as Freddy Loix, Guy Wilks and Stephane Sarrazin also overtook him.
Bouffier took the biggest win of his career © Sutton
Fortunately for France, Bouffier's nerve held and he proved as strong and determined as a French tight five packing down against les Anglaise in the Stade de France. Bouffier was sublime through the final night - which included two runs over Turini. He settled down, found a rhythm and got on with the job in hand.
Split times from the chasing Loix would have helped keep him in the picture with where he was, but he wasn't interested.
"I don't like split times in the car," he said, when I asked him if he would take them for the final two stages. "It makes it harder to concentrate. I prefer just to drive."
So he did.
And he won. And he won on only his second ever attempt at the Monte Carlo Rally. Francois who?
The reward for Bouffier's brilliance is an IRC season in a factory Peugeot. But how much of a race was it in the end? In reality, no much. Bouffier won the Monte because he insisted on having two studded tyres in the boot of his Peugeot on Thursday afternoon. He'd gone on a snow tyre at the team's insistence - against his own wishes - but his persistence in choice of spares paid enormous dividends.
But, did Bouffier and Peugeot win this event or did Hanninen and Skoda lose it? To my mind, it has to be the latter. By the time the cars arrived in Valence at the mid-point of the event, nobody had been able to touch Hanninen and the Fabia. Granted, Hanninen's choice of harder rubber on the first morning had helped him while the Peugeot's soft Michelin's wilted - and Bouffier's differential problem had left him powerless to improve on an end-of-day-one seventh position.
But when the snow came, it turned the event on its head. Skoda's decision to run both factory cars on inters was catastrophic, although it's reckoned Hanninen made his own mind up - initially bolting snow tyres on, but then changing his mind when he heard Petter Solberg (the man he feared most at that point of the rally) was running inters. Hanninen mirrored that move and lost the Monte.
Undoubtedly, Bouffier's ability to keep his 207 in a, mostly, straight line while running grippy studs on the front and slippery snows on the rear, played a big part in his win; it would have been far easier for him to throw it off the road while trying to make the most of his advantage. But he got away with his moments - and a sizey spin. So, France got its hero - a new one rather than the renaissance story.
Hanninen dominated the start of the event © Sutton
But did we get a true Monte?
It's only now, having fully digested the IRC opener that I'm beginning to doubt that we did. The Automobile Club de Monaco talked about taking the event back to its roots, making the Monte the challenge it once was. Did they do that last week? Was it the real deal, the magnificent Monte?
Not a chance.
And do you know how I know that? Because I was able to sit down and read AUTOSPORT on my iPad over breakfast most mornings. That's not right. Why hadn't I been forced from my bed in the dead of night, with only the shower to wake me?
A brief aside here, has anybody ever noticed how a cold, damp shower curtain clinging does far more to wake you up than the water itself? If not, check-in to the Atrium Hotel in Valence and experiment.
I digress. When a rally runs its first stage of the day at 10:02 one day and 12:23 then next, it cannot, cannot be considered a test of endurance. The ACM is blessed with hundreds of miles of roads which would grace the itinerary of any Monte Carlo Rally and it's time they started using more of them. The reason the event left the World Rally Championship was because it didn't like the formulaic approach taken to the sport. Well the Monte has become just as predictable as any WRC round.
I've got an idea, some advice if I dare, for the ACM. In a bit of a shake-up of the route, why not take the itinerary from 30 years ago and cut and paste it into 2012. That would mean a Sunday evening start, a Friday morning finish. 32 stages and 47o miles of competition. Now that's a Monte.
Monte Carlo needs a shake-up
Something else that's predictable about the Monte these days is Eurosport's coverage of the event. Predictable, that is, in a good way. Once again, Eurosport delivered some of the most entertaining pictures our sport will see this season. Granted, the long periods of on-boards through the night stages were not as varied as they might have been during the day, but that's the nature of the night - it's dark.
The only downside to the Eurosport coverage is that there was so much of it! Having been on the event and trying to follow it outside of the press office, to add my own element of endurance, I missed loads of the tele, and trying to catch up with it now I'm home is getting me into trouble with my wife! What a great problem to have. If you know what I mean...
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