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Autosport 70: How a reluctant hero became France's first WRC champion

Long before Sebastiens Loeb and Ogier dominated the WRC, fellow Frenchman Didier Auriol was a major contender. He spoke to Autosport's KEITH OSWIN for the 22/29 December 1994 issue, shortly after prevailing in a titanic scrap with Carlos Sainz to score his first world title

Didier Auriol dismissed the Network Q RAC Rally as just another event in his calendar, preferring not to think of what was at stake on the final round of the 1994 World Rally Championship.

"OK," he said, "I am a little bit nervous, but no more than at any other event. The rally is really important but it is not the end of the world."

One could be forgiven for wondering if the 36-year-old Frenchman had lost a few of his marbles, for the next four days would decide the world drivers' championship. Auriol came to the event with an 11-point lead over Carlos Sainz, but the memory of 1992 (pictured below in Australia) lingered strong in everyone's mind.

Auriol had come to the RAC Rally having won six rounds of the series, only to see his dream of becoming the first French world rally champion blown to shreds along with his Lancia engine in Kielder late on the Tuesday night.

"All I can do is drive my best and hope for a little more luck than normal on this rally," he explained.

"I don't think there is really an extra pressure because the title is at stake. Perhaps a little more than normal, but not that much to worry about. In my head there is nothing different, but I suppose it is more important for Toyota that I win the title."

If nothing else, this attitude probably helped keep Auriol sane during the first two days of the rally. A rare error on the pacenotes by co-driver Bernard Occelli led to Auriol rattling the Toyota at Chatsworth on the opening day. Monday proved little better, starting with a roll in Hamsterley and ending with a blown turbo in Kershope.

Only on Tuesday did things come together, Auriol's climb through the field getting him into a title-winning sixth place with the late-morning retirement of Sainz. So why did Auriol feel seemingly ambivalent towards the title race as he had lined up in Chester?

"The title is not the most important thing. The most important thing is to be one of the best drivers" Didier Auriol

"In my mind I know I could have driven better this season," he confesses now the championship has been won. "I went off in Monte Carlo at the start of the year. But then I also remember that, two years ago, I was the best and fastest driver of the year and yet I did not win the title.

"The title is not the most important thing. The most important thing is to be one of the best drivers."

As his 1992 title bid ended in tears, Auriol admits that the experience was one of several that changed his attitude to life: "There are lots of things that have changed me over the past few years.

"I am more relaxed in my life and that is reflected in the way I drive a rally. OK, I try just as hard to win - that is normal - but I just try to drive my best."

The loss of his father three years ago also played a part in the recreating of Auriol: "If I win the title or not, it doesn't matter as much as life itself."

The failure on the Monte Carlo Rally did, however, get his season off to a bad start. A substantial lead was destroyed in a moment, the Castrol Toyota beached where no spectators could help him regain the road.

"I still don't really understand what happened," he admits. "I didn't think I was going too fast when I braked for the corner. But then it started to understeer. I lifted off the accelerator and nothing changed, so I accelerated hard again to kick the rear of the car out. It did, but the wheel got into the snow and it dragged the front end in as well."

Auriol admits it was probably his mistake, caused by a lack of experience of Toyota's traction control option, but he has virtually abandoned the system ever since.

"Sometimes I switch it on at the start of a stage or on a long straight, but normally I leave it switched off," he says. "Since then we have changed the system so that it only works when the wheels are straight.

"I still don't feel really safe with it as there are some reactions that I don't understand. I think that it is a little faster with it on than off but, if I don't feel safe, there is no advantage."

In reality, then, Auriol's season kicked off in Portugal [round two of 10] but, while he took second place to team-mate Juha Kankkunen, a disappointing performance over the opening day's asphalt stages puzzled him.

"I couldn't understand what was going on," he says. "I tried to drive fast but the times were not there.

"We had tested there before the rally, but only on gravel as there was full snow on the asphalt. So we decided to use the Monte Carlo settings for the asphalt. There I had used a strong centre differential, but I forgot that the roads were more abrasive than in Portugal, and it was only afterwards that I realised the mistake I had made for a rally that I like."

Auriol emerges as a coolly analytical driver, but his abilities in that respect were tested to the full on his first visit to the Safari Rally. His first task was to overcome his fear of injections, his second was to find the right pace to survive this most tactically crucial of all the events.

"I did not know this event at all and so I had no feeling for it," he explains. "I broke a shock absorber, which is not normally a problem, but it led to big drama. Assistance was two kilometres away and I asked on the radio what I should do. Should I stop and wait for help or carry on?

"They said to do what I want but I did not know what I wanted! We carried on and broke lots of things, which was stupid. I wish someone had told me to stop and change - which we did later once we knew that was the right thing to do - because I think we could have won the Safari at our first try.

"It was a good experience. I did not like the first three days, because I did not understand the event. Afterwards I enjoyed it and would like to drive it again."

"I try to see what is happening before I commit myself but, if I can take victory, I feel my style change both in the car and in my head" Didier Auriol

Luckily, Auriol was employing his calmer approach to life for, after three events, the title looked as likely as England's cricketers ever regaining the Ashes. He admits he thought his chance was finished before he set off to Corsica in May.

There, however, after a fierce battle with Sainz - resolved only on the final morning - Auriol claimed his first win since the 1993 Monte, and suddenly found himself leading the title race.

"I really liked that rally but we did not look good at the start of the last morning," he recalls. "I said to Bernard that we must try to do something special but I was not really confident with the car.

"We started the long stage trying really hard and I saw from our mid-stage timing team that I was fastest. But the tyres were completely to the metal before the end of the stage, and I knew I could only hope that Carlos had the same problem. We lost a lot of time to Juha, but Carlos did have that problem and we went on to win."

The duel moved to Argentina [round six, after Greece, won by Sainz], where Auriol won again, this time by just six seconds.

"It has been very close," says Auriol. "Both of us have driven well and there has always been a fight."

They were locked in combat again in Finland [round eight], Auriol getting the edge [beating Sainz for second] and clinching Toyota's second manufacturers' title, and then enjoyed their most thrilling contest in the closing stages of San Remo (pictured below). Sainz looked on course for the win until Auriol overhauled the ailing Subaru in the final hours.

"I was really ill that morning and so I drove the long first stage hoping to catch Carlos by 20s and then decide what to do," says Auriol. "I drove the first part of the stage very well but I was soon very tired, too tired to drive flat out anymore. It was as much as I could do to stay on the road.

"I didn't take as much time from Carlos as I hoped, but I could catch him on every stage and that gave me a reason to keep trying until we passed him and won the rally."

Auriol always tries to keep a little in reserve for such occasions. He drives 100% and more if victory is in sight, but insists that he prefers to start a little slower, see what is possible and then adjust his pace accordingly. It is a tactic that has brought Kankkunen four world titles, so Auriol clearly has his sights set on more of the same.

"I try to drive safely, but sometimes I drive badly as well! I try to see what is happening before I commit myself but, if I can take victory, I feel my style change both in the car and in my head.

"At the start I need to understand the car as well. You know that every car is different, even if the specification is supposed to be the same. All cars take a little time to settle and so you have to grow with them and drive a little differently."

Toyota debuted a new Celica this season but, so far, only Kankkunen has competed with it. Auriol has stuck to the old car, the one he knows, as the complexities of the new car have proved difficult to tame.

"Next year we will only drive the new car but I chose to drive the old," he explains. "I think that the new car will be faster, but I think it was more important to have a strong car than a fast one, especially for the RAC Rally when I did not need to win the rally to win the championship.

"We will be busy over the winter, but I don't know if we will have enough time to do everything we want before Monte Carlo."

The title was decided with Sainz in a Welsh ditch and Auriol salvaging sixth on an event where he had been as low as 93rd

One of the great unknowns for 1995 is how the new tyre and service regulations will work. Slicks are banned and servicing opportunities reduced. Auriol knows that driving styles will have to change.

"We will have to preserve our tyres so much that we will not be able to drive the same way at the moment," he argues. "I don't think life will be so interesting, as we'll have to drive so carefully not to break anything.

"I think it is the wrong decision, but perhaps it is not such a problem for the young drivers. At the moment rallies are sprints but they will soon be more like rally raids!

"Today a little problem will not change the nature of the big fight for the victory. Tomorrow such a thing could become a big problem and we may lose a lot of time before the mechanics can reach the problem. This will not be so good for us, for spectators or for the sport."

After several events where Auriol and Sainz were at it hammer and tongs for victory, the title was decided with Sainz in a Welsh ditch and Auriol salvaging sixth on an event where he had been as low as 93rd. But Auriol still described his title-clinching event as a "catastrophe".

"I did not make a good rally here in Britain," reflected Toyota's reluctant hero as he was led away to begin the celebrations.

"But I have still won the championship, and it has happened not because of what I did here but because of good rallies I have driven elsewhere this year."

One senses that the victories in Corsica, Argentina and San Remo will be remembered more fondly than the moment Auriol knew he was the first Frenchman to claim the world crown...

2020 hindsight

Auriol never quite scaled the same heights after his world title success and lost his 1995 championship position amid Toyota's illegal turbo restrictors controversy.

His next full-time campaign came with Toyota's return in 1998 and he racked up two more wins, finishing third in the 1999 standings.

Subsequent stints with SEAT, Peugeot and Skoda were less successful, but Auriol did manage to take his 20th and final WRC victory on Rally Catalunya in 2001 (below), driving a Peugeot 206.

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