It promised much and certainly looked the part when in the hands of Francois Delecour, yet the Group A Sierra Sapphire never quite delivered
Boreham's phenomenal success with the Mk1 and Mk2 Escort must have seemed like a long time ago indeed by the late '80s, the period when the Sierra Sapphire rally programme was finally given the green light. The story of Ford's blundering '80s rally programme is one for another time, but suffice it to say that neither the stillborn RS1700T or curtailed RS200 really got an opportunity to prove their worth, leaving the company retreating to lick its wounds in the wake of the cancellation of Group B.
Of course the Ford of the period was a completely different company to the Ford of today, meaning it went against all company pride to retreat from world rallying entirely, which is why FoMoCo instead turned to the Sierra Cosworth, the 3-door model which did so much to carve its way into motorsport folklore by dominating touring car championships across the globe. It was a rear-wheel drive car was therefore destined to have its work cut out on anything but tarmac (Vatanen's 2nd on the 1987 1000 Lakes notwithstanding), which is why Ford soon found itself committing to yet another Group A project based around the then new Sierra Sapphire Cosworth.
On paper the Sapphire looked to have all the ingredients of a world beating (or at least a Lancia humbling) Group A rally car, with one of the principle components being its engine, the 2.0 YB. Now very much an automotive industry legend, the Cosworth YB had earned its crust on the race tracks of Europe. It had been shown to make easy power, about as much as any race or rally team could ever need (500bhp+ was not unknown in works ETCC trim), and just as importantly was reckoned to be reliable – it'd certainly served the 3-door Sierra very well indeed. Publicly Ford never admitted to more than 300bhp in works trim, the FIA mandated limit, yet less coy Boreham engineers reckoned a full 450bhp could be coaxed from the WRC YB.
Power wasn't an issue then, yet transmitting all that shove certainly was. The Sapphire developed an unenviable reputation for transmission frailty over the course of its works career, with various issues surrounding the strength of drive-shafts, differentials and its trick 7-speed gearbox. Said gearbox went onto cause the team a fair amount aggro and forced them to pour resources into its development, while most of the drivers felt it tricky to use and certainly not up to the standards of comparable offerings from rival teams.
One suspects that had Ford not had to contend with the might of Lancia and its ever improving Delta then it might have enjoyed more success with the Sierra. As it was the team faced something of an uphill struggle, beginning in 1990, the year that the Sapphire Cosworth was released to the public. It became clear that the Sierra was fast (very fast on tarmac) but inadequately developed, and it therefore suffered from a litany of highly frustrating reliability issues. The combination of Cosworth YB and 7-speed proved annoyingly problematic and it took many months for the various issues to be ironed out, all of which meant the car's best result in its debut season was actually at home, a fresh-faced Colin McRae nursing one home in 6th overall on the RAC.
1991 saw Ford revitalise its driver lineup, bringing in a young Frenchman who would go onto become closely associated with all Ford's WRC activities in the 1990s, the one and only Francois Delecour. Delecour was actually one of several prodigiously talented drivers discovered by Ford in the late '80s, the most notable being Didier Auriol and Carlos Sainz. All three would go onto enjoy successful works careers as the decade progressed, but in 1991 Delecour was a coming man; never mind that this was his first four-wheel drive gig, many were whispering about his potential as a future WRC Champ!
Poor fortune and an infamous accident while driving a friend's Ferrari F40 meant Delecour never quite scaled the heady heights of WRC Champion, but he was indecently fast in the Sapphire Cosworth from the off, and this raw pace was never more evident than the 1991 Monte Carlo Rally. That year saw a bumper lineup of talent take the start, including five 16v Lancia Delta Integrales for Didier Auriol, Mikki Biasion, Juha Kankkunen, Bruno Saby and Yves Loubet, plus works Celicas for Carlos Sainz, Armin Schwarz and Marc Duez. Factor in the breadth of talent within the Ford camp, namely Malcolm Wilson and Alessandro Fiorio, and it's clear to see why Delecour was off most people's radar – after all, it was his first ever rally in a four-wheel drive Group A car.
The relative lack of expectation surrounding Delecour meant that many were flabbergasted when he was on the pace from the off, shrugging off the treacherously snowy conditions to haul the big Ford further up the leaderboard than it'd been for months. Unbelievable performances through some of the Monte's legendary night stages saw him up to second, and it wasn't much longer before he'd overhauled Carlos Sainz for the lead! Further night running (all carried out on stages with a liberal smattering of black ice and compacted snow) saw him extend it to a full 44 seconds, enough to discourage the hard-charging Spaniard from pushing any harder and effectively settling for 2nd place.
It was all going so well for Ford and Delecour, and a win wasn't so much in the bag as in the trophy room...until the very last stage of the rally, the Col de Turini. It was subsequently revealed that the Sapphire's rear suspension had collapsed with a shattered rose-joined deemed to the specific issue, though at the time Delecour was convinced it was nothing more serious than a loose wheel. These illusions were cruelly shattered a few kilometres further along the stage though, when he slid wide on compacted snow and went off the road. He rejoined and was able to limp back to the end, but he'd lost a full six minutes and any chance of fighting for the win. 3rd place overall was a poor reward for such a mesmerising debut.
Delecour would continue to use the Sapphire to good effect throughout 1991 and 1992, netting further podiums on the Tour de Corse (3rd and 2nd respectively) and the Sanremo (3rd), but was never able to drag it to overall victory. The increasing pace of Toyota's Celicas and continued domination of the Delta Integrale stymied Ford's charge, and news that the Sierra was soon to be replaced by the Escort Cosworth meant that its development was further curtailed. It's since gone down in history as another of those 'what might have been' Fords, up there with the RS1700T and the RS200 which preceded it.