Saturday, 31 July 2010

Melissa Debackere

Melissa is a very competitive Belgian driver who has scored several top places on Belgian national rallies. After a few years of lower-level competition, she really announced herself on the scene in 2008, and became a contender for the Belgian championship. Her 2008 successes included a second place on the East Belgian Rally, in a Toyota Corolla WRC, and a third on the 24 Uren von Haspengouw. She missed out on the championship by a single point.

She has been a competitor in Belgian rallying since 2003. Driving a Citroen Saxo with Geert Grooten as navigator, she was tenth overall in her first major event, the Rallye Charlemagne-Ville de Maubeuge. They were second in class A6.

She rallied a Toyota Celica GT-Four during her second year of national competition, 2004. Early in the season, she was fourth in that year’s Hannut Rally, which was only her second major rally. Isidoor Smets was her navigator to begin with. He was replaced mid-season by Vicky Van de Walle and Hendrik Debackere, but later returned to the passenger seat. Melissa’s next event, the TAC Rally, ended in retirement, after transmission trouble, but she bounced back for the Sezoensrally Bocholt, and was eleventh, six seconds away from another top ten. Back with Isidoor Smets, she was thirteenth in the Paradigit ELE Rally. Her next big event was the 12 Uren van Haspengouw and she did not disappoint, finishing seventh. Another retirement in Luxembourg was a disappointing end to the year, but Melissa’s first full season was a real success.

The ageing Celica was replaced by a Group N Peugeot 206 in 2005. Melissa ran a reduced schedule this year. She was down on power compared to 2004, and could only manage an 18th in the Belgium Ypres Westhoek Rally. She did not get to the finish of the Rallye du Condroz-Huy.

After the 2005 season, she appears to have taken a break from rallying. It seems likely that budget was a problem, as it is for so many young drivers. However, she returned in 2007, driving a Lancer Evo 9. Even more than when she first appeared, Melissa really announced herself, winning the Moorslede rallysprint event. The Ypres Westhoek Rally led to another retirement. Shortly after, in time for the Haspengouw Rally, she took delivery of her new car: a Toyota Corolla WRC. It proved a good choice, as she and Isidoor were second in Haspengouw. The Tour of Flanders ended in a series of electronic failures, and the hydraulics failed during the Condroz event, which must have been disappointing, especially as Melissa had been well-placed, and was ahead of former Rally Australia winner Francois Duval.

2008 started with the Ypres-Westhoek Rally, and Melissa was back in the Lancer. Unfortunately, this Group N machine could not keep up with the frontrunners. She missed a couple of events, but reappeared at the TAC Tielt Rally, reunited with the Corolla. The move paid off, and she was second overall. Unfortunately, servo trouble put her out of the Rallye de Wallonie. In the break between Belgian championship events, she did some more rallysprints in the Lancer. For the fourth Belgian championship round, the Sezoensrally, the Corolla was back up and running, and she was fifth, behind several newer cars. The Corolla also proved reliable enough to win the Micky rallysprint. After leaving behind her reliability problems, she was second in the Tour of Flanders and the Haspengouw Rally. This left her in the lead of the Belgian championship. The decider was the Rallye Condroz. Sadly, Melissa only managed fifth, and lost the championship by a single point. However, considering her troubled start to the season, this was a real achievement.

2009 began with the Legend Boucles de Spa, a historic meeting. Melissa drove an Opel TE2800. After another practice run in a rallysprint, which yielded a second, she was back in the Toyota for the Routes du Nord Rally. Despite the Corolla being practically a historic vehicle in its own right, she won the event comfortably. After that came the TAC Rally, the first round of the Belgian championship. Alongside her current navigator, Lara Vanneste, Melissa was second. In the second round, the Rallye de Wallonie, they were third. In the Sezoensrally they were fourth, and struggled a little to keep up with the more modern WRCs in front. For this reason, the Corolla was exchanged for a Lancer Evo X for the Ypres-Westhoek event. Despite setting some of the fastest Group N times of the rally, Melissa and Bruno Brissart could not make the finish. On the Tour of Flanders, back with Toyota power and Lara Vanneste, virtually the same thing happened. Despite running near the front, mechanical problems intervened on the second day. Fortunately, the pair (and the car) were back up to speed for the Haspengouw Rally, and were runners-up.

Before the final Belgian championship round, Melissa took part in the Micky rallysprint, as she had done previously. In a risky strategy, she was competing for the first time in a new car in the Rallye du Condroz. Happily, her new Peugeot 207 S2000 stayed reliable, and gave her a solid seventh place. This was not enough to secure the championship, which again, must have been disappointing, but it stood her in good stead for 2010, as a new car she could get on with.

In 2010, Melissa drove different cars, including two Subaru Imprezas, an S12 and an STi. She started the season back in her trusty Corolla WRC, and was fourth in the Haspengouw event. Her Peugeot deal had fallen through. For the Terre des Causes Rally, she drove a Citroen C2, but did not fare as well, only managing 32nd. For the TAC Rallye Tielt, she was seventh, back in the Corolla, but it proved even better for the Rally van Wallonie, in which she was fifth. For the Monteberg Rally,  it was back to business as usual, and she was second, up from fourth on the first day. The Sezoenrally gave her a fifth.

Her next event was the ORC Canal Rally, in which she scored her first win of the season, still in the Toyota. The Geko Ypres Rally which followed was her first run in the Impreza STi, but mechanical problems put her out. An off then put her out of the Exotic Green Rally, and another mechanical failure ended her Micky Rallysprint hopes. Her third place in the Omloop van Vlaanderen, back with the ever-reliable Corolla, was a welcome distraction, as her championship position was slipping. This was not helped by another, rare, off in the TBR Rally, driving the Corolla.

Melissa's last event was the Rallye du Condroz, the last round of the Belgian championship. She drove a Subaru Imprexa S12, and ran as high as fourth place before retiring.

2011 saw a shorter season for her, with many ups and downs. She continued to use the Impreza to good effect, and was navigated ably by Cindy Cokelaere. She began with another fourth in the Rally Haspengouw, before achieving her first podium at the TAC Rally Tielt. She was fourth again in the Rally Wallonie, then suffered her first accident of the year at Sezoens. Fortunately, her season turned around then, with two wins, in the ORC Canal Rally and the Wervik Rally. Sadly, these were followed by a disappointing fifteenth at Ieper, and a mechanical failure during the Omloop van Vlaanderen. This dropped her to eighth in the championship.

During the off-season, Melissa decided to make a few changes, and push her driving career forward. She tested a number of cars, including trying out rallycross and circuit racing in a Skoda Fabia, but eventually settled on a deal with the team run by ex-WRC driver Philippe Bugalski. Her car was a Citroen DS3 R3T and she was running in the French Tarmac Championship, with a few outings in Belgium, mainly rallysprints. The French rallies were tougher than the Belgian ones she was used to, and her best finish was 28th, in the Criterium des Cevennes. Her best class finish was seventh, in the Rallye Le Touquet, although she was only 43rd overall. She retired from the Lyon-Charbonnières and was 62nd and 35th in the Rallye du Var and Rallye Region Limousin-Lac de Vassivière respectively. She had better results in the Belgian events: fourteenth in Ypres, an IRC rally, 16th in the Omloop van Vlaanderen and eighth Belgian driver to the finish. The two rallysprints, the Moorslede and Franco-Belge events, gave her a thirteenth and a fourth place. Throughout the year, she found it difficult to adjust to driving in a less powerful and grippy car, after years of WRC experience.

Although she intended to drive in the Rally of Germany, this proved to be not possible.

Melissa changed cars again for the 2013 season. Her usual ride was an S2000-spec Peugeot 207. The first rally of her season, the Rally van Haspengouw, saw her back on the pace once more, with seventh overall and second S2000 car. Her navigator was Cindy Cokelaere. They were then third in the TAC Rally and eighth in the Rallye de Wallonie, winning their class in the TAC event.

At the beginning of June, Melissa got herself a drive in the Flemish championship, back with WRC power for the first time in three years, in the form of a 2008-spec Ford Focus. She won the ORC Canal Rally in this car. Switching back to the Peugeot, she also won her next Flemish event, the Geko Rally Wervik. Her biggest rally of the year was the Geko Ypres Rally, an ERC round. She was seventh overall, second in class, and fourth Belgian finisher.

The Peugeot now needed work doing on it, so for the Omloop van Vlanderen (Tour of Flanders), she drove a Toyota Celica, and was fourth, with a class win. For the East Belgian Rally, she stepped back in time a little and drove a Toyota GT-4, which gave her a twelfth place. Her navigator was Vicky van der Walle, taking time out from her own driving schedule, as Cindy was busy with work commitments.She was also competing against her father. To finish the season, Melissa and Cindy drove a historic Porsche 911 in the 6 Uren van Kortrijk, managing a 23rd place against modern and historic machinery.

Melissa was second overall in the Belgian championship.

For most of 2014, she drove the Peugeot. It was not one of her better seasons. It started with a retirement from the Rally of Haspengouw, due to a technical problem. The car was far from reliable, and it took until the Geko Ypres Rally, in June, for Melissa to record a finish. She was ninth. This scored her a few European points, but was not enough to salvage her season. After that, she reverted to the Celica GT-Four, for the Rallye du Condroz-Huy, but that failed her too, on the thirteenth stage.

Her 2015 season began with the TAC Rally, driving a BMW M30 in the historic section. Unfortunately, she did not finish. Another historic drive followed; she rallied a Toyota Celica GT-Four in the Haillot Rallysprint, with her father as co-driver. They were second overall. For the Flemish championship, she was once more in a WRC car, a Subaru Impreza. She was sixth in the Aarova Rallysprint, and third in the Kortrijk 6 Hours. Her season ended with another run in the BMW, in the Ypres Rally.

2016 saw a rejuvenated Melissa, back on top form. She began with another two historic outings, in the Celica and the M3 respectively, before starting out with her new car, a Skoda Fabia. In her first rally in the car, the ORC Canal Rally, she was second, and then third in the Rally van Wervik. An accident dropped her out of the Ypres Rally, which was a shame, but she made up for it, with second in the Micky Rallysprint and a win in the Trefle Rallysprint. She earned seven top-ten finishes in eleven rallies, four of these being podium places.

She really got the hang of the Fabia in 2017, posting two wins in the ORC Canal Rally and the Saint-Gery de Soire Rallysprint. Across the border in France, she was second in the Charlemagne National Rally and the best R5 entrant. Her haul included two more podiums in Flemish rallies and a sixth in the Haspengouw Rally.

Melissa did not manage a win in the Fabia in 2018, but she was concentrating on longer events and still performed well. Her best result was a second place in the Conrad Twente Rally in the Netherlands, co-driven by Patrick Gerritsen. She was also third in the Eurol Hellendoorn Rally, also in the Netherlands, with her usual co-driver Cindy Cokelaere. This was another one of her seven top-ten finishes in 2018.

She did manage a win in the Fabia in 2019: three of them. She won the ORC Canal Rally and Soutenons Clemence Rallysprint in Belgium, plus the Conrad Twente Rally in the Netherlands. In addition, she was second in three more rallies: the Dutch Visual Arts Rally, the Charlemagne Golden Palace National Rally in France and the Belgian 6 Uren von Kortrijk.

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