Winter Marathon

What, no snow?

If there has been one profound change in the old car business in recent times, apart from ludicrous price rises, it has been the flourishing of a new historic rally scene. Setting aside the Mille Miglia, which may be a ready inspiration but is neither competitive nor even accessible to anyone with less than priceless machinery, we now have a spread of events peaking with the new glamour of the Coppa delle Alpi and the Monte Carlo-Sestriere, and developing a broad base in this country through the efforts of the Historic Rally Car Register. Historic classes running as part of a current rally such as the Longleat Stages are becoming popular, and last year’s Pirelli Classic Marathon set a 3000-mile London-Cortina challenge to over 100 crews.

Organiser Philip Young’s intention with the Pirelli was to evoke the spirit of long distance rallying of the Fifties and Sixties, and, whether or not inspired by his success, the MW Veteran Car Club of Brescia ran an event in January this year called the Winter Marathon, over some of the same roads which saw the great days of Healeys and Minis in the Tulip Rally and the toughest of all, the Liege.

Though the event started in 1931, it was the great post-war days which crystallised the reputation of the Liege-Rome-Liege. It differed from most other rallies in the simplicity of its rules: there was no class structure, no restriction on car modifications, and no rest, fuel or service halts in four days and four nights of driving. Any road-legal car was acceptable, and only the first crew home counted; the rest, as they say in the States, were nowhere. Over the 3000plus miles, if the crew needed to work on the car, they had to make up the time in advance, because at most of the 75 or so controls there was no allowable lateness. One minute late meant exclusion.

Certain controls permitted 15 or 30 minutes lateness, and it was these which established a leader-board. Endurance was the prime factor, and it was normal for the driver to cover 1000km before handing over to the co-driver — and even then he could not sleep because someone had to navigate. The title “La Marathon de Ia Route” was well-deserved.

With this history in mind, the Winter Marathon’s 530km route fell rather short of the rally which inspired it, but there was a healthy field of entrants at the small skiing resort of Madonna di Campiglio in the Italian Dolomites. Although run on a regularity basis, with penalty points spiralling up for tenths of a second late or early, the snowy conditions were meant to make the sections hard to keep to time over. Nature, or the hole in the ozone layer, spoiled that with a winter which was so warm that the ski industry was in difficult straits; the route was almost bare of snow, and though it was cold enough to ice some of the roads, this patchy ice was no real challenge.

On this first running of what is intended to become a winter partner to the Mille Miglia rally under the same organisers, the bulk by far of the entries were Italian — well over 100 out of some 130 crews. Britain and Germany had a handful each, and the remaining numbers were spread over Europe in ones and twos. Car makes, too, showed a heavy bias: Lancias, Alfa Romeos and Fiats made up more than half the field, with Porsche the only other marque to show in any numbers.

It was amongst the Italian machinery that most of the interest lay, too. A 41/2-litre Bentley was a staggering sight to local spectators, but a 41/2-litre Invicta went broadly unremarked, as did a Daimler SP250 and a Marcos with a Lotus twin-cam inside it. Crowds clustered around a 1947 Stanguellini 1100S, though, its lights all hidden behind a chrome grille, and patted the aerodynamic flanks of a Fiat 1100S. A pair of Fiat Balillas with extremely elegant fastback coupe bodies sat behind a Cisitalia 202 and a quartet of Lancia Aurelia B20 coupes, with one of the remaining handful of Fiat V8s in muscular Zagato coachwork alongside.

Saab 92s, 4CV Renaults and a Steyr-Puch (Fiat) 500 leavened the mix of more powerful machinery, amongst which the big engines of Jaguar Mk II and Austin Healey 3000 could be heard forming a bass continuo to the high-pitched Abarths. A real treat was the presence of an ASA 10000T; the noise of that little engine rasping along a hillside road was a new experience for me.

The event was to start at 7.30pm and run over night, and the prospect of ice even without snow was causing many crews some worry: was it worth running on studs just in case, and risking the reduced tarmac traction? Most people had brought studded tyres, including some of the British crews who had never before driven with them, and as the temperature dropped in the early evening, more and more crews could be seen fitting them. High-profile names included Gino Monsoon, driving a 1928 OM, and Luca Grandori, president of historic racing stable Club Italia and editor of the Italian Historic magazine AutoCapital, brought a Ford Mustang.

Robert Brooks, the ever-cheerful head of Christie’s car auction department, was partnering Robert Maclean in the latter’s Series 3 Aurelia coupe, and Historic GP racer Peter Hansen sat alongside Julius Thurgood in a Mini Cooper S. One notable non-starter was the Austin Healey 3000 entered by Peter Livanos and Victor Gauntlett.

Scrutineering was virtually non-existent, and no-one seemed bothered that the Bentley had a modern alternator driven off the propshaft, or that some of these pre-’65 cars were on low-profile radial tyres. Thirteen hours driving seems rather pale compared to the real marathons of the past, but most of the contestants felt that it was plenty when they rolled back into Campiglio at 9 or 10am the next morning. They had tackled 15 special sections on strict timing, but the easy conditions turned it into a stopwatch event instead of the all-out snow rally it should have been, at least for the faster cars.

Slower vehicles still found the special stages a challenge, and the general feeling was that the timing was about right. Crews were split into the Procup class for current (or retired) rally-drivers and anyone with one of the younger, faster FWD machines like a Mini or Fulvia HF; all others fell into the general classification. Canetoli in a Fulvia was the Procup victor, with Tonino Tognana, a regular Historic competitor, just behind in a Volvo 544. Amongst the amateurs Porsche 356s were first and third, split by an Alfa Romeo Giulietta Zagato. Despite the ice, no-one fell down a mountain, though the Moreschi brothers had a scrape with a passing lorry which dinged their Fiat 1100MM coupe. Electrical problems stopped the Stanguellini, and as we flashed past a lay-by the Bentley could be seen standing in a pool of glearning fluid. That turned out only to be water from a ruptured top radiator pipe, later repaired with rubber hose and Jubilee clips for the long run back to Yorkshire.

This was the first running of what is intended to be an annual event, and it drew a surprising number of spectators to its midnight sections, mainly enthusiastic locals with a sprinkling of frustrated skiers. It ran smoothly, without too much queueing, but will need the snow next year if it is to be properly competitive attraction for owners of eligible cars. GC