Le Tour de Corse

The birthplace of Napoleon is a rally driver’s nirvana. a wide-eyed John Davenport remembers some ‘on-the-edge’ motoring in Corsica

They could have called it anything: The 24 Hours of Corsica, The 1000 Miles of the Mediterranean or even the Targa Napoleon. Instead they called it The Tour of Corsica, a title straight out of a Saga Holidays brochure. Admittedly there was a sub-title, Rallye des Dix Mule Virages, which seemed to hint at something a bit tougher, but even that would have fallen foul of the Trade Descriptions Act. The number of bends quoted was way too low.

For those of you who have not been to the Ile de Beaute, famously the birthplace of Napoleon, a few facts. The island of Corsica at 3352 square miles is the fourth biggest of the Mediterranean islands and lies 100 miles south east of France and 60 miles west of Italy. It is largely mountainous, with lots of peaks over 6000 feet and cols well over 3000. It has a complex political history, having been invaded and ruled by, successively, Romans, Vandals, Lombards, Saracens and Genoese before having its own independence and then becoming a province of France for the first time in 1769. The British invaded during the Napoleonic Wars but it has since been strictly French with only the occasional rumble from separationist groups.

From a motor sporting point of view, Corsica is simply Utopia. There are roads everywhere, and all the roads in the hills (which are most of them) are as replete with bends as a strangulated hernia. Its isolation was probably the reason why it did not host much motor sport until after the Second World War when large ferries, capable of carrying large numbers of cars, started operating from French ports.

There was a one-off Grand Prix held in 1921 to commemorate the centenary of the death of Napoleon but it was another 35 years before motor sport came back to Corsica with anything serious. The man behind it was Dr Jean Sermonard who came originally from Lyon where he had been an active participant in rallies. Recognising the amazing resource that the Corsican roads represented, he first ran a couple of smaller events, the success of which had encouraged him to think of running a bigger event. By establishing contacts with clubs on the mainland for experienced officials and by motivating the Automobile Club of Corsica and the Tourist Board, he got everything in place to run the Tour de Corse for the first time in November 1956.

The older amongst you will recognise that this was not a very auspicious date. Europe was suffering the fall-out from Suez and Hungary while France was calling on its citizens to cut down on the use of petrol. The Tour de Corse hung in the balance for a while but it was local enthusiasm and lobbying that saved the day and guaranteed the supply of petrol. Forty-three crews turned up to sample this new event starting on the evening of November 17th.

These early events were straightforward with just three short hill climbs to act as tie-deciders and the majority of the action occurring on long, tight road sections. The average speeds varied and were less for small standard cars than for big GT cars. However, the tortuous Corsican roads were always a handicap for a big car and, when it was slippery, power was a positive disadvantage. Thus it was no surprise that the first winner was a Renault Dauphine. It was a bit more surprising that it was crewed by ladies, but then Miss Gilberte Thirion and Mrs Nadege Ferrier were experienced and had earlier that year won the Tour de Belgique.

With the cars, tyres and lights of those days, to hit even average speeds of 30mph on these roads was an achievement even when the weather was good as on the inaugural event. The following year the entries had practically doubled, but the number of finishers was about the same due to a night of rain in which many of the fancied entries had accidents. This time the light GT cars came to the top, with Roger de Lageneste winning in an Alfa Romeo Giulietta SV ahead of two Porsche 356s and the Triumph TR3 of Annie Soisbault.

It is always hard to convey the challenge that the Corsican roads provided in those early days. Even now, the average speeds on Corsican stages are the lowest of any rally in the World Championship. In the days of the Group B racers, 50mph was good going for a winning time while the same cars were flying through the Finnish forests at average speeds of up to 80mph and up to 70mph in British forests.

On its traditional date in November – the Tour de Corse now runs in May to fit in with the WRC calendar – the weather was always unpredictable but never so bad as in 1961. After two years of dominance by the ever-more-special Renault Dauphines, the GT cars had got back in 1960 with a win for a Porsche Carrera driven by Herbert Linge. To meet the Corsican challenge, the cars entered were becoming more exotic. The first Alpine 106s and 108s were there in force but there were also Alfa Romeo SZs, Porsche Abarths, DR Panhards, Ferrari 250 GTs, Fiat Abarth 1000s, and even a Salmson G72. The parc ferme before the start was a sight to behold – everything from a 2CV to a Jaguar Mk2.

In 1961, there were 72 starters who set out on an 800-mile route from Ajaccio in which there were to be a total of 300 miles of speciales. These were not proper stages as we would know them today but really good sections set at a slightly higher average speed. But the weather reports were not good and by the time Pat Moss left the start as last car in her works Healey 3000, the rain and wind was starting to bring rocks and trees down on the roads. At altitude, there was a smattering of snow. Within 100 miles of the start, the leading car had already lost four minutes on the road and a dozen cars were out. A dozen more had joined them by Bastia, from where the cars turned south to cross the highest point of the rally, the Col du Vergio.

At the control before, each competitor was handed a piece of paper that said “20cm of snow, dangerous without chains”. Like so much about the Tour de Corse, this turned out to be an understatement. As the cars gradually climbed the hill, the snow went from 20cm to well over two-and-a-half times that depth. All but two cars gave up the unequal struggle. The doughty pair were works Citroen ID 19s driven by Rene Trautmann/Jean-Claude Ogier and Lucien Bianchi/Georges Harris. These had two major advantages. The first was that they had relatively low starting numbers – 44 and 42 respectively – and were already the least penalised cars so that they did not have too many cars in front of them in the snow. The second was the Citroen hydro-pneumatic suspension which, when raised to the highest setting, gave them the ground clearance they needed to keep going.

Working as a pair, these were the only two cars that managed to get over the top of the Col du Vergio that night. But that was only the start of their story. On the descent, a tree had fallen across the road. For whatever reason, Bianchi had a saw in his boot and it was with this that they attacked the tree. The saw was in Trautmann’s hands when it broke and they thought that all chance of continuing was gone. But then an attempt to pull the tree away with the tow rope using both cars lashed together succeeded and they were on their way.

They reached the next control to find that the marshals had gone home. Two Gendarmes who were still at their post preventing cars going up into the snow provided this information. Ogier got the police to sign their time cards to show that they had been there, but timing was scarcely relevant as they had taken 4 1/2 hours to cover the 30 miles from the previous control. In fact, the marshals were the sensible ones as the rally had been cancelled and the results declared up to the start of the Col du Vergio. On that basis, Trautmann won with Bianchi second. Third was Peter Ruby with his factory DKW Junior showing that front-wheel drive was a pretty good thing to have when the weather was bad.

In 1962, the Dauphines dominated again on a relatively city event. It was dry again in 1962 and now the organisers had decided to have the same average speed for all classes to encourage GT cars. As usual with Corsica, the unexpected occurred and Rene Trautmann in a Citroen ID 19 won the rally for the second time. This time there was no snow and, in fact, there was not even any rain. It should have been a GT paradise. The AC Cobra of Jo Schlesser was the ideal candidate for victory after Jean Rolland put his Alfa Romeo GTZ Tubolare off the road on the first section out of Ajaccio and Pierre Orsini’s alternator failed on his Alpine A110, But it is never that simple. Schlesser was quickest everywhere and a joy to watch but he had a problem. He only had a limited number of wheels, after his spares were held up in a Paris airport by a customs strike. Thus at the first major service, the mechanics had to strip the tyres from the wheels and fit new ones. This operation did not go well, which lost Schlesser four minutes at the next control. He was down to seventh. Then a wheel came loose, and while fixing it the jack went through the bodywork. Another four minutes down, and at the head of the field Trautmann sailed on untroubled. The Cobra recovered to second overall, passing the Ford Falcon of Henri Greder who finished third.

At this stage of its development, the Tour de Corse was a cracking event, a real rally for rallymen. My first time there was in 1965 with Vic Elford in a Ford Anglia 1600cc. We were advised that racing tyres were essential which was quite correct, but no one told us that they had to be Michelin. We fitted Goodyear Blue Streak cross-plies, which may have been excellent at Daytona but were far too harsh on the firmly suspended Anglia. They might have worked if we had been running softer springs, but after the first part of the night Vic gave up the unequal struggle to wrest this uncontrollable machine round the never-ending corners. But we were never more impressed than by Berndt Jansson who started four minutes behind us. He was driving a works Renault R8 Gordini 1400 that was the machine of the era for Corsica. The way he came past us was enough to discourage anyone.

In 1967 I was alongside Ove Andersson in a works Lancia Fulvia. We were part of a six strong effort to stop the seemingly endless run of French wins – six successive ones by Renault and Citroen – and put a Lancia on the podium. Among our team-mates were Pauli Toivonen, Rene Trautmann, Sandro Munari and Leo Cella. For the drivers, there was an added interest called money. As the years had passed, no one had actually managed to win Corsica with a clean sheet – in other words, unpenalised on the road sections. Esso had sportingly put up a substantial cash prize to reward this feat and every year that it had not been claimed, it had in lottery-speak `rolled up’. Anyone winning in 1967 would have been a very happy chap.

Our rally started with a bit of a setback. Rain was forecast and we had elected to go on the Dunlop SP3s that had done so well for us on the Monte Carlo. Unfortunately they were too soft for Corsica in the dry. We were threadbare on the front tyres after 150 miles and changed fronts to rears ourselves losing time in the process. Fortunately, the rain then came, and by Bastia we lay sixth behind Munari, Elford (Porsche 911), Toivonen, Orsini and Vinatier (both in Alpine A110s). But then we had gearbox problems and were out.

Munari was having a superb event, and had it not been for a spin coming into Riventosa towards the end of the night where he missed his minute by just five seconds he would have cleaned every section. As it was, he was staying ahead of Elford’s Porsche with a 1400cc Lancia and deservedly won the rally. It was a moment of great triumph for Sandro and his co-driver, Luciano Lombardini. Sadly, a few months later they were involved in a road accident in Yugoslavia during the 1968 Monte Carlo Rally that took the life of Luciano and put Sandro out of rallying for a full year.

When he came back in 1969, I was delighted that he chose me as his co-driver. Lancia had decided to put us in one of the infamous F&M Specials (nothing to do with risky sex but ‘Fiorio and Maglioli’) which comprised a topless Lancia Fulvia. We had to wear dry-suits in case it rained. We looked like something from an early Dr Who episode. To my eternal gratitude it did not rain during the event, but we were plagued with rear brakes that were too effective – this was before adjustable limiter valves and spent most of the time entering bends backwards. Added to this, the open layout at the relatively slow speeds of a Corsican road encouraged the accumulation of exhaust fumes in the cab and we were both quite ill. Somehow, we finished 12th and never were two men so grateful to get out of a rally car.

I was often in Corsica after that, as a reporter and then a team manager. The event changed gradually after 1973, when it joined the World Championship. Until then, it had been a sort of professional’s rally, a secret place that everyone went to at the end of the year to enjoy a real thrash. But with the demise of the Coupe des Alpes in 1972, France needed a top-class counter for the WRC, and Corsica could hardly say “Non”. Its sub-title these days is Rallye de France, it takes three days to run its route of 750 miles, and there is no night section. Jean Sermonard, were he alive, would be proud of its status, but he would also shed a tear for the way things used to be.