Rallye Monte Carlo Historique
I have a curious relationship with the Monte Carlo Rally. The night that I was born, my dad (John Davenport) was baffling up the Col de Couillole with Ove Andersson in a Renault-Alpine A110. As such, during my early years, I thought ‘Monte’ was a good friend of Dad’s, since he seemed to visit him most years and always came back with plenty of stories to tell. It wasn’t until some time later that I have managed to experience the mystical event firsthand, and with a driver who probably has as many stories to tell as my father’s famous friend ‘Monte’.
Jean Ragnotti (or Jeannot as he’s known) is a veritable French motor sport hero. He won the 1981 Monte Carlo in a Renault 5 Turbo and has won or been on the podium in several other world rallies, as well as excelling in singleseaters, sports cars, at Le Mans and the Dakar. He has also been a stunt driver for film directors such as Luc Besson. In fact it seems that in Ragnoffi’s case the well-known saying about Jack should be changed to ‘Jean of all trades and master of them all’.
To say that I was looking forward to co-driving the master on the historic Monte Carlo was an understatement. Especially as we would be in a car that was just as versatile as Jeannot, if a little less powerful than the steeds in which he had previously tackled the event. The Renault 4 was the original ‘blue jeans’ car, designed to suit every occasion, and this year Renault celebrated its 50th birthday by entering three 4Ls in the Monte Carlo Historique. As an ambassador for the French marque, Ragnoffi was naturally first in line to take the wheel of one.
Sifting with Ragnoffi on the Monte Carlo takes some gaffing used to. Wherever he goes, a type of ‘Ragnoffi fever’ sets in. People clamoured for autographs at controls and threw themselves into the road on stages. Some fans had even photoshopped Jeannot’s face onto pictures of Jesus for them to be autographed! Fair enough, considering Ragnoffi does drive like a god, never failing to delight spectators and passengers equally. Even in the 30bhp Renault 4L he found a mesmerising rhythm through the twists and turns of notorious sections like the Chartreuse, the Col de Braus and the Col de Turini, compensating for lost time on the uphill straights by hurling the little car flat out around the hairpins going downhill. Perhaps his most celestial performance was in the snow on the mountain stages above Monaco when, unlike many competitors, he decided to go “au naturel” without studded tyres “just for fun”. Despite the snow and ice he kept the 4L charging onward, even overtaking a Renault-Alpine A110, which hadn’t been quite so nimble at the hairpins.
He was similarly impressive on the long Ardeche stages west of Valence, with one of the most memorable being the test from Le Moulinon to Antraigues. Without wanting to overdo the divine metaphors, it felt as if we were entering a small piece of heaven as we climbed above low-lying clouds and through villages before descending into Antraigues, where we were served with the famous tortes aux pommes.
Unfortunately, what was not quite so awe-inspiring was our performance in keeping to the right average speed through the regularity stages. With three in the car, the little Renault struggled on the climbs and, although this often made for an enjoyable game of catch-up particularly on the Turini where we overtook Rauno Aaltonen in a Mini Cooper S on the descent it proved to be not very ‘regular’. What was much more regular was the incredible reception that both the Renault 4L and Ragnoffi received wherever we went. If penalties were deducted for popularity, there’s no doubt we would have been on the podium, and it’s clear that Jeannot was already on a pedestal for both spectators and competitors alike on the Monte Carlo Historique.
Indeed, after so many years of hearing about Dad’s dear friend ‘Monte’, the rally more than surpassed my expectations, and it was definitely worth the wait. At last I can say I have competed on this giant of a motor sport event and, what’s more, it was in the company of two equally impressive icons: Jean Ragnaffi and the Renault 4L. Franca Davenport
One hundred years ago 23 cars set off for Monte Carlo from six North European cities on the first running of what would become the premier event on the international rallying calendar. Henri Rougier’s open-top 45hp Turcat-Mery was declared the winner at Monte Carlo, not so much for arriving first (a baffered Estonian competitor did that) but on condition of car at the finish. Contrast that with this year’s Historique edition, where 328 starters left six departure points and tracked most of the special stages covered by the Intercontinental Rally Challenge event a fortnight earlier in the dash to the principality.
While the modern event showcases state-of-theart machinery, the Historique is a reminder of Monte Carlo’s past, spotlighting former winners such as Alpine-Renault, Porsche 911 and Datsun 240Z as well as surprises like the Opel Kadeff GTE that won last year. Absurdities too French star Jean Ragnotti in a Renault 4, though Bruno Saby in an Autobianchi A112 Abarth stood a more realistic chance of success. And to honour the endurance nature of the original event, competitors first had se to get to one of three traditional start venues Glasgow, Marrakech or Warsaw.
Special stages were introduced in 1961, with handicapping binned in 1968 for a straight fight between all engine capacities. The AC de Monaco was never averse to the publicity brought by controversy: in 1966 the ‘winning’ Mini Cooper was disqualified for using the wrong headlamp bulbs; in ’73 it disqualified 144 cars whose way was blocked by a crashed competitor. By 2009 the organisers had fallen out of bed with the FIA and left the World Rally Championship in favour of the less regulated IRC.
What the Historique serves up, then, is a true flavour of the halcyon days, with a handful of stars this year including Rauno Aaltonen, Ake Andersson and perennial Erik Comas, the latter crashing early when fatigue got the upper hand.
Mario Sala and Maurizio Torlasco won this year’s incarnation in their 19652-litre 911, ahead of Raffaello Raimondo and Marco Calegari aboard an Innocenti Mini Cooper and the hulking Mercedes Benz 3005E of Ernst Jiintgen and Marcus Muller a monster on
the tight hairpins going up Col de Turini. The stars were left trailing, Aaltonen and Helmut Artacker bringing their Mini Cooper S home in 109th place, while Andersson and Hans Sylvan placed 141st after the ’60s star popped a front corner of his 911 into a wall on the Col de Braus. A dozen early runners were similarly victims, then fog was the enemy on the next stage, slowing many crews to walking pace. Up in the Ardeche stages the snow was surprisingly absent, and it was the same on the daunting night stages of L’Escarenne, La Bollene and Turini so parc ferme at event’s end was less a scene of carnage than in previous years.
As ever, the entry varied from Renault 4 and Citroen Dyane to Ford Mustang and Falcon, though the customary Alpine and Fulvia hordes were less numerous, while there were more Citroen DSs along with as many 911s and Opel Kadeff GTEs as ever. A great cross section of classic cars, then, without the legacy of too much panel beating. Johnny Tpler