For me, there is no single occasion which puts me in mind of advancing age and the passing of the years as much as the Monte Carlo Rally. It seems quite incongruous that a facet of a vigorous, active sport should remind one of the passing years, but that is what it does, and for many others besides me.
The answer lies in the event's position in the calendar, January. Whenever regulations appear round about October each year the usual reaction is "It can't be Monte time already. Hasn't the year flown?" and at once the seven ages of Lord Jaques pass rapidly through the mind.
I hardly think the Automobile Club de Monaco will thank me for suggesting that their event has pipe-and-slipper associations, although they have decided to run next year their third "Old Fellows" Rally in conjunction with the main event. The Rallye des Chevronnes, as it is called, is open to gentlemen of 50 years or more and ladies of 40 or more, each of whom must have finished at least one previous Monte Carlo Rally. In deference to their vintage (if the Editor forgives that term) they will have to complete only part of the rally, and they will be allowed to miss certain controls for a penalty of only 30 minutes, whereas competitors in the rally proper will be excluded for such an omission.
In the past decade, the Monte Carlo Rally has diminished in popularity with British private entrants, once the providers of the event's backbone. That is not to say that interest in rallying generally is decreasing. On the contrary, it is heightening; it is simply that the one-time regulars are regular no more, and the new guard of competitors is not really attracted by a winter journey to Mediterranean sunshine. They are seeking fresh fields; Spain, Scandinavia, Germany, Holland, and even Morocco, Cyprus and other glamorous parts of the globe are getting the attentions of rally people.
At one time Glasgow's Blythswood Square was the Mecca of British rally followers each January as the British starters prepared to depart. When numbers decreased the start was moved to London, and thence to Dover, where the total distance covered on British soil was the 100 yard or so dash from the quayside to the open jaws of the cross-Channel ferry.
Last January there was a mere handful of Britishers, and this gave the rally's organisers the idea that perhaps it was no longer worth taking the trouble to organise a British start. But after some deliberation they have decided otherwise. What is more, it has been decided to take the start back to Glasgow. How many "Old Fellows" will that attract, I wonder?
There will also be two new starting points next month, one at Marrakesh and the other at Almeria. It is very likely that Marrakesh will attract quite a number of the professional competitors, and not only for its novelty and climate; whereas the other itineraries make several loops around southern France before converging on Gap, the route from Marrakesh taking an almost direct route.
At one time getting to Monte Carlo was the whole object of the rally. That is not so today, and many have been the criticisms of the long, often boring, journeys to the principality merely to have a night in bed before the hard competition really starts. To cut out the concentration run, or run-down as it is called, would change the event's character too drastically and would eliminate a good 95% of its publicity exposure. As a compromise, the organisers have introduced one special stage to the tail end of the concentration runs. The various itineraries converge at Gap, after which the 38.5-kilometre test will run from Rouaine to Pont des Miolans, via the Col de Laval and the Col de Trebuchet. The remaining parts of the rally, the 24-hour Parcours Commun with eight special stages and the 12-hour Parcours Complementaire with seven, are virtually unchanged.
In 1966, when cars were disqualified at Monte Carlo on grounds of eligibility after they had been through British scrutineering, there was considerable invective against the RAC scrutineers for allowing them to start without pointing out the ineligible features. This situation can no longer arise, for the regulations define a start scrutineer's job, and put the onus of conformity with homologated characteristics squarely on the competitor. As before, the Monte is the first of the year's qualifiers for the International Rally Championship for Constructors. Of the two FIA championships, this is the only one which has held any interest for some time, the series for drivers being far too complicated, with too many events (some of them even clashing) and a scoring system so complex that even the FIA itself seems unable to publish regular bulletins. With 1970 in a close struggle indeed between Porsche and Alpine-Renault it is likely that these two factories will continue their efforts next year; certainly Alpine, for the French team has announced a severe cut in its racing programme in order to concentrate on rallying.
Ford of Britain has declared its intention not to take part in the Monte next year. This is very likely due to a determined effort at Eastertime to win the East African Safari Rally, an effort which will consume so much workshop and reconnaissance time that hardly enough is left for a treasure hunt, let alone the complicated preparations for a major assault at Monte Carlo.
The big plum in East Africa—victory by a pair of non-residents— has yet to be plucked, and this is what Ford is after. They will have two cars from Boreham and two from Cologne, all with all-European crews. Local opposition will be as strong as ever, particularly from the Peugeot distributors, who use local crews, and Datsun, whose team of local drivers will be supplemented by Rauno Aaltonen and Paul Easter. There are also indications that Italy, Germany and Sweden will be well represented.
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Whenever a new rally is announced it is seldom viewed with enthusiasm by competitors. The reason is simple: it takes time to develop an event to the peak of quality, and most first efforts are organisationally weak. I am pleased to record that in October there was an outstanding exception.
British servicemen who are rally enthusiasts invariably take their enthusiasm abroad with them. In Cyprus there is a strong group of motoring sportsmen among the service personnel and in October, after several years of running small rallies, they combined with the Cyprus Automobile Association to run an ambitious two-day event with start and finish at Nicosia. The necessary finance was provided by the generous sponsorship of Carreras Overseas Ltd. through its Rothmans brand, and some know-how was imported from Britain in the form of Vic Elford, who helped with route selection, and RAC Rally organiser Jack Kemsley, who devised the documentation.
The result was a smooth-running event which ran almost faultlessly from start to finish. Indeed, there are several established international rallies which would have been insignificant alongside this bright newcomer. Furthermore, the roads of Cyprus are near perfect for rallying. It is possible to run a rally of several thousand miles without using tarmac roads for more than about 10 to 15% of the time, and at the same time rarely venturing more than a few hours' drive from a first-class hotel. The loose-surfaced roads are incredibly twisty and are just about the most testing I have seen for many years.
In its first year the Cyprus Rally did not have international status, but it was observed by an FIA representative, who was just as favourably impressed as the other visitors—who included Hannu Mikkola and Gunnar Palm; after leading for much of the way they retired when their Escort's distributor points broke up.
It could well be that this event will have international status next year. If that happens, and if a means is found to lessen the financial burden of travelling so far, it could attract many British competitors. Certainly it has the makings of an International Championship qualifier. If only we could cut the island free from the sea bed and tow it through the Straits of Gibraltar to the Irish Sea . . .—G. P.