Tour of Corsica

Were I ever to be asked by W.B. or D.S.J. to show them something about what present-day rallying is like, two events would spring to mind and I would be torn between throwing them in at the deep end by letting them loose in the African bush during the Safari, and taking them to the wild, craggy, often tempestuous island of Corsica for the rally which is undoubtedly the nearest thing to unspoilt, untrammelled road racing without actually being given that name.

The Tour of Corsica is appropriately named when you consider that it is an event which visits most parts of the island, but it is by no means a cavalcade of a touristic nature. The island’s roads are narrow, tortuously twisty and usually bordered by virtually unguarded drops as they climb and descend the high mountains, and it is on such natural roads, without the artificial blemishes of billiard-table tarmac, sky-high advertising hoardings and those ugly barriers, that the whole contest takes place.

Add to this the unpredictable, sometimes violent autumn weather, often bringing gales, storms, floods, landslides, uprooted trees, mud, shale, sand, carpets of soggy leaves and sometimes even ice and snow and you will be part of the way towards appreciating that this is no event for the faint-hearted. The meat of the contest lies in the special stages, but the inter-stage sections are by no means easy and a stop for the simplest of tyre changes or a quick refuelling job has to be done with maximum urgency. The police do a fine job keeping the roads closed, but since all Corsica seems to stop for the event the problems in this direction are few.

It has been perfectly obvious for some years that the organisers of the rally wanted to run an event as close to a real road race as they could get without actually breaking any laws. To do this, they simply took the basic structure of a rally, gave it the character of a race and called it the former rather than the latter. We have often likened it to something approaching the Targa Florio, but this year the organisers came out into the open with their ambition to create in the Tour of Corsica what the enthusiasts in Brescia some fifty years ago eventually built into the Mile Miglia.

The surprising thing is that there do not seem to be obstacles in their way, which is a refreshing change in times of strangling controls and restrictions. Last year, the Tour of Corsica organisers reduced the number of their special stages but increased the lengths of two of them to something like 150 kilometres apiece. This year they ran four such long stages which, together with five shorter ones, produced an average stage length of 80 kilometres, making most other European special stages, particularly those in Britain, look puny by comparison. In 1977 the progression may be continued with six long stages, and eventually the competition may be divided into eight stages, each using the towns of Bastia and Ajaccio for start or finish but each having different routeing, turning the whole thing into a highly competitive road race from beginning to end.

The size of the island is against having a true point-to-point, but by dividing it all up into something like eight parts it would be the nearest thing imaginable to a road race whilst still within the sporting (and legal) definition of a rally. There was a time when the mountains of Corsica echoed to the rorty sounds of prototypes, but World Rally Championship status put an end to that, for the CSI permits cars of just groups one to four to take part in its championship qualifiers. Of course, rallying is just a little more than a pastime for saloons nowadays, and in Corsica this year there was the usual array of Stratos, Alpines, Porsches and the like, all of them capable of providing optimum performance on the surfaces and in the conditions which they had to face. Perhaps, then, a less restricted formula would serve no useful purpose on the grounds that a car built between no specific margins would be no better performer in the hard, autumn weather of the Corsican mountains than those which are being used there at present.

The rally runs for some 26 hours, from mid-Saturday to just after mid-Sunday, with a very short stop at half distance. Headquarters, where both start and finish are located, alternate year by year between Ajaccio in the South-West and Bastia in the North-East, both coastal towns with car-ferry terminals and international airports. This time it was the turn of Bastia where conditions were so blustery that at the airport they had to rope aircraft to steel rings let into the concrete surface of the apron. They have learned the hard way about such matters.

One doesn’t usually associate tarmac events with the need for stamina and endurance, for the ability to keep fatigue at bay is usually required only for the longer rallies such as the Safari, the Morocco Rally and those of years gone by such as the Liege. But crews have to work so desperately hard during the 26 hours of the Tour of Corsica, without the breaks of the stop-go events more common in Europe, that they usually finish completely exhausted but nevertheless immensely satisfied. It is a rally almost from the pages of classic motoring history, where competitors pit themselves against whatever the organisers and Mother Nature contrive to serve up, without a single thought of shying off because something or other is too dangerous. What would some racing drivers say, we wonder, if they were asked to compete on a circuit so high in the mountains that leaving the road on any one of countless unguarded bends would be akin to falling off the edge of the world?

Before the Tour of Corsica, Lancia led the World Championship fairly comfortably, but not decisively, from Opel. In 1975 there was exactly the same situation, and in both cases the result served to clinch the series for the Italian team. But it wasn’t the ideal result for them in 1975, for their own cars retired and the event was won by a Stratos prepared and entered by Frenchmen and driven by Frenchmen. That undoubtedly dulled the edge, and it would have been so much better for them had the whole thing been an Italian job.

This year the same situation arose, for when the event settled down it was Sandro Munari, Lancia’s number one works driver. and Bernard Darniche, the Frenchman who won the previous year, who pulled Out an impressive lead over the others. Both were in Stratos, of course, Darniche with 12 valves to his engine and Munari with the extra power produced by 24.

Munari kept a small lead over Darniche until a matter of a few hours before the end when a valve failed in the works car. The resulting misfire (although to us it seemed to burble away healthily enough when it got to the finish) let Darniche into the lead, but it then transpired that the Frenchman had been ten seconds late at a road control (as opposed to a control at the end of a special stage) and since road time was lost on whole minutes, not seconds, it brought a penalty of one minute. The result was that Munari beat Darniche by the slender margin of 16 seconds, making the Italians immensely happy but .causing a few murmurs of doubt among some French observers.

For Opel, still holding second place in the championship mainly by virtue of the efforts of privateers over the year, it was another disaster, the Kadett of Raid going out after shedding fan-belt after fan-belt and that of Nicolas losing a wheel after the studs sheared. Rather interesting was the entry by the Peugeot factory of four of their little 104ZS f.w.d. cars, two of which managed to finish tenth and eleventh among the eleven finishers. The point of this exercise seemed clouded, for BMC raked in all the glory it was possible to gain with Minis a long time ago. However, it seems that the 104ZS may be given a sporting image intended to appeal to young driVers, so perhaps it is a case of paving the way.

With the World Championship settled, the final round in the British forests will be a no-holds-barred contest with no one indulging in tactics to weigh series points against the kudos of overall placing. But that event will be just over before this issue of Motor Sport appears in print, so there is little point in saying more. Of Corsica, we can only add that whether your interests are in rallying or racing, it is an event that cannot fail to capture your imagination.—G.P.