Floral tribute

After 30 years as a cornerstone of the World Rally Championship, San Remo has lost its place on the calendar. John Davenport looks back on the 'Rally of the Flowers'

If Julius Caesar had been writing this article, he might well have started by saying that the San Remo Rally's history was divided into five parts: the Prologue, the Flowers, the Marriage, the Independence and the Asphalt. For 30 years it has brought its charm and style to world rallying's stage; indeed, it was a star name in the original cast. Now, sadly, the final curtain has dropped.

The event surfaced in the late 1920s when the Automobile Club San Remo held just two competitions. They were dissimilar to the other major rallies emerging at the time — the Alpine Trial and the Marathon de la Route — in that they were not speed events, being instead very long-distance regularity trials with competitors converging on San Remo from five 'zones'. The winner in 1928 and '29 was Major Urdarenau of the Romanian Guards and, naturally, he started from Bucharest in his 2.5-litre Fiat 521.

This was the Prologue. There followed a very long wait for the first act. It was in 1961 that the AC San Remo ran its first rally under the name of the Rallye dei Fiori, acknowledging the main industry of San Remo, the cultivation of flowers. Organising rallies in Italy after the Mille Miglia accidents of '57 was made difficult by the passing of a law that required competition drivers to respect a 50km/h average on all public roads. Fortunately, the roads of Liguria in the hinterland of San Remo were mountainous, twisty and mainly gravel; thus a 50km/h average was a proper test of a driver's ability and meant that these public roads could be used for rallying with out too much regard to road closures.

The 1961 event was put together by an Italian, Ighino Longo, who had contested the Monte Carlo many times. It's no surprise, then, that the first Rallye dei Fiori had concentration runs from various Italian cities, all converging on the host city. After that, the survivors set out onto those special roads that are so characteristic of the rally. It was pretty much an all-Italian entry and Alfa Romeo swept the board, though a local chap called Leo Cella broke them up by finishing fifth in a VW. Lancia, with its emergent HF Squadra Corse under the guidance of a youthful Cesare Fiorio, came in force to win the next two years with Flavias.

The event proved extremely popular and its entry list was soon bursting, and not just with Italians. In 1964, it became a European Championship event: Erik Carlsson and Pat Moss came with Saab 96s and scored a magnificent 1-2. From thereon, the rally was much better supported and foreign entries more numerous. But Lancia still ruled, with Cella winning in '65 with a Fulvia saloon and giving the Fulvia Coupe its first big win in '66. In '67, the foreigners had their way with Jean-Francois Piot winning in a Renault R8 Gordini from Paddy Hopkirk's Mini-Cooper.

The Flowers title was dropped for 1968, the San Remo name was adopted as its badge, and two classic years ensued, Lancia battling against Porsche, Alpine, Ford and Opel. Then came a proposal from the Fiat empire: would the minnow of San Remo like to join forces with the AC Torino to make a San Remo—Sestriere Rally and dub it the Rallye d'Italia? The Sestriere had a distinguished history peaking in the 1950s, but after the Mille Miglia debacle it had declined and only recently been revived.

It all sounded good, and indeed, the two rallies run under that marriage were memorable. The first, in 1970, suffered from a larger-than-normal helping of snow. The traditional date was at the start of March and there was always some snow on the stages. But this time it was worse. The event was due to be a fight between the two factory teams from Turin, Lancia and Fiat, with Alpine and Saab on the sidelines. But first there was sabotage — and then cars started getting blocked in the snowy stages (sidebar, page 53). Somewhere up at the front in all this confusion, Jean-Luc Therier managed to keep his Alpine ahead of Harry Kallstrom's Lancia to win.

The second product of the union was just as snowy, but much less controversial. The result was much the same, though, with Ove Andersson winning for Alpine, followed home by a brace of Lancias. But behind the scenes all was not harmonious between the clubs, both of which wanted to have control. The inclusion of roads to the north of Cuneo, towards Turin and Asti, had given more variety and depth to the rally, but the organisational differences were too great. Everyone knew that the World Rally Championship was coming for 1973 and the AC San Remo wanted to be ready to accept the invitation to be part of it. When it took the event back under its sole control for '72, it was moved to October to avoid the spring snows.

The narrow, twisty gravel tracks were gradually being asphalted, and by the time Sandro Munari notched up the first win for a Lancia Stratos, in 1974, the stages were nearly all Tarmac. And while San Remo always had a strong entry from the Italian factories, it was not attracting the mainstream WRC runners such as Ford, Datsun, Renault, Toyota and Opel. The change came in '79 when Adolpho Rava decided to include gravel stages by using roads in Tuscany; the rally started on asphalt in Liguria, went to Tuscany for a day and night of gravel, and then came back for a final fling on asphalt. It was an instantly popular formula.

Within two years, the San Remo was on every manufacturer's programme. Then came Group B and some of the most spectacular rallies in the event's history. In the first year of the Quattro, Michele Mouton became the first lady to win a WRC event. The following season it was Stig Blomqvist's Audi which won, and then Markku Alen won in a Lancia 037. These were rallies that called on the driver and his team to give their very best in two different disciplines, and with little room for error if anyone's judgement was awry.

When, in 1984, Peugeot joined the fight between 037s, Manta 400s and Quattro S1s, this event was one of the hottest on the calendar. Could the Lancias sufficiently outpace the 4WD cars on the asphalt, or was there then too much gravel for them to be able to claw it back towards the finish? In the end, after a massive aquaplaning accident for Walter Rohrl's Quattro, it was Ari Vatanen's Peugeot which won — heavy rain and cancelled stages on the last night preventing the Lancias from compensating for their gravel losses. Not quite so nail-biting, but massively impressive all the same, was Rohrl's win in '85 with the Quattro E2.

But the following year things rather fell apart for the San Remo. A good rally was ruined by politics (see sidebar) but at least the event survived intact and, during the Group A period, regained its status and popularity. These were Lancia's years — and remained so until 1993 when the Turin firm pulled out of rallying.

The organisers now started to experiment with the format and finally, in 1997, the event went back to being an all-asphalt rally; the manufacturers had wanted to eliminate the cost of having to change car specification in the middle of an event, while the emphasis from the FIA was to shorten events and render them easier to televise. For this the San Remo was, initially, perfect. But when centralised servicing was introduced, there was a problem: the cars had to be brought down from mountains and into San Remo every time. No solution could be found, but the recent shifting of the service park to Imperia helped to cut unnecessary road mileage.

A beautiful setting, good organisation, testing roads, uncertain weather and almost universal popularity has not managed to keep the San Remo in the WRC. Earlier this year, it was announced that the Italian round of the 2004 world championship was going to be a new event in Sardinia. The reason? The WRC needs more gravel events as they provide more of a spectacle for the cameras.

That's true. But you ignore your history at your peril: where now are the brand leaders of the sport? The 1000 Lakes, the Safari, the RAC, Portugal — and now San Remo — have all gone.

What next in the name of progress?