Knights of cold

There's nothing so thrilling as a rally car sideways on the snow. But climate change and the sports hot new look have triggered a thaw in such excitement. John Davenport argues why it must come back into the cold

A professional rallyman of the 1960's could reckon to spend at least a third of his year sliding around on snow and ice. There were several major events where you could guarantee these hazards, and a few others where they would rear up unexpectedly, bringing added excitement, and occasionally chaos to otherwise well-regulated events.

Rallying's climate has changed since, and is now basking in its very own Greenhouse Effect. Tarmac events in bright sunshine are all the rage. They may look good in photographs but I see a problem with them: to the spectator, WRCars apparently running on rails make for dull viewing, either live or on TV. Today's cars are too good. If you do see one get out of line, the next thing that happens is that you are flattened by paramedics rushing to the scene of an accident.

Gravel roads are much better and, happily, are coming back into fashion as the FIA and ISC realise that to have a show, you have to show some skill and excitement. But too often the gravel roads chosen are so rough, so loose, so narrow that the cars seem not to be performing a graceful ballet but rather an extreme form of break-dancing. Events like the Acropolis, Safari, and even Australia do not produce the demonstration of skilled car control that is the stock-in-rade of rallying. In contrast, Finland, Argentina, New Zealand, and even our own 'rally of the forests' do give a driver a chance to show what he can do on fast, low-adhesion surfaces.

However, should you ask any rallyist from the last half-century what is the ultimate driving experience, where skill plays a major part in providing the spectacle, he or she is most likely to choose the Monte Carlo Rally or the Swedish Rally, events in which ice and snow feature strongly.

It would seem, therefore, that a few proper winter rallies in the WRC would be a very good thing. The sad truth is that global warming — or whatever it is that's making our winters milder, our summers wetter — has reduced dramatically the appearance of snow on WRC events.

Look back for a moment to 1965. The Monte of that year had more snow than you can possibly imagine. The legendary stories concerning Timo Makinen in a Mini Cooper S and Eugen Bohringer in a Porsche 904 are well known. Timo charged through the snow to reach Monaco the first time as the only unpenalised car. The weather was so bad that special stage times were only useful for deciding ties. To judge the true severity of that white-out in the Alps, consider that Erik Carlsson in his Saab, already a double winner of the event, and no stranger to such conditions, lost over an hour. Of the 237 entries that converged at St Claude in the Jura, only 35 made it through the 580 miles of blizzards to Monaco.

That same year, heavy snow visited the RAC Rally and played a major part in deciding the result, as shown by the Parting Shot' in our December issue. And by sheer coincidence, it was also the first year that the Swedish Rally moved from being a summertime event — the Rally to the Midnight Sun — to a full winter rally held in February.

Snow was a constant feature of rallies of that time. The RAC Rally of 1971 had a heavy fall arrive just as crews were going to bed the night before the event. The first sections in the forests of the Yorkshire Moors saw the co-drivers more out of their cars than inside them as they pushed and shoved to get through.

By the time the rally reached Scotland, the conditions were unbelievable. The main roads were passable, but the local motor clubs had no way of ploughing out the deep snow on the forest roads that comprised the special stages. Thus they set up the start and finish controls — the arrows had been nailed up the previous day, before the snow — and set the cars off into the stages. On one of these, up by Elgin, first on the road was Jean-Luc Therier's Alpine. Studded tyres were banned on the RAC Rally, but the little blue beast made the most of its good traction to overcome its poor ground clearance and beetled off through the snow. The rest of us set off at minute intervals. We eventually discovered Therier and his co-driver Vial standing in the road. But there was no sign of their car. It was completely buried in a major drift. We got them out, turned all the cars round and drove back out of the stage in convoy. An exciting time was had by all as we avoided the newcomers to the party!

The Monte Carlo snow never again reached the levels of 1965. There were even years like '68 when we were all scuttling around the familiar Alpine roads on racing tyres, pinning our faith in the ice note crews accurately locating all the patches of slippy stuff. More normal was a Monte Carlo like '72, when the snow fell in the Ardeche in a manner reminiscent of '65. The classic Moulinon-to-Antraigues stage that was always tackled on racers was definitely quicker on studs, while the Burzet stage that followed was a 40-kilometre snowdrift through which a plough had passed — once. Few cars went unpenalised on the road sections in this region, but happily it was very much a local problem and things were a bit easier down near the Riviera.

Just across the Italian border from Monaco is San Remo, and that rally used to experience snow frequently. Before it migrated to October in 1972, it was held in the first week of March, late enough one would have thought not to be troubled by winter weather. It was possible to take one's lunch sitting outside at the port, but in the hills it was often a different story. In '68, for the international debut of the Ford Escort Twin Cam, there was snow on half the stages. Then, in '69, Lancia won by pulling their famous `pitstop' tyre change before the Passo di Teglia, putting their cars on full studded tyres and blitzing the opposition on the stage.

The Sestriere Rally — to which the San Remo was briefly wedded in 1970 and 71 as the Rallye d'Italia — ran in April in '69 but did not escape a wintry touch. In fact, it had even more snow than the San Remo, and as there had been no time to plough out the stages, the rally cars were tasked with doing their own ploughing. Strong men still wince when reminded of the 'White Hell of Rochetta Nervinia'.

All that I am tying to do here is to suggest that there was plenty of snow and ice around 30 years ago, and that you did not have to be in Scandinavia to find it. Of course, even in their heyday, these yesteryear rallies would not be suitable candidates for the WRC of the 21st century. The snow was as unpredictable as a diva. For competitors and spectators to fully enjoy winter conditions, you don't want to be pushing cars through drifts or driving in a blizzard. Where the old-time Monte Carlo succeeded so well was when it had stages like the Turini and St Jean en Royans, where wet Tarmac gave way higher up to firm snow or ice. Nowadays, the need for compact rallies combined with the effects of climate change mean that you do not get stages like that any more.

But if we turn the clock back again to 1965, and look at the Swedish Rally, we can see what is possible

That first winter event started in Stockholm and finished in Ostersund, mimicking the old summer route. Already the organisers, KAK, could see the advantages of using roads covered with hard-packed snow and ice with high snow banks: there was little damage done to the roads and the spectators could ski across the fields and stand safely two metres above the road. They even experimented with using roads ploughed out on frozen lakes to join up sections into longer stages.

The following year, the rally was based in Orebro and stayed much more in the south. For the first time it used a river stage with 45km ploughed out on a river and linked to private forest roads to make a single 120km stage. With the short days so far north, quite a lot of the event took place at night, but in the daytime, the brilliant sun, the dazzling snow and the smooth crispness of the icy roads made for the very best in rallying.

More recently, the Swedish Rally has encountered problems with the weather in February. In 1990, a year in which not one works cars used a studded tyre on the Monte Carlo Rally, the Swedish had to be cancelled because there was no snow and the stages were largely thick mud. The deal that the organisers have with the timber companies who own many of the forest roads is that they can use them if they do not damage them. With six inches of packed snow and ice, even the passage of studded tyres does not disturb things too much but, even without studs, modem 4WD cars let loose on soft gravel would cause havoc.

The Swedish has never got that bad again, but there have been off-years mixed in with the good. In an effort to keep the conditions the way they should be, without abandoning their base in Vamiland, since 1967 the city of Karlstad, the organisers have constantly experimented with using stages as far north as possible. This has meant the introduction of a longer road section at the start and finish of each day, and the adoption of central servicing in Hagfors. But even then, when they choose the roads used for the stages, favourable consideration has to be given to ones with tree cover, that are north-facing and have a history of retaining their snow.

Bo Swaner, who for many years was assistant team manager for Saab and still works for the company, is a director of the company that now runs the only full winter rally in the WRC: "We are determined to keep the Swedish as a winter event. We have a three-year agreement with Karlstad which has two more years to run, and if the problem gets worse, then we will have no alternative but to look at running still further north."

The problem is exacerbated by the requirements of the WRC itself. Events have to be compact and centred on a town with sufficient hotels and infrastructure to support the large numbers who come to work on or to watch the event. It is a frustrating time for Swaner and fellow organisers, Lars Osterlind and Bertil Clarin.

Bearing in mind my original contention that a full-on winter rally is an excellent test of skill, as well as being photogenic and exciting to watch, Swaner's suggestion that perhaps the Norwegians could run a WRC round a couple of weeks either side of the Swedish is not so outlandish.

But there may be other contenders: the Rallye de Charlevoix, held in Canada during October, has asked to be considered for the WRC. Its plan was to be a pure gravel rally, but in 2002 its Indian Summer ended suddenly and the event got a metre or so of snow for which it was largely unprepared. Perhaps its organisers could turn this problem into an opportunity and suggest to the FIA that they go for a December date. With snow in abundance, colder weather and the use of ploughs to prepare the stages, the event could be in business.

One rally that has already made it into the WRC for 2003, the new event in Turkey, is considering 'revising its route to minimise the risk of snow'. My suggestion would be to do the exact opposite and guarantee a supply of the slippery stuff by keeping their high-altitude stages.

In considering winter events, one always comes back to the Monte, a classic in more ways than one. Its weather has tended to be a gamble as big as any one could find in the famous Casino. But again the constraint of modem rally routes has increasingly made this famous event less of a winter spectacular, and if global warming does keep up its steady advance, I can see no easy solution for the AC de Monaco.

Even more reason, then, to encourage the Swedish and to look for new, icy opportunities.

Slippery slopes can be fun.