I had no hesitation in accepting an invitation from GM-Opel in January 1983 to visit the Alps and watch preparations for the Monte-Carlo Rally. Apart from the possibility of being taken for a spin – in every sense – by Henri Toivonen in his Opel Ascona 400, it would be an opportunity to get up to speed – again, quite literally – with the world of rallying before the Formula 1 season kicked off eight weeks later. There was also the attraction of catching up with fellow Irishmen Fred Gallagher and Terry Harryman, co-drivers for Toivonen and Ari Vatanen respectively.
We were flown to Grenoble and taken by coach to the snowy heights of Saint Jean-en-Royans. Part of this 231⁄2- mile special stage had been closed for the benefit of the test – and joyrides for the media. Sitting alongside Toivonen as he put the car sideways at will with casual fingertip control, it was immediately apparent that this was child’s play. Appropriately enough, the more I grinned and giggled, the faster he went.
When a newspaper photographer among our party asked if Toivonen wouldn’t mind posing at the wheel of the coach in order to provide a change from the usual rally driver pose, he was only too happy to oblige. Henri’s sense of fun knew no limits – as Gallagher was to discover later that week.
The surprising thing (by today’s strict standards) was that the crews were carrying out the recce in full-house rally cars on narrow roads that weren’t actually closed – not that many casual motorists could be expected in the snow-covered passes at that time of year.
Towards the end of Saint Jean-en-Royans, the stage went over a flat-out crest and briefly opened out on either side to allow for parking at this particular spot. During the recce, Henri crested the rise and, without warning, yanked the handbrake, did a perfect 360 through the open (and, fortunately, unoccupied) area, and carried on at unabated speed. With perfect Ulster understatement, Gallagher said: “When you’re doing 120-plus and not expecting it, a thing like that tends to get your attention.”
Completely outclassed by the Lancia 037 and Audi Quattro A1 on the event itself, the Rothmans Opel Ascona 400s would finish fifth and sixth. When Saint Jean-en- Royans was cancelled, Gallagher was spared the niggling anxiety of Toivonen repeating his party piece to relieve the boredom. But we’d all had our fun in the meantime. Particularly the much-missed Henri.