What price Monte-Carlo?

Once regarded as the world’s best rally, the Monte is no longer an adventure for the private British teams. Our Rallies Editor explains why.

Strange how some people form obscure associations between certain events and the passing of another year. Some do it by the ending of the lawn mowing season, or even just by the renewal of car insurance, whilst others may notch their sticks whenever the Boat Race comes around, or Wimbledon fortnight. Others reckon to be a year older each time they receive a copy of the Monte-Carlo Rally regulations, signalling the end of the speculation season and the start of what has become, sadly, a year of serious business more than sport.

There was once an annual pilgrimage to Monte-Carlo by British competitors, numbers often reaching well over a 100 as adventure seekers chose an uncomfortable, often perilous means of journeying to a little winter sunshine on the Mediterranean. Indeed, so popular was the rally in Britain that enthusiasts formed the Monte Carlo Rally British Competitors Club, now defunct since its merger with the less exclusive International Rally Drivers Club.

Since the ‘fifties there has been a dramatic change in both the style of this former classic, and the proportions of competitors it attracts from various countries. Just getting there is no longer the meat of the competition and the adventure element has diminished almost to nothing by the coming of stereotyped special stages. Slowly, the British became fewer year by year, and nowadays the French, the Germans, and to a slightly less degree the Italians make up the bulk of the non-factory entrants.

To them, the glamour of taking part is still important, but the British obviously demand more for their money — and it does cost a pretty penny nowadays — and other rallies offer better value, a more friendly atmosphere and a style which demands more than just sheer speed over Alpine tarmac occasionally covered by snow or ice.

Although the word rally is defined as a gathering, most events seem to do the opposite by scattering. The Monegasque organisers are probably now alone in sticking to the definition by having a number of starting points from which competitors converge on the Principality. This traditionalism has often led to criticism that the rally was becoming too old-fashioned, but although the organisers regarded the overall style as sacred and resisted all efforts to change it, they have never been slow to try innovations of a technical nature.

Some of these were made with good intentions, but, perhaps due to a lack of competitive experience among the organisers, many resulted in sheer farce. The outcome was a reputation for controversy which no other event has matched, and when you couple this with an almost pathological obsession with technical detail, and the letter of the regulations rather than the spirit, you will be part of the way towards understanding why some people still like the event and others have grown to hate it.

The interpretation of FISA’s regulations has never been easy, particularly when any new edict is accompanied by indifferent translations from the French which, pompously and without good reason, is declared to be the language robe used in the event of any dispute. There should, of course, be no need for interpretations, for the rules should be crystal clear with only one possible construction placed upon them. Alas, they have seldom been like that, and since Monte-Carlo has generally been the first major rally of the year it has usually provided the scene for the first debates and wrangles.

Straightforward penalties, at the rate of a minute for a minute, were once unheard of. In order to level powerful cars with less powerful ones various complicated formulae were devised, and no team manager worth his salt, or competitor for that matter, was ever without his slide rule. But it rendered the rally almost impossible to understand, and perhaps contributed to what persists as a certain lack of appreciation by the general public of what the sport really entails.

In 1961, for instance, the French Panhards gained an immense advantage from a formula which favoured heavy cars and penalised those with biggest engine capacity, a fact which was quickly seized by the shrewd Saab team who sent a 96 estate car the following year for Erik Carlsson. That was also the year that he used studded tyres, introducing to the sport and to road users in general one of the best winter safety aids ever devised. Unfortunately, those very studs led to a mass of legislation, not always the same from event to event, limiting dimensions, weight, methods of insertion and other technicalities.

At that time there were also regularity tests, hit-or-miss things that they were, but fortunately they did not survive far into the ‘sixties and the practice of timing on sight was discontinued.

It’s worth quoting some of these infamous Monte-Carlo formulae, so we’ve chosen the least complicated, with the minimum of advantage given to any one group over another. The year was 1962, and in each case the result of the calculation provides the figure by which stage times in full seconds should be multiplied to arrive at the penalty. In each case, C is engine capacity in litres.

And that was a simple one which didn’t take overall weight or any other factor into account. It wasn’t until 1968 that all formulae and indices were abandoned and a purely scratch classification introduced.

But prior to that all manner of controversies had arisen, some resulting in volatile arguments and really ugly scenes at rally headquarters where it was the practice for decisions to be announced by blandfaced junior officials quietly pinning up an official notice, sometimes in the small hours of the morning.

The year 1966 will probably be remembered better than any other, for that was when the winning Mini-Cooper of Timo Mäkinen was systematically taken apart until some trivial justification was found for imposing disqualification. It will live in memory as “The Rally of the Bulb”.

This was the first year of a completely new Appendix J, and it was so ambiguous that a group of factory competition managers got together to present a questionnaire to the FIA in order to clear up certain points. A certain amount of light illuminated the darkness, but anomalies remained and what could be done, and what could not, were by no means dear when the rally started. What made matters worse were the Monte regulations themselves, for it was declared that only cars of groups one and three would be eligible for European Championship points. Furthermore, Gp 1 cars would be penalised 20 points per minute late on the road whereas other groups would collect 60 per minute. On stages, cars not in Gp 1 would have all their penalties multiplied by 1.18. It was obvious that Gp 1 cars stood to gain a huge advantage, so most manufacturers in it to win chose to enter Gp 1 cars.

Gp 1 cars were permitted to fit two additional lights at the front, whereas Gp 2 cars could carry a total of six. Sadly, some of this escaped translation, and some of the British Gp 2 privateers were disqualified on arrival at Monte-Carlo. The works Minis were fitted with headlamps containing only main beam bulbs (quartz-iodine bulbs were then non-dipping) with dip switches which put out the main headlamps and switched on the two ancillaries. An extra variable rheostat could also dim the main headlamps when required.

Mäkinen’s times were amazing, and there were comments that no near-standard Cooper S could possibly beat Porsches and other powerful cars up hill climbs like Mont Ventoux. During the break between two parts of the rally it was announced that an inspection would be made of lights, since only yellow lights were legal in France. When someone pointed out that International Circulation Regulations allowed white lights if they were legal in the car’s country of registration, the organisers backed down, but their target changed to the Minis’ dipping system, also used by Ford and some British privateers. When the systems were shown to be legal, the argument faded away, but soon another technical inspection was arranged and this time no decision was announced until long after cars had left on the final leg.

During that leg, the organisers that nine British cars and one British-entered Simca would be excluded for replacing double-filament bulbs with those of single filaments. Nothing was said about the claim that works Citroens had been using white lights illegally.

Protests were lodged hut the organisers and the stewards were adamant; the disqualifications would remain. The leading four drivers, Makinen, Aaltonen and Hopkirk in Minis and Clark in a Cortina Lotus, were out of the rally. There was a huge outcry, and the mass of waiting people at rally HQ surged forward so violently that the counter was in danger of demolition. Pauli Toivonen, who found himself the declared winner (in a Citroen) did not appear at the prize-giving, and even HRH Prince Rainier took the unprecedented step of remaining absent.

The following year the organisers attempted to lessen the advantage of professionals over amateurs by creating a category for cars which would be limited to a maximum of just eight tyres for each of the three legs. But the penalty advantage of 12½% was too great an attraction and the factories chose to enter in this category. Competing cars were seen with roof racks laden with spare wheels and tyres, whilst the organisers took to using radio-active paint and branding irons to identify each tyre with its car. There were some frightening scenes in the mountains as tyres wore out and crews were determined to stick to baldness rather than risk being caught using an illegal tyre. Some even collected punctures which could not be repaired and continued after stuffing tyres with grass and bracken. Naturally, the exercise was not repeated.

Not many years after there was that terrible organisational gaffe high above the village of Burnt in the Ardeche, when, due to a road blockage caused primarily by heavy snow, some two-thirds of the field were delayed beyond their maximum lateness. The organisers refused to cancel penalties, and the excluded competitors went en masse to Digne where they attempted to bring what remained of the rally to a stop. Police were present in strength, batons were drawn and the situation became very ugly indeed. However, the rally did continue, and the excluded drivers were offered the consolatory crumb of a free entry the following year.

Controversy and debate have often clouded the main competitive issues of the Monte-Carlo Rally and the organisers have rather fuelled this situation by remaining aloof and unapproachable, preferring the sanctuary of their inner offices to facing whatever madding crowd may have gathered outside. Happily, they have become less machine-like in recent years, and nowadays a high-numbered privateer can reasonably expect an answer if he raises a query.

Later this month the 1984 version will take place and it remains to be seen whether any fresh or familiar scandal will detract from the competition itself, which will have a few new car/driver combinations to create new interest. — G.P.