When there’s ice underfoot, it’s time to unsheath the claws…John Davenport relates how a handful of tiny metal studs, plus a moment of inspiration, can win or lose a snowbound rally
Choosing studs may sound like something that Jackie and Joan Collins would do on a rainy afternoon. For competitors on the Monte Carlo and other rallies run on icy roads, however, selecting the studded tyre that best matches the conditions over a special stage can make the difference between winning and contemplating life from inside a snowdrift.
Towards the end of the 1960s, there was a great deal of development of studded tyres. This interest was largely triggered by Timo Makinen’s use of Reengas-Ala remoulds to win the 1965 Monte Carlo Rally in the teeth of a truly formidable blizzard. His use of ice-racing tyres with inch-long penknife blades sticking out round the circumference certainly got the grey matter working at Michelin, Pirelli and Dunlop. Over the next few years in a regulation-free era on French roads, everything was tried in an attempt to produce just the right tyre for the conditions on each special stage.
This phenomenal task was doomed to produce at best a good compromise and at worst a disaster. For an example of the problem facing the tyre designer, take the classic test from Pont des Miolans to St Auban. This was always the opening stage on the Monte Carlo rallies of that era, and as difficult to read as Beowulf in the original Anglo-Saxon.
You could find frost at the start, but usually on the verges. After 8km of south-facing dry road, you entered the village of Collongues, crossed the river Fontane and started to ascend seriously now on the north-facing side of the hill. The good news was that the road was dead straight uphill for four kilometres. The bad news was that it was covered in black ice and a dusting of snow. The co-drivers nicknamed it ‘the Chute’. It was difficult to tell where it ended as there were few landmarks. If French Telecom had ever removed the fourteenth ‘A’-shaped telegraph pole, all the works crews would have crashed at the hidden right-hander at the top.
The road was then once again in the sunlight and on dry road for the 6km run to the village of Brianconnet. It was here some years later that Michele Mouton was to create the very first short wheelbase Quattro by using her car to head-butt a house. After the village, the road dipped into the shade before climbing up the snowy hairpins into the Clue de St Auban and finally out into the sun once more at the finish line. Dry road, some gravel, ice, more dry road, snow, ice and gravel and then dry road again. What tyre should you take?
If you took a racing tyre, you would be sensationally quickest to start with, but you might never ascend the Chute or the hairpins at the end. If you chose too many studs, you would fly up the Chute but not perform well before it, and the dry bits a would have ripped the studs out by the hairpins.
In 1970, I was driving with Simo Lampinen in the Lancia Fulvia. We arrived at Pont des Miolans where no less than 70 tyres representing 12 different choices and five different sizes awaited us, Our ice note crew for these stages was Alan and Sheila Taylor, formidable exponents of British rallying and also with a wealth of continental experience. Alan rushed up with the ice notes. As he talked with Simo and I, the Lancia mechanics were already shouting to know which tyres we wanted. “Well” said Simo to Alan, “which tyre would you choose?” “I know just the one you want,” said Alan “but they don’t have it here.” It turned out that he was right. A racing tyre with 4 full circle of small studs on the outer and inner edges would have done the trick. As it was, we took a lightly studded Pirelli CN 36 and had too much metal in contact with the road to break into the top 10 times.
It goes without saying that some cars had an easier time choosing tyres for a stage like that than the front-wheel drive Fulvia. A Porsche or an Alpine-Renault could get by with fewer and smaller studs as their traction was better. A front-wheel drive car always ate its front studs quicker than those at the rear. The further into the stage you went, the More understeer and less traction on the ice, while on tarmac it had better traction but massive oversteer.
The only time we were able to turn this disadvantage to a slight advantage and a win was on the 1969 San Remo Rally. Here the problem was a single section containing two special stages with flying starts and finishes which was itself difficult to complete in time. The first stage was all uphill on a gravel road, then the link section was largely downhill on tarmac. Next you had to tackle the second stage, almost entirely on snow with gravel beneath, going first up and then downhill. What sort of tyre choice could you make? If you started on studded tyres, the fronts would be history by the time you got to the second stage.
It was this single fact that gave us our crazy idea. This was to start the whole section with gravel tyres on the front and studded tyres on the back and then to stop and change to new front studded tyres just before the second stage. On the first gravel stage, the rear tyres followed, along not doing very much and were not destroyed. On the tarmac we had a fair degree of oversteer, but this could be controlled by the use of left-foot braking. Then on the snow with new front tyres, the little Fulvias could let rip.
I was with Sandra Munari. It took the mechanics 55 seconds to change two front wheels in a lay-by carved from a snow bank high on the Passo di Teglia. No one passed us in that time, but on the special stage we passed two works Fords, a works Alpine and a works Fiat. The three works Lancias – Munari, Rauno Aaltonen and Harry Kallstrom – were the only can to do the section on time and led the rally comfortably. Kallstrom eventually won the rally from Aaltonen. We broke a drove shaft.
Sometimes there decision was not difficult but was controversial. This was the case on the Monte Carlo Rally of 1972. I was with Ove Andersson in the Alpine-Renault team. The team manager was Jacques Cheinisse who was a rally and race driver with a considerable pedigree covering everything from international rallies to Le Mans. He was extremely well liked by the crews and mechanics and nothing was ever too much trouble. The Alpine-Renault sportscar and single-seater race drivers were employed to do ice notes for the rally team, which was not always an unqualified success. Already we had chosen heavily studded tyres for the Col de Perty after being told that it was full snow from the summit to finish. I am sure that it had been when the racing lads had rushed over it after breakfast, but we were doing it before noon in full sun. The snow was gone, gone, gone. Just like our quick time.
As the day wore on, we arrived in the Ardèche. The Alpine-Renault service was set up in a lay-by at Le Moulinon and before us lay the two longest stages on the rally – Moulinon to Antraigues and the infamous Burzet loop. Everyone was there and Cheinisse himself told Ove Andersson and myself that what we needed were plain wet racing tyres, Michelin’s all-conquering PB15. We listened to the ice note crews who told us that it was dear road all the way to Burzet. We saw the mechanics roll out the PBs. And then we said, “Just a minute.”
The problem was that it was raining. In fact some of the rain was coming down in large white flakes and settling on our shoulders as we deliberated. Now if it was snowing down here at Le Mouninon, 500 feet above sea level, what was it likely to be doing half-way to Annigues on the Col de la Fayolle which was just short of 3000ft up in the hills? It struck us that Jacques could have done with a quick spot of advice from Miss Smilla on the nature of snow. Ove and I went on a search through the Renault vans and finally discovered a. set of studded tyres lurking under a tarpaulin marked ‘Not wanted on voyage’. We had to plead with Jacques to have them fitted to our car and I am sure that he thought we were a bit crazy.
To start with, we nearly agreed with him. The first part of the stage hugs the south-facing hill and, though wet, was not in the slightest bit icy or snowy. Ove said grimly on at least four occasions “Bloody wrong tyres – again!” Then we crossed the river and started to climb. Even before we reached the col, we were starting to pass fellow team members sliding around on their racers, plus the odd works Porsche and Escort. I am pleased to say that the conditions just got worse and worse. We could actually have done with more studs in the tyres than we had.
By the time we tackled the Burzet loop on a new set of studded tyres, the weather was just unbelievable. Up on the top, the wind was blowing the heavy snowfall into drifts taller than the cars. It was extremely difficult to know where the road stopped and the fields started. The Alpine A110 felt like a motorised toboggan, and must have looked like one at times. When we passed taller cars like Jean-Francois Piot’s Escort, I could have sworn that I was looking down on its roof. We were probably just canted up on our side but it was an impressive view of Jim Porter as we swept past. On the final descent clown the mountain and back into Burzet, the banks had been created by a snowplough and stood four to six feet high. It gave the impression that you were on a helter-skelter and that all you needed to do was to keep the foot down and let the Scalextric effect take over.
We emerged from the white hell of the Ardèche with one minute lost on the road – we had had to wait while another Alpine Renault was on the jacks in Burzet – and a clear lead in the rally. We retired on the last night of the rally two days later with a broken gearbox. That’s rallying, and nothing to do with anyone’s choice of tyres… or studs in them.