Between a rock

He didn’t think so at the time, but the hard lesson Bjorn learned on this event proved to be a blessing in disguise. John Davenport explains

In 1979, Bjorn Waldegard became the first man to win the title of world rally champion. But, in his own opinion, he only did it by learning a hard lesson on the very first world championship round of that year, the Monte Carlo Rally.

To start with, things did not look too favourable: “We were in Monte in the autumn and had worked a lot in testing with Alan Wilkinson [Ford Boreham’s engineer] to make the Escort good on Tarmac. Then, before the rally, in the recce period, the weather was very bad with much snow and we thought that we had done all that work for nothing.

” Fortunately for Ford, in the days just before the event, the warmer weather came and much of the snow melted. The stages were mainly gravel and patchy ice. And their main rivals, Fiat and Renault had set their cars up for snow.

Conditions turned out to be perfect for the two works Escorts of Bjorn and Hannu Mikkola. Several of the stages were more like a forest road on the RAC Rally. The pair shot into an early lead and took turns to head the field. The works Fiats of Marklcu Alen, Walter Rohr’ and Jean-Claude Andruet, and the lone Lancia Stratos of Bernard Damiche, were left trailing in their wake. At the end of the 20 special stages on the Common Route, it would have been a Ford 1-2 had not Mikkola been penalised five minutes for ‘dangerous overtaking’. As it was, Waldegard led his nearest rival, Alen, by just over four minutes, while Darniche was almost six-anda-half minutes behind the Ford in sixth.

“The last stages into Monte were pretty clear of snow and already you could see that the Stratos was quicker than us. But with such a big lead, and with only 11 stages on the last night, it was hard to see how we could lose. Of course, Darniche had the use of those thermo-slicks Michelin had only just developed. They had never been tested properly, but they took that risk — and it worked. First time over the Turini, he was half a minute quicker than us. But that was still okay by me, because it wasn’t enough to close the gap by the end of the rally.

“Before that last night in the mountains, Peter Ashcroft [Ford’s team manager] asked me if there was anything he could do. Should he go out and ty to buy some of these Michelins? I said that, for me, they were an unknown, so even if he could get some, I preferred to go with what we had.

“In any case, the gap to Darniche was still big. The only problem was that we were a bit short of tyre choice for these conditions. Ford was running a Fiesta for An Vatanen, and also had to carry his wheels, which were not interchangeable with the Escort. So we chose to cut back on racing tyres because the weather had been so bad before the start of the rally.”

They had to choose between half-studded snow tyres and intermediate racing tyres without studs, which Bjorn classified as “extremely dangerous”. “The Escort was good, and once the night got colder and more ice formed, then Damiche had to use some studs and he was not so much quicker than us. But the gap kept reducing and, with two stages to go, he was one-and-a-half minutes behind us. No problem, we thought. Then, on the first of these last stages, a nasty, twisty thing at Pont de Clans, we came down a hill to a bridge, and in the middle of the bridge were three or four big stones. There was no way they could have fallen there — there was nowhere to fall from.

“We were first car on the road. I tried to run over one, but got it stuck under the sump guard. I reversed off it and Hans [Thorszelius, the co-driver] got out and moved them himself. We lost a minute, maybe more. But the worst thing was that we were so furious and dispirited.

“In those days, you didn’t have mobile phones and all the information that they do today. We should have known that it was close and driven properly on the last stage. But I was so demotivated that I did not drive so well. Without enthusiasm. Not slow, but not the best either.

“At the finish, we discovered that Darniche had won by just six seconds. I know that WI had really tried on that last stage, we could have been faster and won the rally. I felt really bad. Ford had flown out almost all of their directors to Monaco and all we had to celebrate was second place. I went off and found a quiet place to have a few beers.

“You have to hand it to Damiche. He took a gamble on those tyres and drove really well. There was no way we could hold him. If we hadn’t got that early lead, it would have been us trying to catch I him. I don’t know how or why those stones got onto that bridge. It could have been something against us, or Ford, or it could be something against the rally. No-one knows. We certainly didn’t see anyone at the bridge.

“But the whole incident taught me something which I really knew already — never give up. “The next rally was Sweden, where I made a simple error on the first stage. It was almost the first crest and I had in the notes ‘right to crest’ when it should have been ‘over crest’. We went off for five minutes into a ditch. That Monte experience had made me very determined and I drove the rest of the rally like hell.” Waldegard was fastest on 19 of the 37 stages that remained and pulled up from dead last to finish second behind Stig Blomqvist.

“At the end of the year, there was only one point between Hannu and me for the championship. Those 15 points I gained for second place in Sweden won it for me. I could so easily have scored nothing in Sweden if I had let that early mistake wreck my determination. “So maybe losing in Monte Carlo was not such a bad thing after all.”