Once more is never enough

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Not many ice cream salesmen get offered drives with works rally teams, fewer still turn them down twice. Jean-Pierre Manzagol smiles with a mixture of pleasure and embarrassment. He isn’t a boastful man and he is aware that it must sound foolish for an amateur to have rejected Renault and Fiat in turn, but he was fairly sure that he wouldn’t get the best material and, in the end, he didn’t wish to swap family life in Corsica for the gypsy existence of the works driver. It was a long
time ago anyway.

Manzagol lives in Borgo, just south of the northern port of Bastia, at the end of a notorious stage feared for its towering drops. In his prime, he was a force to be reckoned with on his home round of the World Championship, in an age when team managers were more inclined to pick horses for courses and there were precious few all-rounders like Carlos Sainz or Didier Auriol. He finished sixth in 1969, third in 1970, 1972 and 1976 (when he was prevailed upon to drive a works Alpine A310), fourth in 1974 and ’75 and there was no rally in 1971. By his reckoning, he has led the event three times, but never finished it when ahead.

He is one of the most distinguished of a line of Corsican drivers and the natural successor to Pierre Orsini, a triple winner of the event and a works Alpine driver to boot. Asked if there was much rivalry between him and the older man, he carefully describes their duels as a “transfer of power”.

Manzagol was instantly successful. He first contested the Tour in 1965 in a Morris Cooper S, winning what he describes as “Gp N” (Gp 1 in fact), changed to a Renault 8 Gordini, then to an Alpine Al 10. He contested the Tour no fewer than 10 times in a Berlinette and still has one, which he fondly describes as an “exceptional car”. It is easy to drive and great fun. In his view, they don’t make rally cars like that any more and, while he is equally at home in frontor rear-wheel drive, he mourns the passing of the latter. By comparison, the angular, hunchbacked A31 was a good car, but simply not as quick as a Stratos.

The A110 was the car that cemented a long-term link with Renault and Doria, the dealer in Bastia. Forget Marlboro and McLaren: this is a relationship that stretches back to 1967 and the R8 Gordini. It has continued with only a brief interruption when there was no suitable Renault available, obliging him to resort to a Sierra Cosworth, which disgraced itself by breaking its rear suspension. Since he proved his worth, Manzagol has remained close to the factory. He has rallied everything Renault had to offer bar the 11 Turbo, ranging from the A110 to the 5 Alpine, the 5 Turbo, the 5GT Turbo and the Clio. He is normally one of the first privateers to get the latest model and he does them ample justice. Holding second place in a 5 Turbo until the alternator failed almost within sight of the finish in 1981 is simultaneously his fondest and his most painful recollection.

Even now, at the age of 49, he was quick enough to finish 16th and second Corsican on this year’s event in a Gp A Clio Williams – no mean feat in view of a sickly engine and the calibre of those who finished in the top 10.

Few drivers are better able to assess the changing nature of World Championship rallying and, in Manzagol’s view, change has not been for the better. Until 1981, the Tour of Corsica was a 24h road race held in November, with barely two hours for rest and no such thing as an easy section. Hundred mile selectives were not unknown and stages were, if not an afterthought, not much more than tie-deciders.

“I preferred November. If a rally doesn’t run at night, it’s more like a race. Racing drivers know all the parameters, they know where they’re going. We used to get fog and all kinds of bad weather, and I enjoyed that,” he says. Driving ability, local knowledge and a certain amount of guile counted for more than sheer horsepower. Manzagol believes it is no coincidence that Corsican drivers haven’t figured as prominently since the rally became a springtime sprint; they can’t afford the machinery. Higher speeds have also made the rally more dangerous, even though the change of season meant that it was a good deal longer until the fateful 1986 Tour that cost Henri Toivonen and Sergio Cresto their lives. To Manzagol’s Way of thinking, modern rallying is “more professional,” but less of a sport.

Nevertheless, the Tour of Corsica remains a particularly difficult rally. This year’s was shoehorned into the new servicing format without much forethought but, as a rule, it retains long, mercilessly twisty stages that demand intense concentration and are near-impossible to learn. After 29 years and 20 finishes, Manzagol promises that he still listens to the pace notes, although he does less and less practice. This year, he practised the final loop of three stages just once, immediately after scrutineering. Given the demands it makes, it is perhaps no surprise that the driver whom Manzagol admires the most is Jean-Luc Therier, “Not because he won, but because of the way he drove a Berlinette. He could do the same times as Darniche or Andruet, without doing anything like as much practice — that’s what impressed me. The others worked a lot more, Andruet in particular.”

His distaste for spring and summer rallying has a professional element, in that there is much less demand for ice cream in November. He contests around half a dozen rallies per year now, tackling all four in Corsica and a couple in the far south of France, such as the Cevennes or Var. He keeps fit by playing tennis and cycling.

To say that Manzagol is disillusioned would be wrong, yet much of the charm has waned, and his involvement in rallying has become like an old marriage sustained by fond memories and force of habit. Ask him what he thinks of the Clio and he answers, “There’s no other choice,” for driving anything other than a Renault would be unthinkable — an insult to Doria and Renault’s Team Manager, Patrick Landon.

Every year he considers stopping, and yet he is thinking of buying a Clio Maxi, “when they get passed down”. The lure of driving on a special stage is too great to resist. With a helpless shrug, he says “It’s my passion.”

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