Rally review: Monte Carlo Rally, March 1965
Outright win for B.M.C.’s Mini-Cooper S under very tough conditions
Every year more is written about the Monte Carlo Rally than any other international rally, and as each year passes it becomes more difficult to say something fresh about it. To start with, through the dual mediums of advertising and public relations, nearly everybody will know by now who won the event and that for the second year running the B.M.C. Cooper S defeated the rest of the rally world. British manufacturers generally came out very well in this year’s rally with B.M.C. taking first place overall and getting four Cooper Ss and two Austin 1800s in the 35 finishers, Rootes getting one of their big Tigers into fourth place with another Tiger and two Imps among the finishers, while Rovers won the Touring category and came sixth overall with one of their 2000s. Triumph, too, were well represented, with three Spitfires in at the finish and one of them in eleventh place overall, while Fords had bad luck in their choice of starting point and only had one factory Cortina in at the finish which was in fact beaten by a Swedish-entered Cortina.
Of the foreign teams only Porsche, Saab and Citroën managed anything in the way of a good result, with Böhringer finishing second overall in his Porsche 904, and third overall for Pat Moss in her Saab. The Swedish firm also took the manufacturers’ prize, while Citroën narrowly missed winning the event outright and had no less than five of their works cars classified amongst the finishers.
From the preceding paragraphs, you would be correct in imagining that in the Monte Carlo Rally of 1965 it was something of a feat to even finish. To examine exactly why this was so, perhaps it would help if I were to relate the conditions as I experienced them as a competitor and then try to explain how these same conditions affected the other cars in the rally.
As most of my rallying experience has been in Mini-Coopers of one kind or another, I was grateful to be given the chance of doing the Monte with Geoff Mabbs, who in 1963 had the distinction of leading the rally into Monte Carlo in a Mini while last year he was at the wheel of the highest placed Cortina GT. Our car was a 970 Cooper S, which was running under the third Group of Appendix J with lightened body panels and a Group II engine and it had been decided that we should start from Athens to act, I suspect, as company for the works car of Rauno Aaltonen and Tony Ambrose.
From what I shall say later, it will become apparent that in the Monte Carlo Rally the amount of success that you enjoy often depends to a large extent on your starting point and Athens had been chosen for us because if the weather was only reasonably good, the run through Greece, Yugoslavia and Italy would be very much easier than any of the other routes which wound through northern Europe and also went for quite some distance through the icy Massif Central in France. Athens has not been a popular start since 1963 when a blizzard just north of Skopje prevented every single one of the starters getting through, but we argued that this was a freak occurrence and that now the new autoput was open, we should have no difficulty in getting through even if conditions were bad. We flew to Athens, the cars having gone on ahead by boat, and arrived in time to get them out of Customs (quite a lengthy job in that part of the Mediterranean) and through scrutineering, which was a very brief operation thanks to the very courteous behaviour of the Greek Automobile Club.
To start with, everything went very smoothly indeed. We started from outside the Olympic Stadium at about six o’clock in the morning and by the time night fell, we were well across the Yugoslav border and heading towards Skopje. The new autoput is so good that we had three and a half hours to kill in the town of Skopje, which was perhaps just as well, for after eating an enormous meal in the newly reconstructed Hotel Macedonia, it became apparent that there was no control and a frantic search ensued. Eventually, only a few minutes before we were due to clock in, the controllers arrived and we were soon off on our journey to Belgrade. Here we were no less than four-and-quarter hours early so we promptly booked in at an hotel for three-and-a-half hours’ sleep, a shower and a shave.
The rest of the journey to the French border was equally uneventful and the only snow that we saw was on the main road over the hills from Ljubliana to Trieste. It was about this time that Rauno and Tony noticed that the water level of their 1275 Cooper S was constantly dropping and concluded that they had a blown head gasket. Now no service had been arranged until we were well into French territory except from local B.M.C. agents, but so important was one of their works entries to B.M.C. that upon being notified of the catastrophe that was about to befall one of their works cars that they flew out a mechanic, complete with cylinder head and gasket, to Milan, whereupon he was transported with all due haste to the control at Alessandria where the exchange was facilitated with the help of the local agent. This may seem to be needlessly expensive but when it is considered exactly how much the company has already expended in putting this entry into the field—the salary of two of the best rallyists in the world, their recce expenses, the cost of the entry, of preparing the car and sending it to Athens, laying on tyres, petrol and service for that car—the additional expense of flying one man out to Italy fades into insignificance.
Just before the French border at Briançon at the end of our second night on the rally, there was a control at Sestrière, and literally only two kilometres before it we ran into a blizzard and snow drifts and came to an undignified stop. Prepared for this kind of emergency, we were carrying no less than six spare wheels of which five were studded and in the midst of the blizzard we changed onto four studded tyres and reached the control. From there to Gap, the next control, over the Col de Mont Genevre and down the main road, the studs were essential in order to move both safely and quickly, but even then we did not have much more than twenty minutes in hand at Gap. The luckless Aaltonen and Ambrose finished their rally on this section when the condenser came loose on their distributor and developed an intermittency in the ignition circuit which took them a long time to trace and they were out of time at the control.
The rally had now taken on a more serious aspect as we had seen what sort of winter weather the Alps could provide and we jettisoned all our surplus baggage—everything except a spare sweater and a toothbrush—at Gap, along with the unstudded tyres that had brought us to Sestrière. From Gap we were headed up into the Massif Central for a short time to meet up with the cars coming from Paris, London, Frankfurt, Lisbon and Monte Carlo. The common control was at St. Flour and the main road up to it was a mixture of pure ice and packed snow with alternating stretches of practically dry road. On the ice it was essential to have the studs but they were something of a liability on a dry road. The tyres were actually Dunlop Weathermasters with about 400 Swedish studs fired into them and each stud protrudes about three to five millimetres. The effect on a dry road is similar to the sensation that results when you bear down on a hairbrush resting on its bristles and the resultant oversteer on a front-wheel-drive car like the Mini has to be seen to be believed. These studs are a great improvement over previous types and we found that even when they were driven hard over dry roads very few of them tended to fly out, as is the case with less sophisticated examples.
At St. Flour, we were in time to talk to some of the works Ford team who had started from Monte Carlo en masse and though none of them had as yet experienced any trouble, Geoff’s brother, David, who was with Peter Procter, said that they had had quite a lot of icy roads and had been running on studded tyres for quite some way. At this, we felt that we had chosen the right starting point for, despite having been on the go for two-and-a-half days, our run had been so easy that we were both well rested and were looking forward to the night’s rallying. All the routes from the nine starting points converged on the little town of St. Claude in the Juras to the west of Geneva, from where they went over minor roads to Chambéry where half-an-hour was allowed for changing tyres and refuelling before they set out on the really serious motoring into Monaco.
Normally, this run from St. Claude to Chambéry is considered easy even when the roads are covered with snow, but we had our first warning that trouble was in store on the run from Bourg to St. Claude where falling snow restricted vision to a matter of ten yards or less. By the time we got to St. Claude, we were running as last car in the rally, for the Athens starters are destined to follow the Monte Carlo starters who follow the Lisbon starters who follow the Paris starters and so on down to the Warsaw starters who head the list. For the very early numbers up to about 95 or 100, the St. Claude to Chambéry section was achieved in clear conditions and for the very early ones who did it in daylight, the sun even shone. By the time that the late London starters and the boys from Frankfurt were going over it, night had most definitely fallen and the snow was just starting to blot out the countryside. By the time the later numbers were on the scene, visibility was down to a matter of feet and the hills were in the grip of a particularly nasty blizzard. All the works Fords lost time into Chambéry while the Renault team disappeared to the last man and only one works Lancia emerged within the hour’s lateness.
Already many of the road signs were obscured by the snow and the fresh falls did nothing to help matters so that many, many cars just simply got lost. One of the correct roads drifted over and, without realising it, many cars took a detour which cost them more time, though generally the conditions were such that a private owner’s faith in his own ability to get through must have been severely damaged and this was before the really testing part of the rally had commenced.
From Chambéry on, the storm raged unabated even for those who were leading the now sadly depleted column of rally cars, though again, by the time that the later cars came to pass over the mountains south of Chambéry, the snow was much deeper than it had been for the early numbers and this was to slow them still more. It is significant that out of an entry of 276 cars, of which 237 started, thirty-two of the finishers came from the numbers one to 150 while only three of them came from the numbers 151 to 276. Timo Makinen who won the rally in the Mini Cooper S was number 52 while second man, Eugen Böhringer, had number 150 on the side of his Porsche and Pat Moss was number 49 in the Saab. The main reason for this decimation of the entry was not so much a failing of the cars, though a certain percentage of cars did drop out through mechanical failure, but was the result of the drivers becoming excessively tired, driving through falling snow and gradually losing time until they were more than an hour late and automatically retired. As far as our own little car was concerned, we had fared quite well and had reached the other side of the blizzard with time in hand to reach Monte when, possibly through fatigue, we went exploring in a ditch and found a telegraph pole lying on its side.
Other people were still less fortunate, for Bo Ljungfeldt had had a puncture in the Alan Mann Mustang while negotiating the first special stage and had gone off into a snowbank from which it took him a long time to get out. Erik Carlsson too had suffered from misfortune on the Col du Granier as in passing a large number of other cars, the snow had been whipped up under the bonnet of his Saab and had completely blocked off the carburetters. Even after he and his co-driver, Gunnar Palm had removed most of the excess snow, the carburetters were still well iced up inside and it took them fifty-seven minutes to get the car going again. It is indicative of the sheer brilliance of Carlsson’s capabilities as a rally driver that despite the fact that he was only three minutes away from being out of time, he carried on without any further loss of time and was classified as a finisher in Monte Carlo. The sole surviving Lancia Flavia of the ex-French champion, René Trautmann, finally ran out of time at Gap after losing much time going into Chambéry and then being assailed by plug trouble. Trautmann commented after the rally that when he used to go up to the ski resort of Chamrousse on his scooter, he went up faster than his Lancia did on the rally.
At Monte Carlo there were only thirty-five crews who arrived at the final control having never been more than an hour late anywhere along the route and, of these, initially the best classified was Lucien Bianchi and Jean Demortier in a works Citroën DS19 who had only lost two minutes on the road section. However, Timo Makinen and Paul Easter were quite sure that they had lost no time whatsoever and eventually discovered that some overkeen official at the control in Gap had noted that they were nine minutes early, though naturally they had clocked out at the correct time. The results team had not noticed this and had penalised them for being nine minutes early and then again for losing that nine minutes on the next section. This penalty was swiftly removed and the positions stood as Makinen (Cooper S) followed by Bianchi (Citroën) and Böhringer (Porsche).
This year there was to be no circuit test round the Grand Prix circuit in Monaco but the organisers had laid on a 380-mile supplementary test in the mountains behind Monaco which it was intended that the 120 best classified cars should attempt. As there was only a mere thirty-five cars still left there was no problem about deciding who should go on it. It was, as it turned out, a very tough test of the cars and drivers and only 22 of them managed to finish it within the half-hour’s lateness and several crews crashed or had mechanical failures. Fortunately for them, merely to have reached Monte Carlo in the first place was enough to qualify them as finishers, though the 10,000 mark penalty for failing to complete the mountain test dropped them below the other 22.
Bianchi was one of those who failed to complete the test as he went off the road and hit a tree while driving a section with the wrong tyres. Something had gone wrong with Citroën’s normally impeccable service and either tyres were not available for him at this particular service point or there were not enough mechanics available to change them in time, but whatever the reason, the Citroën was well crashed and any hope of winning the rally had disappeared. It was a real hope, too, for Makinen was finding the pace hot and despite cleaning one section where he had the cam follower in his distributor break, he lost a total of four minutes on the road by having to take time out for essential tyre changes. Böhringer on the other hand lost no further time and was thus equal with the young Finn on road penalties, though far behind him on special stage times.
The performance of the Porsche 904 and its crew is really amazing considering the weather and the snow conditions en route, for nearly all the other cars—considered from the point of view of the marque rather than individual performances—that did well on this rally were front-wheel-drive saloon cars rather than out-and-out racing cars. There were six Saabs among the 35 finishers as well as six Citroëns, four Mini-Coopers and two Austin 1800s, from which the adherents of front-wheel-drive will doubtless correctly observe that these cars are capable of being driven fast, safely in what might loosely be described as treacherous conditions. However, in addition to the Porsche 904 of Böhringer, there were several other GT cars among the finishers and apart from the two Tigers and three Spitfires already mentioned, another Porsche but this time a 911 coupé driven by Herbert Linge was also among the select few at the finish. The other two remarkable cars which were placed among the finishers were two quite similar cars in several respects. One was the B.M.W. 1800 TI of the ex-European rally champion, Hans Walter, who finished tenth and put up some very good special stage times and the other was the Rover 2000 driven by the young English driver, Roger Clark. His special stage times in this rather underpowered saloon were nothing to set him apart from the rest of the finishers, but he had only lost 11 minutes into Monte Carlo and thus finished sixth overall. One last word for one of the best rally drivers ever, Erik Carlsson, who drove impeccably on the mountain circuit to pull up from thirty-fourth place to sixteenth overall by being the only driver other than Böhringer not to lose time on it.
This was without doubt one of the best Monte Carlo rallies for several years for although no rally driver positively enjoys driving for hours on end through heavy falling snow, it does make the event one for the men (this said despite the fact that Pat Moss finished third!) and finishing in a year like this is an achievement that will outweigh any number of finishers’ bars from other years. The rally was also won on the road and it was road marks that decided the winner rather than marks computed from seconds taken over special stages.
The final question must be “How did a Mini manage to win?” and the answer to that is simply the skill of the driver and co-driver, the brilliant organisation of the B.M.C. team, the excellence of the car’s design, the skill of the mechanics that built it and serviced it, and lastly the money that B.M.C. were prepared to spend in order to reap the publicity that comes when you win the Monte. – J.D.F.D.