Rally Review, March 1968

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Monte Carlo Rally

Throughout Europe in the past few years, rallying has steadily become so sophisticated that it is almost beyond comparison with the adventurous, shovel-laden journeys of pre-war and even post-war years. As rally crews have become more skilled, and professionalism more prevalent, so have the cars developed from well stocked and equipped production line models to powerful competition machines differing from racing cars only by reason of the need for long term mechanical reliability and crew comfort.

Likewise, rallies have increased their pace considerably in order to keep ahead of the cars which they attract. Like all the others, the Monte Carlo Rally has speeded up. But it nevertheless clings tenaciously to tradition, its organisers obviously happy to move with the times in one respect and yet, in another, extremely loth to do anything to suggest that the rally is not the Great Winter Classic it once was.

In the eyes of the public, it is doubtful whether it has changed at all, for many of them still look upon the event as a multi-start race through the Alps to Monte Carlo. But to those who know, it is now no more than a costly, 25-hour, special stage rally with a tedious, three-day run-in at the beginning and a supplementary, 12-hour rally added on the end, all sufficiently spaced to allow the Monegasque hoteliers and restaurateurs to reap their annual, off-season benefits.

But no-one will deny that much of the old glamour is retained. Pressmen and TV camera crews still flock to the Principality in numbers often greater than those of the competitors themselves, all hungrily seeking “stories” and generally adding to the atmosphere which makes Monte Carlo the greatest winter-time rumour factory in the world.

Although most of Europe’s manufacturers realise that the Monte is much over-rated, they continue to enter the event since it affords an excellent opportunity to cut a slice of the publicity cake. Among the manufacturers who entered cars this year were B.M.C., Rootes, Saab, Renault, Citroën, Porsche; B.M.W., N.S.U., Wartburg, Trabant, Daf, Lancia, Skoda and Datsun, the latter with two cars shipped from Japan for crews from Finland to drive.

Even General Motors, notorious for its apathy towards competition, were represented indirectly by a team of Opels entered by the G.M. dealers of France and Sweden. Ford, on the other hand, had given the event a complete miss, unless one considers the publicity-catching Mustangs of Ford France, one of which was crewed by Henri Chemin and a nephew of M. Le Général.

During the long reconnaissance and practice sessions which invariably precede the Monte (the route, including special stages, is announced long-beforehand) factory teams found an abundance of snow, but most of this melted away in an unexpected thaw only days before the rally started.

This immediately put the Porsches and Renault Alpines in a favourable position, these powerful machines being so much quicker than all the others on roads free from ice and snow. Another point which favoured these two marques (or, rather, did not favour their opponents) was the complete absence of any coefficient which took engine capacity into account when calculating penalties from actual times taken. This year, the general classification was based on scratch. In other words, the fastest man over the cols was going to win.

At the head of the list of favourites was Britain’s Vic Elford, partnered in a Porsche 911T by David Stone. Elford is a great all-round driver and perhaps the most dedicated professional of them all. Not only will he practise thoroughly until he is convinced that his detailed “pace notes,” read back to him by his co-driver during the event, are absolutely accurate, but he will practise each stage at the same time of day or night as it will he run during the rally.

But, after only two of the first group of seven stages, it was a Renault Alpine, driven by Jean-Francois Piot, which went into the lead. Later, he retired with a broken distributor. Nevertheless the 25-hour section from Monaco to Vals-les-Bain and back ended with another Alpine, that of Gerard Larrousse, in the lead by 14 seconds from Elford.

The absence of snow in its customary quantities meant that great heaps of studded tyres were left about unused, and there was the unprecedented sight of Monte Carlo Rally cars rushing allow the Alps on racing tyres as they do in the Alpine Rally. This proved to be rather an embarrassment for B.M.C., whose Minis are generally considered to be supreme when snow lies in abundance. There was also a bit of a mix-up between B.M.C. and Dunlop, resulting in the proper tyres not being at the right places at the right time for inter-stage wheel changes.

The other trouble which beset the British team from Abingdon concerned the carburetters fitted to their four 1,275-c.c. Cooper Ss. These were based on 40DCOE twin-choke Webers, but one choke had been machined off each one and a short extension welded on so that the units could fit the standard manifolding. The extension was, of course, part of the prototype carburetters (permitted in Group 2.), but the scrutineers felt that it constituted part of the mounting system which cannot be changed from standard in this group. Later, it was found the tapered bolts had been substituted for ordinary ones and this, too, gave rise to much finger wagging by the technical stewards.

In true Monegasque style, a meeting of the Commission Sportif was convened and, after much discussion, it was resolved to the Minis to continue the Rally, with the proviso that the matter would have to be discussed again should there be a protest at the end. When the end came, a Mini was not in the lead so there was no protest and the matter was forgotten.

Some people have said that, by fitting these non-standard carburetters, B.M.C. were deliberately setting out to achieve as much good publicity as they did two years ago when their winning car was disqualified for having non-original headlamp bulbs. This is a pretty shortsighted view. B.M.C. made no secret of their carburetters. They had sent technical descriptions to Monaco long before the rally started and it is my belief that it was a bona fide modification to improve performance and not an attempt to cloud the rally with controversy.

When the Mountain Circuit, as the Epreuve Complémentaire is popularly known, got under way, it was obvious that Elford had made a bad start. On the first two of the six stages, Larrousse increased his lead, but on the third Elford astounded everyone by putting up a time which gave him a clear lead of 20 seconds. A fantastic performance which, had it been on a circuit, would undoubtedly have broken a record.

On the next stage, over the Col du Turini where spectators gather in thousands, came the incident which added yet another to the long list of Monte controversies. Larrousse crashed his Alpine and retired.

It was claimed that the crash was caused by snow shovelled on to the road by foolhardy spectators seeking morbid thrills. Indeed, that there had been such incidents cannot be in doubt. Many drivers reported seeing snow on some of the Turini’s corners where there had been none on their previous run over the pass (the Turini was used three times). But whether there was any on the actual corner on which Larrousse crashed is another matter.

The unexpected appearance of a pile of snow can be highly dangerous when drivers are travelling at very high speed, relying implicitly on the accuracy of their co-drivers in reading out the pace notes. This is particularly so when the notes contain details of surface conditions supplied to them by their team managers, who often send reconnaissance cars over the stages immediately before the rally comes along.

Although the police arrested some local youths and were said to be charging them with endangering life, we have not seen any evidence that snow had been shovelled where Larrousse crashed. Indeed, three Austrian friends of mine claimed to have been 50 yards away when it happened and they said that they saw no snow whatsoever on the road surface at that spot.

Another pertinent fact which could be said to have a bearing on the issue is Larrousses crash two nights before due to his throttle sticking open. On both occasions the impact was taken on the front left side wing, and after the first, there had been time only to fit an additional throttle spring.

But whatever the cause of Larrousse’s crash, it is important to realise (as many other publications did not) that he was not in the lead when it happened. To say that he was, and that Elford won merely as a result of someone else’s misfortune, would be to do the British driver an injustice. In any case, if we counted all the ifs of rallying they would reach round the world many times over.

Although Elford won and another Porsche driver, Pauli Toivonen, came second, following up behind were three B.M.C. Minis, the fourth, Mäkinen’s, having retired with a broken fan pulley. This was an achievement we must not fail to record, especially since we are entreated daily to Back Britain. But patriotic campaign or no, the Minis performed remarkably well on the dry roads, beating cars of considerably more power.

Going back to the Alpines for a moment, these ultra-light cars are going to be a force to be reckoned with on the smoother events this year, particularly as they have men of the calibre of Piot, Larrousse, Vinatier and Andruet driving them. But a considerable amount of strengthening will have to be done before they could safely be used on unsurfaced or undulating roads. Perhaps we shall see what a strengthened Alpine looks like pretty soon for it is strongly rumoured that Piot is bringing one over to enter the Circuit of Ireland at Easter-time.

One cannot allow a discourse on the Monte Carlo Rally to end without some reference to the Monegasque love of the rule book. Trivialities always seem to excite them far more than obvious breaches of the regulations. Last year, for instance, they insisted that the metal rally plates should be mounted vertically front and rear. This year, they did not seem to mind about this, but a great furore went up when one of the scrutineers reminded a competitor that advertising was permitted neither on his car nor on his person.

The result was a mad scramble to remove all traces of displays likely to be construed as advertising. Lucas lamp covers were turned inside out so that the firm’s name was not in sight, Dunlop tags were torn off overalls and covered up on jackets, and trade mark stickers were even peeled off the webbing of Britax competition harnesses. Purism had indeed gone mad.

Whether the A.C. de Monaco continues its efforts to imbue a modern rally with the traditions of the Great Winter Road Race will remain to be seen, but we do feel that it should radically change its style. Firstly, it could become a multi-route endurance run in which ultimate power would be of secondary importance. Secondly, it could abandon all its starting points and have a single base at Monte Carlo. If the former happened, it would undoubtedly lose its status as a European Championship rally, and we don’t think the organisers would relish that very much. If the latter, the tedious run-in would be removed and, after all, there were two fatalities on this rather unnecessary part of the event this year.

* * *

Following his outright win on the Rally, Vic Elford flew off to Daytona for the 24-hour race. With Jochen Neerpasch as co-driver, he won. He has a strong desire to devote more time to racing in the coming months—it will give him more time at home, among other things, for he will have fewer protracted reconnaissance trips—and it looks as if he is going to get his wish. But he still has at least one unfulfilled rallying ambition—to win the Tour of Corsica.—G. P.

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