Rally review: Monte Carlo Rally, March 1972

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People can be as wise as they like about boring concentration runs (true), high costs (true), repetition of route (true) and the like, but when it comes to the crunch it’s no mean task to be successful in the Monte Carlo Rally. Indeed, this year it was an achievement even to finish. Over the years the event’s reputation has fluctuated like a barometer, but its loss of popularity among British competitors is not because it has taken a sudden drop. On the contrary, if anything the event has improved; it’s just that others have also improved whilst others have sprung up to catch the competitor’s eye more readily than the Monte does. Furthermore, the old Monte Carlo principle of selecting competitors rather than attracting them dies hard, and when it is faced with competition from rallies which set out to woo prospective entrants it comes out the loser.

Although British entrants could be counted this year on one set of fingers, privateers from France and Germany, with Italy a close third, came out in droves; there were so many unknown names in the list that a query was raised as to whether some of them really qualified for their competition licences. Obviously the Monte still means something on the Continent where young and financially well-placed rally drivers regard it as the highlight of their year.

Even competitive likes have changed. The advent of forest rallying in Britain has given drivers a taste for loose-surfaced roads, and those who still prefer smooth tarmac, whether it be snow-covered or not, appear to be in the minority. Therein lies another reason for the low number of British starters not only this year but in other recent years— the graph really took a dive in 1967 when currency restrictions put a curb on overseas spending.

Of all the World’s rallies the Monte is the one in which the sheer professional determination to win is most evident among factory teams. To the car manufacturer, winning the Monte Carlo Rally still really means something, but to have any chance at all the effort in terms of time, equipment, manpower and all that these things cost is enormous. Some teams have weighed the outlay against the chances of success and have decided, reluctantly perhaps, that it really isn’t worth it.

Saab, for instance, has little chance in the power races up the Alps against the Group 4 “racing cars” of Porsche and Alpine. Ford, even with its 200+-b.h.p. 16-valve Escorts, is of the same mind, although two cars were sent from Boreham this year in order to contest the Touring Car category—with success. On the other hand, the victory by the 1.6-litre Lancia could not possibly have been predicted, for the Alpines, though only fractionally bigger in engine size (1,598 c.c. compared with 1,584), are much lighter cars and the Porsches have nearly 2.5-litres at their disposal.

Fast, reliable cars and expert crews to drive them are obvious pre-requisites for success, but something else is required for the Monte; to be on the right tyres at the right time. Indeed, the present-day Rallye Monte Carlo would be more appropriately called the Rallye des Pneus. The biggest single item which can spell success or failure is the bit of rubber connecting the car to the road surface and to make sure that the right choice is made, whenever and wherever a choice is appropriate, a vast and complex service network has to be set up.

This year the road sections were none too easy and some teams even had their ice-note crews record conditions on the tighter road sections. The two tests in the Ardeche region, one from Le Moulinon and one making a loop around Burzet, provided an ice-noter’s nightmare; after all the recce cars had been over—the last man was probably Jeremy Ferguson of Dunlop—and had decided on racing tyres for the dry roads, it started to snow quite heavily in the hills, out of sight of those waiting below. Of course, during the special stage cars were slithering all over the place and the two tests caused quite some changes to the results.

Tyre sizes, rubber compounds, tread patterns, stud types, stud patterns and the number of studs all come into the question of choosing the right tyre. In the main, some eight or so variations are pre-selected before the rally, after crews have had the opportunity of trying out various kinds in practice, and these are then distributed to strategic points throughout the Alps. In case any changes are necessary, tyre trucks are always around with studding equipment, but everyone hopes that such last-minute tactics will not be necessary. Of course, each team makes its own plans, the whole exercise resembling more of a military operation than a rally, and when some half-a-dozen tyre dumps are established in the same village, the sight really has to be seen to be believed.

Perhaps I have dwelt on background information for too long but these are matters which characterise the rally nowadays, turning it into a contest of strategy as well as one of skill on the road. Besides, the cold facts have already been well aired in weekly and other publications. The Alpine team, hoping for a repetition of their 1971 win, didn’t have much luck at all, for those cars which didn’t leave the road suffered gearbox trouble. Ove Andersson, who led for some time after Björn Waldegard’s Porsche (on the wrong tyres) slithered off the road and damaged a suspension unit, was among those who began losing gears, and on the last night of the rally he had to turn back to Monte Carlo, his Alpine being propelled only by 5th.

For the Lancia team it was a victory which came none too soon, for since the RAC Rally of 1970 they haven’t enjoyed too many successes. There has been talk of a curtailment of competition activities in this camp, but since the company has a sporting image to maintain no doubt the HF Squadra Corse will remain for quite some time. What is more, Pirelli supplies tyres to both Lancia and Fiat, and that company regards rallying as an extremely important extension of its testing and development department.

Sandro Munari’s victory was not hailed by the Italian press in quite the demonstrative way we expected. He is by far the best rally driver in his country, but his quiet, reserved manner has not really made for the recognition which he deserves—outside Italy, that is. By those who don’t know him well enough he has been seriously under-rated. I once had the pleasure of being his co-driver—in the RAC Rally of 1968—and can vouch for the fact that his talent is of an extremely high order.

Before the Monte Carlo Rally there was talk that it would be the last, costs having risen to beyond the means even of the AC de Monaco. But this was not at all evident from talks which I had with Claude Fin when we were both in Lapland for the Tunturiralli. He assured me that the rally would be held in its customary form, almost certainly with a special stage at the end of the concentration run so that there would at least be some kind of valid classification after the first arrival at Monte Carlo. This was done in the 1971 event, but there were complaints of baulking because cars had not been sent off from the converging point in their seeded numerical order; they were running in starting-place groups.

This year such a test was again planned, but was cancelled owing to lack of police availability in the area (the Col de Perty) on that particular Monday morning. The same col is envisaged for the first test in 1973, but it would be welcomed by everyone if the organisers so arranged the time schedules from the various starting points that cars could leave the converging point in numerical order and thus tackle the test when properly seeded.

The double-edged problem which the event’s organisers really have to face is the one concerning tyres. The cost of mounting a service network adequate for all tyre requirements is enormous and could well deter factory teams and those sponsoring companies providing backing for factories which would otherwise give the event a miss—this year Ford had Pepsi-Cola for one car and BP-France for another, whilst the two Porsches were financed by Shell and some Scandinavian concerns. That represents one edge; the other is the question of how long privateers will continue to take part when faced with no chance whatsoever of success against the might of professional resources. Blunt the first and the second could well lose its cutting power automatically.

In 1967 the organisers attempted to do something about the tyre problem (which was evident even then) by providing a handicap for every competitor using an unlimited supply of tyres. If only eight tyres were used per car, per leg (there are three legs in the rally) the handicap would not be applied. Alas, it resulted in hair-raising scenes as high-powered cars slithered around the Alps on tyres from which the studs had been ripped away, on bald tyres, and even on those which were so badly punctured that they had to be stuffed with grass to keep them on the wheel.—G. P.

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