Have you ever returned, many years after, to a place which you once knew well, which you liked immensely and which holds many dear memories for you? More often than not the experience is not a happy one and the anti-climax is so disappointing that you wish you hadn’t gone back. I once made the mistake of returning to an RAF station where I had some memorable times many years ago and the sight of the weed ridden apron, derelict hangar shells, crumbling dispersal huts, bare concrete slabs and sheep grazing on the once lovingly cared-for lawn above which the windsock used to flutter proudly made me sick with hiraeth and I vowed never to damager pleasant memories by making such a visit again.
It was very nearly the same with Monte Carlo this year. Once the mecca of motoring people the world over, Monte Carlo was the home of a fine motoring adventure, albeit to some no more than a somewhat risky way of journeying to winter sunshine on the Mediterranean. The Monte Carlo Rally, one a giant among its counterparts and the goal of every motor sporting aspirants, is sadly no longer on its pedestal and the atmosphere in Monaco at rally time this January was lacking so much in the vital sparkle it always had that it reminded us in a way of that visit to the derelict but once bustling operational airfield.
Monte Carlo is anything but derelict, of course, as is the rally, but for all its 168 starters this year the interest among professional teams has unquestionably declined. The reason is painfully obvious: the reactionary organisers still believe that the event is its own attraction and that it is so self-generative of publicity that nothing need be done to promote it. Alas, they are so wrong. Other rallies have long since passed the Monte both as providers of adventure as well as sport and many now quite rightly believe that other events, Safari and RAC in particular, are far better publicity catchers.
It is very interesting to be on the top rung of the ladder, but although it teaks effort to get there it takes an equal, if not greater, effort to remain there, and that is what seems to be missing. The organisers seem to think that because they were once the greatest, they will always be the greatest and that is a tremendous error of omission.
Of course, the organisers have plain, straightforward geography against them, for the South of France was once a very distant objective indeed for ay traveller, whereas now it can be as common a destination as Bognor, Redcar or Tenby. Lapland, Kenya, and Morocco, for instance, have far greater appeal to those who seek a little adventure and exotica mixed in with their rallying and the Monte Carlo organisers should try to meet these counter-attractions with some new ideas, particularly if they can reduce costs as well.
For the British, whose proud pound might just buy a beer in Monaco, the Monte Carlo Rally is very expensive, and this has a lot to do with the steady decline in the number of British entries to the present rock-bottom of 1977 when there wasn’t a single B plate to be seen.
There was on English person taking part, Yvonne Pratt who was co-driving Finnish girl Marketa Oksala in a French-entered Alpine-Renault A310 but even she rallied under a Kenyan competition licence.
Among the factories the main contenders were Lancia, Fiat and Opel, but the teams of Polski-Fiat, Skoda and Seat were also there, two cars from the latter team taking meritorious third and fourth places when only two cars of the first three teams hamed survived to the end of the Rally. Their Spanish drivers were Zanini and Canellas.
Opel, after what can only be described as a disastrous 1976, even though the efforts of privateers provided them with an inviable championship position behind Lancia, had an equally disastrous Monte. The Kadett of equally disastrous Monte. The Kadett of Nicholas retired with piston failure even before the end of the non-competitive concentration run, and the similar car of Röhrl after just a handful of stages when its cam followers broke up.
This left Lancia and Fiat, and although one cannot blame either team for issuing strict tactical instructions to their drivers (they are part of the same group after all) it did render the rally considerably less interesting.
Lancia was left with one car when Pinto’s Stratos broke its engine and Darniche was put out more forcibly when a non-competing car turned left immediately in front of him, right across its rapidly approaching bows. He was making a most expeditious departure from the town of Gap at the time, after a tyre change which took far longer than it should and which ate considerably into the Frenchman’s section time –hence the rush.
Of the Fiat drivers, both Italians, Verini and Bacchelli, retired after creditable performances, leaving the Finn Markku Alén in the works 131 Abarth and the Frenchman Jean-Claude Andruet in a similar car entered by Fiat, whose goal this year is the World Championship for Makes. Munari was fairly safe in the lead, but both Andruet and Alén were more or less evenly matched, with the latter perhaps just having the edge over the former.
However, it did seem that neither was to have a free rein, for after the half-way stop in the longest leg of the Rally (15 stages) Alén, who was ahead of Andruet, seemed to slow down. it was quite out of character, particularly as he appeared to be on good form, and when he was reported to have stopped for no apparent reason on at least two stages, his car still very healthy. One could only assure that he was driving under orders. When that leg ended, Alén was just one second head of Andruet, and when he began the final leg (nine stages) after a night stop and beat Andruet by four seconds on the first stage it didn’t seem to be appreciated by his team.
But on the second stage, the first of two passages over the famous Col du Turini, Alén’s Fiat stopped with what appeared to be a mysterious petrol problem and his rally was almost over. He coasted backwards down to the start, a procedure which was highly irregular and for which he was disqualified, but among the spectators at the start the Italians outnumbered the French and when they protested violently whilst chanting “Viva Markku” they had no chance but to let him go, nor he nay chance to do otherwise. But the mystery trouble struck again and he was left to find his own say back to Monte Carlo.
For Munari it was his fourth Monte win and the third in succession, the best performance ever recorded in that event. Fiat scored championship points for second place and were well satisfied and Seat were cockahoop with their third and fourth and will doubtless be seen oftener in the future. Opel will no doubt spend some time on further engine development before they reappear.
As for the event itself, all we need say in conclusion is that it would sadden us a great deal if it were to continue its downward trend. A revitalised Monte would work wonders for the sport and we trust that this is what will happen. – G.P.