Rally review - Rallies in the snow, March 1978

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The Monte-Carlo Rally

No rally can be said to have a foreseeable outcome, Although some are less predictable than others. He would be a fool who would wager a great deal on the result of the Safari, for instance, or on any event which does not have stable road and weather conditions which can be appraised, more or less, in advance. The Monte-Carlo Rally, even though it is run on tarmac, snow and ice, isn’t really one of the weather-tied events in which anything can happen, and invariably it has been one of the favourites who has won. Until 1978, that is.

No one will deny that for years the Monte has been a rally of surprises, but this year the surprise was quite staggering, for the winner was a private driver who scraped together his own financial backing to enable him to rent a car, lay in a stock of tyres and gather together a group of friends who served as service crews. Jean-Pierre Nicolas, the jovial Frenchman from Marseille, is no amateur, for he has driven most successfully for several works teams and has demonstrated his versatility in a variety of cars and on terrain varying from smooth Alpine asphalt to the arid, rocky scrub deserts of Southern Morocco.

But on this occasion he was without a works car, for the factory teams taking part in the rally were precious few. Other drivers, used to signing their contracts and getting on with testing, practice and the rally itself with an entourage of experienced staff to get on with all the other jobs, would have left the event well alone, preferring not to step down the ladder to the rungs of the privateers. Nicolas was by no means that proud. He wanted to drive in the Monte-Carlo Rally and if the only was was as a privateer, then as a privateer it would be.

He was well rewarded for his efforts, for with co-driver Vincent Laverne he drove his well-rallied Porsche Carrera to a fine victory, confounding the might of Fiat/Lancia who expected to have a runaway win, and delighting his sponsors and helpers, not to mention the Almeras Brothers from whom he had rented the car.

But this was not the only Surprising result of the rally. After the first competitive day of five special stages, right up front in first and second places were two diminutive Renault 5 Alpines from the factory’s Dieppe competitions department. Was the clock being turned back ? Were we returning to the giant-killing days of the ‘sixties when BMC’s Minis were conquering all ? It seemed like it, for although Nicolas got ahead of the two Renaults they eventually took second and third places against cars of far greater power, driven by Jean Ragnotti and Guy Frequelin.

Renault Sport, born of Alpine, fed by Gordon and now completely under the parental wing of Renault itself, was overjoyed by the result. The team had come along expecting no more than a class win, and to be second and third was more than they had hoped for. The encouragement will probably not increase their rallying :programme for 1978, and after .Monte-Carlo the team is concentrating entirely on its Le Mans effort. Only after that race is over will they start rallying again.

The reason for the unexpected Monte result was undoubtedly the weather. There was more snow in the Alps this year than for many years and in most cases power was no more than an embarrassment. If it couldn’t be put on the ground then it served only to spin a car and cause it to slither into snowbanks.

As we said, works teams were precious few. Fiat/Lancia brought four Fiat Abarths and two Stratos, and in that sextet lay what everyone expected to provide the rally leaders at the end. So scant was the opposition that the Italian team was almost in a position, theoretically at least, to decide in advance who should win and who should be runners-up.

Ranged against the Italians were Opel with three Group One Kadetts, Renault with two R5s, Volkswagen with two diesel Golfs and Citroen, supporting the private team of Esso-Aseptogyl with three CX diesels driven by lady crews.

The sure-footed Renaults went quickly through the snow, whereas the Fiats and Lancias were slithering helplessly much of the time, whilst Nicolas simply used his head and lifted off whenever he thought that his power would send him sliding. Much of the problem with Fiat/Lancia was in the tyre department. Pirelli was using new tyres, studded on one side and not the other, and even with two different tread patterns, but they didn’t work. Stud retention was not at all good, and when a stage started on tarmac the heat build-up and the vicious cornering forces would either throw out the studs altogether or, at best, displace them to one side so that when cars got to the snow there were little or no vital stud heads left in their proper positions to give the required grip.

All manner of varying combinations were tried, and carefully laid tyre transportation plans were east aside in the confusion. Even the stock of tyres car-marked for the Swedish Rally was broken into with little effect, although a small increase in tyre pressures did help a little to retain the studs. Sandro Munari, already four times a Monte winner, was favourite this year but he went out in the very early stages with a mysterious engine failure after enduring a broken throttle cable and makeshift control via a temporary cable operated by co-driver Piero Sodano. Undoubtedly the best driver of the Italian team was the German driver Walter Rohrl. At one time he was in second place, but he was beset by problems in addition to his loss of grip, suffered electrical failure and was once held up by a team-mate who had got his car wedged between the snowbanks.

What began as an uninspiring rally with dull prospects became interesting by dint of unexpected performances. Although the entry list was very healthy, most were merely seeking the glamour which the rally used to have. Much of the old atmosphere of MonteCarlo was gone, and even the police, at one time very tolerant with their polite windscreen notices to parking offenders, have resorted to on-the-spot fines and wickedly-spiked wheel anchors.—G.P.

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