Rally review - The Monte-Carlo Rally, March 1979

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Last November the Lancia Stratos was said to be making its final official appearance in rallying, and indeed when the Fiat Group announced its team for January’s Monte-Carlo Rally there was no sign of a Lancia in the list. But in France a gentleman called André Chardonnet, who imports Lancias, derives considerable business and publicity from the successful exploits of Bernard Darniche and Alain Mahé in a Stratos finished in French Racing Blue, and he was certainly not going to switch makes merely to follow Turin policy. After all, Fiat and Lancia may have become one organisation in Italy, but their importers in France are still separate, and M. Chardonnet does not import Fiats.

It might have been with a mixture of concern, surprise and relief (the latter because Ford lost what looked like certain victory by a handful of seconds) that the Italians viewed Darniche’s achievement in his Chardonnet Stratos, After no more than a reasonable performance throughout most of the event, he utilised some new found power on the last night, happened to choose precisely the right kind of tyres and took huge chunks of time off everyone on every stage, finally winning by six seconds. Actually, there was a little more to it than that, but one thing at a time.

Having stopped rallying with the Stratos, several such cars are now surplus to requirements at the Fiat workshops, and with beams of success on his face Chardonnet made approaches to Fiat concerning the acquisition of a second car for his own team. It is very likely that this will happen, and if so it’s equally likely that he will consider entering Darniche in rather more rallies than he had at first planned. The diminutive Frenchman is a fine, versatile driver, so if he appears in future rounds of the World Championship he could turn out to be the cat among the pigeons.

But if pigeons lack ferocity, the works teams of Ford and Fiat do not, and before the Monte-Carlo Rally started all expectations were that the winner would come from one of these camps. There were other teams, of course, including two Renault 5 Alpines from the factory, a lone Opel Kadett entered by the Dutch dealers and several private Porsches, including that of 1978 winner Jean-Pierre Nicolas who had again “rented” a Carrera from the Almeras brothers, but the main protagonists were Ford and Fiat.

A year ago Escorts were considered the best cars for loose surfaces and Fiat 131s for tarmac, but gradually the balance levelled until there was little to choose between them on either surface. For Monte-Carlo Ford tipped the scales a little the other way, for suspension improvements and more work on engines resulted in the quickest and best handling tarmac cars ever to come out of Boreham, with some 270 b.h.p. available. Fiat, on the other hand, said that they had slightly reduced the power of their 131 Abarths in order that there would be no excess of unusable power on snow-covered roads.

As it happened, the roads were predominantly snow-free and from the word go there was no doubt that the two Escorts of Hannu Mikkola and Björn Waldegard had the edge over all the others. Before the rally there had been very heavy snowfalls, but rain only a day or so before the start, and a rise in temperature, got rid of most of it even though the verges were still walled with ploughed, packed snow.

Tyres always play a vital part in the Monte-Carlo Rally. For completely snow-covered roads it is not at all difficult to choose the right tyres, nor is it for roads which are snow-free, but the mountain passes used as special stages during the Monte invariably run from tarmac up to snow and ice and then down to tarmac again. The problem here is to decide whether to use studded tyres for the snow, racing tyres for the tarmac, or one of many compromise types of tyre to cope with everything. Much of this choosing is based on sound, experienced technology and common sense, but some of it is down to personal preference, not quite like the angler who has his own very special flies for certain waters and certain fish, but approaching it.

Tread patterns, rubber compounds, sizes and the number, shape and size of studs all come into the decision, and although there are now strict rules limiting tyre studding (the days of chisels and porcupines are long gone) there are still enough variations available to demand careful thought before making a final choice. Much depends on this choice, for the best driver in the best car will throw everything away if he makes a bad tyre choice, which is why professional teams always employ non-competing competitors to man leap-frogging advance reconnaissance cars to note surface conditions on the special stages so that drivers will have as much up-to-date information as possible to help them make their choice.

Most of the time, certainly throughout the first (five stages) and second (15 stages) legs of the rally the Ford drivers made precisely the right tyre choice. It was raining most of the time, so slicks were right out of the lists of possibilities. The two Fords forged ahead of the Fiats, but Darniche was rather further behind than one would have expected from bad tyre choice alone and he later explained this by saying that the car was the slowest Stratos he had ever driven. It was unaccountably down on power and the mechanics were unable to find the cause.

Mikkola took the lead in the first leg and kept it through most of the second, despite twice having to change leaking water pumps, but two stages from the end he collected a puncture and team-mate Waldegard moved ahead. However, Escorts still held first and second places and the Ford team was delighted. But that evening a bulletin found its way on to the official notice board declaring that because a policeman in the Digne district considered that Mikkola had “overtaken dangerously some time between noon and 3 p.m. that day” the organisers were applying a penalty of five minutes, dropping the Finnish driver to fifth place. There was no actual evidence of any specific offence, merely an opinion, and the organisers took the action without even giving Mikkola a chance to speak in answer to the allegation. It was a high-handed piece of pseudo-judiciary from which the socalled sporting commissioners would not climb down, presumably lest they should lose face by reversing a decision.

As aloof as ever, they were not even prepared at first to grant audience to Mikkola and his team manager Peter Ashcroft, but eventually they allowed them to enter the inner sanctum, heard what they had to say and promptly confirmed that the five-minute penalty was there to stay. Of course, the regulations do provide for penalties for breaches of traffic law, but that is not to say that allegations of such breaches need not be proved. Mikkola could not remember any dangerous overtaking whatsoever; indeed, the only passing he could recall was when his own service car pulled over to allow him to get by.

The last night of the Monte-Carlo Rally is something of an institution. It comes after a break of more than 24 hours, takes up the whole of the Thursday night and loops and reloops through the stages several times over, the most famous of these being the Col du Turini over which it passed three times. Spectators take to the Alpcs Maritimes in vast convoys and there is a sizeable invasion from over the Italian border to provide pretty fierce vocal and gesticulatory rivalry, not to mention the constant barrage of snowballs from one side of the road to the other. What is more, hundreds of these spectators arrive armed with shovels, and although the roads were nearly snow-free in the afternoon they certainly weren’t by the time the rally made its first crossing.

Ford began the night with Waldegard holding a lead of more than four minutes over Alen’s Fiat, and Darniche nearly another two and a half more minutes behind in sixth place. Over the Fiat the lead was comfortable but not, of course, decisive, whilst the possibility of Darniche becoming a challenger for the lead was very remote indeed. But whereas Ford had made the right tyre choices until then, they were much less right on that final night and they were being beaten sometimes by the Fiats, sometimes by Nicolas’ Porsche and always by Darniche.

Apart from the shovelled snow on the tops of the passes the roads were dry and Darniche chose to run on slicks, making up on the dry climbs and descents what he lost by being very cautious indeed on the summits. The Fords were quicker over the snowy bits, but they lost out by having less grip on the dry tarmac. Furthermore, Darniche had finally found the power which had eluded him so far, presumably by a complete carburetter assembly replacement, and he made best time on all ten stages that night. More important, not only was he overhauling those ahead of him but he was getting perilously close to Waldegard’s heels.

With two stages to go Waldegard’s lead was a minute and a half, too much for even Darniche to make up in the distance available. But one of the great Monte mysteries (and there are many of them) cropped up again. Rounding a left-hander on the limit of adhesion, Waldegard was confronted by a boulder placed strategically just left of road centre. He jerked a little extra lock and managed to avoid the obstruction, but it left him off line and he was quite unable to miss a second boulder some yards further on, this time just right of road centre. The car hit the boulder, mounted it and stopped. Very smartly the two Swedes jumped out and freed the car but they lost at least half a minute in the process and by the time that stage was over Darniche was just 15 seconds behind them.

How the stones got there will remain a mystery. There were no slopes at that spot down which they could have rolled, and there were no spectators. Similar, in fact, to the incident in the sixties when Miikinen’s Mini came to a sudden stop against a large rock which unaccountably appeared in the road.

The incident had a demoralising effect on Waldegard. He wanted very much to win the Monte for the third time, but he wanted victory for his team even more. Not only is he a fine driver but he is an honest, forthright and loyal one, and he knew only too well what a Monte win would mean for the British team. But he also knew that Darniche’s rate of climb up the leader board would put him in the lead after that last stage, so rather than risk losing even second place by a mishap he drove fractionally below his limit on the one stage which remained.

But unknown to him Darniche had, for some reason, chosen lightly studded tyres for the last stage and was appreciably slower as a result. His time was just 21 seconds less than Waldegard’s and he won the rally by only six seconds. Pondering on this, Waldegard wondered whether, if he had pulled out all the stops, he could have improved his time by six seconds or even more. But he will never know the answer to that one, and the 1979 Monte will probably go down in his memory as one of the great near-misses of his life.

The excitement of that last night, following the surprise domination of the Escorts, overshadowed whatever contest there might have materialised in the hypothetical “class” for front-wheel-drive cars. Ford sent two Fiestas for Roger Clark and Ari Vatanen, Fiat two Ritmos for Attilio Bettega and Per Eklund, Renault two R5 Alpines for Jean Ragnotti and Guy Frequelin, the two drivers who finished second and third in such cars the year before, and there were various Golfs, Citroens and the like in the field.

The two Fiestas were troubled by driveshaft and valve failure respectively, although both finished creditably high; Bettega put his Ritmo off the road and broke its radiator whilst Eklund had a water loss which flooded and destroyed his ignition. Ragnotti was in pain after a practice accident which left Frequelin the best f.w.d. driver, taking eighth place in his R5, some six minutes ahead of Vatanen who was tenth.

A point worth mentioning concerns the manner in which Anders Kulläng collected three punctures in the very first stage of the rally, being delayed more than his maximum. At one time it was considered folly to go rallying on tubeless tyres, but as cars became more powerful the torque exerted on the wheels worked against the tyre/road resistance on high friction surfaces, with the result that wheels often swivelled inside their tyres, snapping the valve stems. Tubeless tyres were then revived, and their bead/rim seals are nowadays man enough for most forms of violent treatment on special stages. But Kulläng’s Kadett was entered by the Dutch Opel dealers who had contracted with Michelin. When Kulläng arrived at the rally converging point at Vals-les-Bains he found that the tyres all had tubes, and the result was precisely as we have described.

There is still much to see at, and to learn from, the Monte-Carlo Rally, but its organisation is stubbornly over-traditional, far too aloof and content to sit back on past laurels. Nevertheless, there is a magic about the Turini, a tense excitement which is unique and which, for all the organisers’ impassiveness, impassioned spectators will never allow to diminish. – G. P.