A couple of years ago interest in the Monte-Carlo Rally was at a very low ebb, and if you took out the French there would have been few runners indeed. If you took out the Germans and the Italians as well, there would have been hardly anyone left at all. Even factory interest was low, and the winner was a privateer who decided to go it alone with his own backing, his own service arrangements and his own budget. He was an exceptionally good privateer of course, really a professional driver who for that particular rally could not get a contract to drive for a works team.
Two years have passed and the rally has picked up in two bounds. It is still run as it was throughout the ‘seventies, but it seems that more factory teams are considering that the prestige which still attaches to the event is worth the cost of taking part, and that more drivers are interested in it as the first round of the World Rally Championship for Drivers which was created for the first time in 1979.
The factories represented, directly, by dealer consortiums or by private teams with potential winners in their ranks, were those of Fiat, Lancia, Opel, Volkswagen, Mercedes, Porsche, Toyota, Talbot and Ford. The degree of representation varied, of course, from Fiat with a full-scale factory team to Ford with one potentially winning car of factory specification, driven by a professional and backed by a Monaco publicity company with no official factory support at all.
Between, there were all manner of variations, such as Toyota Germany (not the European team run by Ove Andersson) with two cars, various Porsche Carreras privately backed and prepared and the 924 Turbo driven by Porsche man Jurgen Barth as something of a long term development exercise; he also drove one in the Safari Rally last Easter.
Opel brought two of its new Ascona 400s driven by Kulläng and Kleint. It was the first outing for such cars and their reliability was a surprise for most people. Kulläng finished fourth and Kleint eighth.
Last Easter Mercedes made a half-hearted and unsuccessful attempt to conceal the factory origins of their massive operation on the Safari Rally. In December their equally substantial foray to the Ivory Coast was right out in the open, but in Monte-Carlo the three-car team (280 SLCs this time, not 5-litre 450 SLCs) was back under the covers, disguised as an entry by Scuderia Kassel, a team operated by a Mercedes dealer in Germany. That dealership is wholly owned by Mercedes itself!
The big cars were not at all suited to the event, but Swedish driver Ingvar Carlsson got one into eleventh place. The idea was obviously to gain experience, for not even Mercedes would have expected to be in the running for a win, and it could be that in a year or two they will turn up at Monte-Carlo with something more agile.
Ari Vatanen was the only Ford driver with any chance of doing well, but just as it seemed that he was making a bid his Escort hit a pool of water on a bridge, crashed through the stone parapet and pirouetted vertically downwards to land on its boot on rocks in the river below. Neither Vatanen nor his co-driver was injured, but the car was a sorry mess.
Hannu Mikkola, another professional making a bid on his own with private backing, found his Porsche Carrera’s handling vastly different to the Escort which he has been driving for some time, and took a while to get used to it. Being tail heavy it could not be swung sideways as much as an Escort without spinning around completely, but Mikkola gradually got the hang of the car, started making respectable stage times only to come to a premature stop with a broken drive shaft coupling.
People sometimes refer to the Monte as the rally of the tyres. They should really always refer to it as such, for we know of no other event in which the choice of tyre is so critical.
Special stages often begin on dry tarmac, climb above the snow line then descend to dry tarmac again. Between, there can be wet tarmac, sheet ice, black ice, packed snow, fresh snow, slush or even deep ruts worn into frozen snow or slush. These variations in surface conditions demand careful thought before selecting tyres which are going to be the best for the condition which is most encountered, yet not too had for the various other conditions.
If a stage is predominantly snow-covered yet begins with a mile or two of dry tarmac, there is a very real danger that the vital studs which will provide grip on the snow will be damaged, dislodged or even ripped out if the car is driven too hard on the initial tarmac. It therefore pays sometimes not to be too harsh in the beginning so that studs will still remain to provide grip on the snow ahead.
It’s all very well to say that everything depends on the correct choice of tyre/stud combinations for the conditions, but it is first necessary to determine what those conditions are, and that is where ice-note crews come in.
Every team with hopes of doing well must, in addition to having enough service vehicles to leap-frog around the route to cover every likely place and provide a selection of tyres for every one of their drivers before every stage, have a separate group of cars to be driven ahead of the rally report back on conditions.
These cars are, or at least should be, crewed by former Monte-Carlo competitors who know the terrain, have experience of all the conditions likely to be encountered, and are familiar with the pace-note systems used by drivers in the team and how the various conditions should be added to them.
Armed with copies of each competitor’s pace-notes they drive over each stage, marking in the notes by a system of underlining each place where they find snow, ice, water, etc. If an entire stage is covered by packed snow then the job is easy, but patches must be marked with absolute accuracy, even down to precisely locating the patch on the left or right, on the braking point for a corner, the apex, or the exit from it.
The ice-note crews travel over the stages as late as posssible so that their information is the most recent, but not so late as to run into the official road closure time, and always so that they have time to return to the stage start and mark all the notes ready for presentation to the competitors when they arrive. If there is time, they wait to discuss road conditions personally with the competitors, but if they must move on to the next stage they leave the completed notes with the team manager or senior mechanic on the spot.
From these notes drivers decide which tyres they will use, but it often happens of course that a sudden snowfall changes everything after the ice-note crews have been over a stage, and this possibility must also be taken into account. Drivers use their own judgement in this respect, and often ask for outside temperatures to be taken by ice-note men as they drive through the stages.
This year, the Monte-Carlo Rally was one of the most difficult as far as tyre choice was concerned. Varying conditions were found on nearly all the stages, and the rapidly changing weather was such that much of the information supplied by ice-note crews became out-of-date in minutes, leaving competitors to ponder about how much snow would have fallen, or by how much the temperature had dropped.
Service points before Monte-Carlo special stages are invariably scenes of great activity, with piles of tyres laid out in readiness for the drivers to choose and mechanics hovering ready to fit the new wheels as quickly as possible. After one or two such wheel changes, the service cars usually make a rendezvous with a tyre truck so that they can off load their used stock and take on new ones. The tyre mechanics then have to replace the worn tyres on the wheels so that the same exchange can be done at the next rendezvous, and so on.
It is by no means easy work and the spare time is very little indeed. It is therefore of vital importance that tyre companies which provide such service on the Monte have adequate stocks, enough vehicles to transport them and enough staff to keep the replacement procedure up to date.
The three main companies servicing this year were Kleber, Michelin and Pirelli. Kleber had comparatively few runners, whilst Pirelli had quite a number and Michelin, as most of the entrants were French, the greatest number. Pirelli’s resources were enough to handle the work load, but Michelin, alas, overstretched themselves by having too many customers for the stock and manpower they had available.
There were scenes of frustration and annoyance when competitors’ mechanics arrived to collect new stock from Michelin trucks only to find that they had not been fitted to wheels. Naturally time was short, and in many cases drivers had to depart for special stages with tyres which they considered were far too worn for optimum efficiency, or perhaps of the wrong type altogether.
Per Eklund, the Swedish driver who did amazingly well to get his Volkswagen Golf up to second place, only losing it again when a drive shaft broke, had to put up with the rather slow work of the inexperienced mechanics, and with having precious few tyres indeed. At service points he had to rummage through stocks on the roofs of service cars to find the best of all the worn ones, and if he found more than he needed he would throw them into the back of his Golf just in case there would be none available at his next meeting with another service car.
Eklund’s tenacity was amazing, more in keeping with someone used to events like the Safari and the Morocco rallies than the Monte. He kept fighting through all manner of adversities, even keeping a few extra spare parts in his car, and in this respect he was fortunate. When his drive shaft broke, he was able to stop and replace it with one which he was carrying with him.
One cannot end without saying something of the character of Walter Röhrl, undoubtedly the finest rally driver to come out of Germany. In 1972, as an unknown privateer, he amazed everyone by taking his Capri to second place before retiring with a blown engine. He came to others’ notice as well as our own, and after a while he was driving for the Opel team, later to move on to Fiat.
Quiet, reserved and withdrawn almost to the point of shyness, he hates fuss and publicity, and invariably during the rest stops at Monte-Carlo he would spend most of the time in his room. Indeed, when he saw that he was in a commanding position with a healthy lead over the second man, he began worrying about how he would cope with the publicity and ceremony of winning. In fact, this was probably his biggest concern throughout the event.
We have known him for some eight years and he has always been polite and friendly whenever we have seen him engaged in conversation, even with strangers, but he is a devout pessimist and invariably thinks about what is going wrong before he thinks about what is going right.
Röhrl’s win on the Monte may convince him that he should have a determined crack at the world title in 1980. but a lot will depend on whether Fiat will agree to provide him with a car for the events which are not on their planned programme. The results of the next few events, in Sweden in February and Portugal in March will undoubtedly have a bearing on this. — G.P.