Monte-Carlo Rally

Yorkshiremen would liken it to apple pie without the cheese, Welshmen to the Llanelli rugby posts without their sospan cappings, whilst Scots would probably mutter darkly about kilts without their sporrans. The latter are essential parts of the former. Separated, they become meaningless, and many will consider this to have been the fate of January’s Monte-Carlo Rally, its essence destroyed by the absence of that vital ingredient, snow.

In years long past, the object of what was a decidedly uncomfortable but challenging means of journeying to winter sunshine was merely to get there, and the absence of snow in those days would have been disastrous. But tyres, cars, and perhaps even those who drive them, have all improved tremendously since then, and just to get over the mountains is now no contest at all.

Special stages, rather than the overall journey, were employed to provide a winner and, alpine weather conditions being as changeable as they are, a whole new and complex technology has slowly evolved to provide competitors with the best possible equipment to deal with a stage that might be dry on the upslope, covered by snow on the sumrnit and completely iced over on the descent.

The vital piece of equipment, of course, is the tyre, and there are so many variables in size, compound, tread pattern and studding preferences that it is not at all easy to decide which combination is best for any particular stage. The choice is always the drivers’, but very often they don’t agree, and drivers in the same team, driving exactly the same type of car, may choose different tyres for the same stage.

During practice, drivers can only base their pace notes on the roads themselves, not what happens to be on their surfaces, so a team’s tyre stock must include every variable for every possible weather condition, and that is a headache for any team manager, especially as studs are best left to settle in their beds for some weeks before being put to use.

Every team engages ex-competitors, or those “unemployed” for this particular event, to act as advance scouts, providing competitors with road surface information as up-to-date as possible so that they may decide which tyres to use. These ice-note crews, as they are called, also mark precisely on the pace notes of their competitors the exact nature and location of every slippery patch. One icy bend on an otherwise dry special stage presents the greatest hazard of all if the driver doesn’t know about it in advance. The challenge of the unknown is no longer present, of course; on rallies such as this everything is planned, perfected precision, and that solitary ice patch receives red-ink prominence on the pace notes so that the driver can be warned in good time.

The prospect of a heavy snowfall must have been uppermost in Audi minds, for four-wheel-drive traction would have been of immense advantage on slippery, hilly, misty alpine roads. But it was largely dry, and many were able to predict with confidence that the winner would come from the Lancia team with their light, rear-engined, supercharged two-seaters. It was more like a Coupe des Alpes than a Monte-Carlo Rally, and power and handling became far more important than traction.

Although the entry list was numbered all the way to 262, the bulk was made up of privateers still keen to experience what is left of Monte-Carlo glamour. Works teams were not exactly numerous, Lancia having three cars in Martini colours, Opel three Asconas in Rothmans colours, Audi three Quattros, Renault one R5 Turbo and a supported second, and Nissan Europe one new 240RS.

There were new faces in new cars, of course, as usual on the first event of the year, and the Lancia squad was the multinational trio Röhrl, Alén and Andruet. It was Röhrl’s first event since returning to the Fiat group after winning the World Championship last year in an Opel Ascona. His newly acquired Marlboro sponsorship surprised many who thought that he was opposed to anything to do with cigarettes. He did resent carrying Rothmans insignia last year, but this was because they were backing his team, not him personally, and he was getting no financial advantage other than his Opel contract fees. This year, he gets these fees (probably higher than before) plus whatever he has managed to negotiate from Marlboro so he is more satisfied with the arrangement. He dislikes the sordid business of sponsorship, but he accepts it as a means of providing him with a very comfortable income. And as a very important bonus, he really likes the car he has to drive!

Opel’s trio were Vatanen, now having given up his loyalty to Ford throughout the period that they had no car for him to drive, Toivonen and Frequelin, the latter having moved from the Peugeot / Talbot stable. The three Quattros were driven by Mikkola, Mouton and Blomqvist, the lone Nissan 240RS by Salonen and two R5 Turbos by Ragnotti and Saby.

British privateers were few, Lord / Gormley in a Talbot, Newby / Parker in a Reliant Kitten, Price / Thomas in an R5 Turbo, Williams / Greenland in a Talbot and, as part of a cosmopolitan team of Alfasuds, the girls Louise Aitken / Ellen Morgan and Ruth Hillier / Mary Fullerton. The only British professionals taking part were the two Ulstermen Fred Gallagher and Terry Harryman, the former with Toivonen and the latter with Vatanen.

The style of the Monte-Carlo Rally has been unchanged for years, the organisers clinging to the original but now out-dated multi-start system which only had a point when the downward journeys were significant. This year the converging point was at Grenoble, where one would have expected some semblance of order at the spacious Alpexpo Centre, formerly the Winter Olympic Village. Instead there was a shambles as competitors, service vehicles and spectators all snarled up in chaos, causing delays and loss of valuable rest time before the evening restart.

The combined journey to Monaco that Sunday night was through six stages, the first over the Col du Granier, the second over the Chamrousse, the third over the mountain from Sechilienne, the fourth over the Col de Manse, just North of Gap, the fifth over the Col des Garcinets and the sixth starting at Entrevaux and ending with a trip down “The Chute” to Pont des Miolans.

After more rest in the daytime, the main chunk of the rally began late on the Monday night, with stages at Entrevaux, Laborel, Burzet, St. Bonnet-le-Froid, St. Jean-en-Royans, St. Barthélemy, Les Savoyons, Jabron and Les 4 Chemins, to name but some of the Monte classics.

Unlike the days when road sections were so tight that pace notes were necessary, the going nowadays is pretty slack, and journeys between stages were pretty boring. A necessary evil, unfortunately, because the organisers may only use stages which local authorities permit, and they are invariably few and far between.

After another rest from Wednesday afternoon to Thursday afternoon, the final night ran twice through a loop of five stages, the Col de la Madonne, the Col du Turini, the Col de la Couillole, the high road through Ascros from Puget-Theniers and the Col de la Porte.

After the shambles at the Grenoble control, which didn’t do much to inspire confidence in the organisation, came the three stages in the Grenoble area. All were topped by resorts at which skiers in their thousands had enjoyed the afternoon sunshine, but all the snow was on the slopes and there was hardly any at all on the roads, so well had they been salted.

But the Chamrousse stage began with a few kilometres of ice so thick that anyone taking slicks for the remaining dry part of the stage would risk losing grip, and time, on the initial slippery climb. Fiorio, competition executive of the Fiat Group, recalled the occasion some years ago when he set up a tyre change point at mid-stage of the Sanremo Rally’s Passo di Teglia, so that chunky tyres could be used for the rocky climb and undamaged studs for the snowy descent.

The same strategy was used on the Chamrousse, so that the Lancias had studded road tyres for the ice, then a full set of slicks for the dry tarmac which followed, but even this was not enough to prevent Blomqvist going into the lead after those six stages, ahead of Frequelin, Röhrl, Alén and Andruet. Mouton had trouble with her gearbox, whilst Mikkola had lost two minutes by spinning on the Col de Granier.

However, on the next leg all this was to change, and Röhrl wasted no time forging ahead on what he readily declares to be his favourite rally, in a car which was exactly to his liking. Indeed, he said that he had never before driven a car so perfectly set up, and after practising in a 240 b.h.p. version with carburettors he was delighted when he first drove the 320 b.h.p. fuel-injected car.

During the course of that leg, which crossed the Rhône into the Ardeche, Mouton hit a rock and damaged her Quattro so badly that there was no chance to continue, Toivonen demolished a wheel against a rock and Vatanen had a spot of valve trouble which was later cured by having the whole cylinder head changed, accomplished in well under an hour. Frequelin was actually the fastest Opel driver, but he later annulled all that good work by going off the road.

Alén had a spot of bother when too much oil was put into his supercharger compressor, and this entered the manifold and fouled the petrol, but it was quickly remedied. The Finn’s biggest regret was not having practised far longer, in order to polish up his notes rather more than he did. He made them originally two years ago in a Fiat 131, and things appeared quite different at the speeds of the Lancia Rally.

Team-mate Andruet lost a good 12 minutes on the road having his compressor changed, and as a precaution the compressor valves on the other cars were replaced. Loss of the compressor robbed Andruet of an amazing of 200 of his available b.h.p.

The supremacy of the Lancias brought no great surprises, but when the Quattros proved to be quicker than the Opels a few eyebrows were raised. Tarmac handling has obviously been one of the areas of improvement on which the Ingolstadt engineers have been concentrating, though whether the advantage will swing back again when Opel’s new Manta appears remains to be seen.

All over the main roads which the rally crossed at intervals huge tyre-laden trucks were often seen making their way to distribution points from which they could replenish the stocks of service cars. Pirelli seemed to have the edge, with a better variety than the others, including a multi-compound tyre with hard outer rubber to give better stud retention and a softer inner to provide grip. There were also thermal tyres which warmed up almost immediately even on very cold tarmac.

The long stop back at Monte-Carlo saw Röhrl with an advantage of some two and a half minutes over team-mme Alén. These two have always been deadly rivals, but on this occasion Alén admitted that there was little he could do to get to grips with Röhrl. Some said that Florio had made a clever choice of drivers, ensuring that they would always strive so hard to beat each other that they would probably beat all others on the way.

The final night attracted the greatest number of spectators, and as usual the police closed the roads much earlier than publicised, making things rather difficult for ice-note crews. But this meant that queues formed at the barriers, with nowhere to park out of harm’s way, and when competing cars came off the first stage of that night many were delayed by total road blockages. Mechanics even deserted their service cars to manhandle fuel, tyres, tools and whatever else was needed to wherever their precious charges were stuck, just as they had at St. Bonnet Le Froid on the previous leg when the whole village became clogged simply because the organisers had set up their control right at the junction with the main road rather than a hundred yards into the stage which would have allowed space for competitors to queue without hindering service and other traffic.

There were no heroics on that last night. both Röhrl and Alén choosing “safe” tyres rather than those which would bring a small risk. Blomqvist stuck to his third place, whilst Mikkola held his fourth despite anxiety over a crack at the base of the manifold, held closed by a rather clever clamping device made hurriedly by mechanics in true bushman style.

Vatanen, who admitted that he had not quite been on his customary form, took fifth place ahead of team-mate Toivonen, but Salonen was way down at 14th in his Nissan 240RS, partly due to a poor choice of tyres available from Dunlop Japan. The Renault Turbos didn’t perform as well as expected either, and Ragnotti’s seventh place was achieved with a time some 19 minutes greater than the leader’s.

Britain’s Chris Lord had crashed at Burzet when leading the special category tor cars with unstudded tyres no matter what the conditions, whilst John Price had rolled his R5 Turbo, going through the same experience again when the spectator giving him a lift to his service point did likewise. However, Louise Aitken and Ellen Morgan finished 48th overall and won the ladies’ category comfortable. — G.P.