Monte Carlo Rally

A routine expedition

A man's achievements have grown, and his machines become more advanced, many of what were once difficult, strenuous challenges are now considered no more than routine. Journeying by road to the south of France in winter, via the Alps, was once a risky undertaking indeed. The Monte Carlo Rally was a venture not for the faint-hearted, and those well-wrapped ladies and gentlemen who packed their chains, snow shovels, evening wear and roulette systems into immaculate automobiles each January basked in glamorous limelight.

In those days, getting there was an exploit in itself. Indeed, that was the main part of the competition, and what followed were no more than supplementary contests. It was an uncomfortable, even perilous way of getting to Mediterranean sunshine whilst countries to the north shivered in their winters. Today, those concentration runs, as they are now called, have virtually no significance except to maintain a tradition. There have been cries to eliminate them altogether, and to have the rally start and finish in the Principality itself, but that would be a sad departure — almost as bad as the occasions when, in its later years, Britain's London Rally started and finished at Manchester!

As the concentration routes became less important, critics of the rally called for some means of injecting an element of competition into what had become a boring prelude to the main part of the rally, so that there would be some kind of significant classification when the cars arrived at Monaco. What was then introduced was a handful of special stages built into the final part of the concentration, so that a leader-board could be produced.

Today, those classification tests have expanded, and what happens now is that no-one actually arrives in Monaco until the day before the final leg, the Mountain circuit as it was popularly called, and this cannot have found much favour among the Principality's hoteliers and restaurateurs.

The Concentration Runs used to take from Saturday to Monday, and it was always quite an occasion as crews moved along the rows of tents on the quayside completing their documentation and scrutineering and arranging transport to hotels where they hoped to meet up with their luggage. Castrol used to organise baggage transport for British crews, and very well they did it, too, somehow managing to get every suitcase to the correct hotel.

The main part of the rally, the Common Run, took from Tuesday morning to late on Wednesday (without a night stop), whilst the final leg lasted from the Thursday afternoon to early on the Friday morning.

All that has now gone. From the five starting points at Barcelona, Bad Homburg, Monte Carlo, Lausanne and Sestriere (others such as Glasgow, Oslo and Warsaw have long ceased to figure), crews converged this year at St Etienne near Lyon in the small hours of the Sunday morning, from which they set out nine hours later for the four special stages of what is called the Classification Run. A full night's rest followed, after which came the Monday and Tuesday of the Common Run, its ten special stages divided by yet another night stop.

The Monte Carlo arrival was not until late on the Tuesday afternoon, after which the final leg stretched from 1am on the Wednesday to 9am on the Thursday, divided by a two-and-a-half-hour stop at Monaco. If you were a private entrant on a tight budget, and planned to leave Monaco as soon as the rally was over, you need only have spent one night in a Monaco hotel; quite a change from years past when the sojourn there used to span the best part of a week.

This year's rally was marred by a tragic and ironic accident which claimed the lives of a well-known driver and co-driver who were not themselves competing in the rally. Making ice-notes for the Swedish driver Fredrik Skoghag were his fellow countrymen Lars-Erik Torph and Bertil Rehnfeldt, and after they had completed their discussions with the crew before the start of the fifth stage at Chateau de Boulogne, the first on the Tuesday morning, they had some time to spare so they went into the stage to watch.

On a piece of road which was not particularly twisty, Alessandro Fiorio's Lancia Delta went off the road and down a bank. hitting the two Swedes and three other spectators. Torph was killed instantly, and Rehnfeldt died later in hospital. Of the others, one sustained serious abdominal injuries and two were only slightly hurt.

Twenty-seven-year-old Torph had been a Toyota driver, and indeed had scored second and third places in the Safari and was planning to go to Kenya after the Monte to begin his practice for this year's event, in which he was to have driven a works Volkswagen. Rehnfeldt, aged 52, had many years of rallying behind him, and had been Bo Ljungfeldt's co-driver in the 1963 Monte Carlo Rally when they made the best time in their Ford Falcon but were not winners due to the handicap system in force at the time.

It was Fiorio's second accident of the rally, for on the very first special stage he had taken to an escape road and injured two spectators who should not have been in that position. Neither Fiorio nor his co-driver Pirollo was injured in the second accident, but their car was wrecked and they both suffered severe shock.

On the subject of spectators, FISA chairman Jean-Marie Balestre said later at a Press conference that the Monte Carlo Rally had the best record for spectator behaviour and control, but this is not true at all. Snowshovelling, particularly on the Col de Turini during the final night, has been a common spectator practice for as long as we can remember, whilst fights and missile-throwing amongst rival supporters have frequently taken place, particularly between French and Italian contingents.

Other events with bad spectator-safety records, notably the Portuguese Rally, have improved tremendously in the past two years, but the Monte Carlo Rally seems to have gone the opposite way.

It was always Portugal which was considered to be the event in which spectators were most foolhardy, lining the very edge of the road; sometimes even filling it completely and jumping to one side at the last possible moment before a car arrived. Things are now not at all as bad in Portugal, but the very same sort of behaviour is now not uncommon during the Monte Carlo Rally. This year many of the stages were thronged, and it was noticed quite often that people wanted to get as close as possible to the cars without actually touching them. More than one competitor complained of being unable to see the exit road from a junction because it was crammed with people.

The popular conception of the Monte Carlo Rally is one of a constant battle with snow and ice, but that is not the case at all. Only the highest passes usually have such conditions, whereas roads at lower altitudes are generally clear. The weather is as unpredictable in the Alps as it is anywhere, and there have been some Montes run entirely on snow and ice, and others on completely dry roads.

This year it did not seem that there would be much snow at all, for during their practice competitors found very little indeed. However, just a day before the start it began snowing in the Haute Loire region where the first stage was held around the loop starting and finishing at St Bonnet le Froid. Perhaps it would be a snowy event after all, and recce crews were kept busy making trips over the stages, noting surface conditions and temperatures.

But that first stage was the only one with any appreciable snow. The others were predominantly dry, although patches of ice. slush or frozen slush here and there made the job of competitors' ice-note crews very important indeed, and tyre choice extremely critical. When a special stage is dry in parts and icy in others, the studded tyres necessary for the latter condition may not be able to survive the harsh treatment of braking, accelerating and cornering on the former. Studs which have become dislodged and moved over at an angle are worse than no studs at all, and it is often the best plan for a mixed surface stage to use dry tarmac tyres and ease off when approaching icy patches. This is where the work of the ice-notes crews becomes really important, for it is vital that a competitor knows in advance where to expect the ice, and whether it is on the approach to, departure from, or the apex of a corner.

Such costly and manpower-consuming team support may not be in the spirit of adventure into the unknown, to which rallying owes its origins, but when a team is all out for victory and its rivals are putting all their efforts towards the same object, then it has to do likewise.

Lancia's five cars were divided into two groups, as usual; three in Martini colours and two backed by the Jolly Club and the betting and lottery chain Totip. The official cars were driven by Massimo Biasion/Tiziano Siviero, Bruno Saby/Jean-Francois Fauchille and Didier Auriol/Bernard Occelli — two French crews and one Italian. Both Jolly Club cars were crewed by Italians, Alessandro Florio/Luigi Pirollo and Dario Cerrato/Gianni Vasino. Lest anyone should wonder about the identity of the latter co-driver, he was an Italian TV reporter who had never before competed in a rally of any kind. It's small wonder that Cerrato was driving "on sight", without the benefit of notes, and to his great credit that he finished seventh.

All five Lancias were using Michelin tyres, a departure from the 1988 situation when the works cars used Michelins and the Jolly Club cars Pirellis. Fiorio's car was the only one fitted with the electronic clutch announced before the Sanremo Rally last October.

Most members of Toyota Team Europe have considerable experience of the Monte Carlo Rally in one way or another, some even ranking among past winners, but the team itself has never before competed in the event. However, after very encouraging exploratory sorties last year with its new four-wheel-drive Celica GT-Four, notably to Finland and the RAC Rally, TTE decided that the time had come to forsake its former policy of individual events backed by local dealers or importers, and to tackle the World Championship as a whole.

Three works GT-Fours were driven by Juha Kankkunen/Juha Piironen, Bjorn Waldegard/Fred Gallagher and, newly recruited from Ford, Spaniards Carlos Sainz/Luis Moya. A fourth Celica, backed by Bassos, was driven by Belgians Patrick Snijers/Dany Colebunders, and all four cars used Pirelli tyres on 16in wheels.

Mazda brought two cars as usual, driven by Timo Salonen/Voitto Silander and Hannu Mikkola/Christian Geistdorfer, both on Michelin tyres, whilst a diminutive Nissan March Turbo, weighing just 934kg (2059 lb) was driven by Per Eklund/Dave Whittock, using Dunlop tyres.

Weighing in at 1370kg (3020 lb), one of the heaviest cars in the event was the UK prepared Mitsubishi Galant VR-4 driven by Ari Vatanen/Bruno Berglund, much of this being due to the car's four-wheel-drive and four-wheel-steering mechanisms, the latter providing a 1.5° rear wheel deflection to the left or to the right. This was the only car entered by the Essex-based team, and it ran on Michelin tyres.

There was a solitary, Pirelli-shod BMW M3 from Britain's Prodrive for Belgians Marc Duez/Alain Lopes, whilst Alain Oreille and Gilles Thimonier drove a Renault R5 GT Turbo, privately entered but enjoying factory support.

Unlike the halcyon days of the past, when veritable convoys of British crews drove down to Monaco, there was not a single British driver this year, and the only "GB" in evidence were those of UK-based teams, a strong contingent of British mechanics and team personnel, and the co-drivers Gallagher and Whittock.

We have said before that Lancia domination was about to end with the arrival of competitive cars from Toyota and Mazda. The Monte showed that a third Japanese make is following suit, for Vatanen's Mitsubishi was both reliable and fast, and it was a great pity that the car hit a wall on the final night and did not finish. There was talk that gravel had been scattered on the corner, but Vatanan himself maintained that it was entirely his fault for hitting both brake and throttle pedals at the same time, with the same foot. The pedals were too close together for his liking, and he had neglected to ask that they be moved further apart.

Vatanen himself showed that he is certainly back on form after a gradual recovery from serious injuries in the Argentina Rally. That he had some to Monte Carlo directly from winning the Paris-Dakar Rally — albeit by the toss of the Peugeot team manager's coin from Jacky Ickx — was also to his credit, for it cannot be easy to spend weeks crossing deserts and then launch yourself immediately into a fierce competition in the Alps.

The underpowered Mazdas did not shine at all on the dry roads, even though Mikkola managed a good fourth place. Team-mate Salonen lost such a massive chunk of time having repairs after a front wheel bearing collapsed, destroying the brake disc and caliper, that at the end of the first leg it was decided that he should withdraw. The logistical problems of servicing two cars more than half-an-hour apart on the road would have been considerable.

Among the Toyotas, Waldegard had repeated transmission trouble, sometimes having drive only at the rear and sometimes only at the front. However, just as it seemed that the problem had been cured the car's engine gave up and he was out.

Sainz, too, went out, having slid off the road when using slicks on ice. That tyre choice was not entirely wrong for that stage, for his team-mates used the same; it just happened that he may have gone faster into that particular corner. Kankkunen was not without problems either, and he was without front-wheel drive for a while, having to spend some time pushing to get up a slippery hill.

Tyre choice was so critical that some teams were making sure that at least one of their drivers chose "safe" tyres. Among the Lancias, for instance, it seemed that it was Saby who was the man delegated to use such tyres, whilst his team-mates used those which would be faster, but less safe in the event of a small error.

There was a spot of bother at La Bollene, after the first crossing of the Turini on the Wednesday when several cars had to slow down and deviate to avoid wires which were strung across the road. It was not a deliberate booby trap, but the result of a wire-strike by a helicopter carrying a Japanese film crew. One car came off the stage dragging a substantial length of wire behind it, and it must have been quite a job to clear the twisted cable from the rear axle, around which it had wrapped.

Even though its opposition is gathering strength, it was Lancia once again which occupied the first three places, and Biasion who took victory ahead of Auriol and Saby. The subject of team orders came up again, but this time there was no evidence that anyone had slowed to allow Biasion to win. The Italian driver got there on merit, and Lancia even put out a written statement mid-way through the rally to the effect that no team orders had been given, or would be given.

Among the makes, Lancia has taken the first round, whilst among the drivers Carlsson and Biasion share the lead with 20 points each. No-one who scored points in Sweden was among the first ten in Monte Carlo, so already twenty drivers appear on the list of scorers. However, the Portuguese Rally in early March will no doubt change the regularity of that pattern, whilst the Safari later in the month is certain to do so. GP