3rd time lucky

Rally review

After two near-misses, François Delecour's luck finally held together in Monte-Carlo,
the Frenchman giving Ford its first victory in the event for some 41 years

It has been said more than once that the economy of the Principality of Monaco is based on the turn of a card, the throw of a dice and the spin of a wheel. Even of such a tiny state without any real industry of its own that statement is a bit unfair, but anyone who has been concerned with the Monte-Carlo Rally will no doubt leap to its support, saying that the motor competition can often be as much of a gamble as anything that goes on inside the famous casino.

Preparation, planning and on-event support have nowadays reached levels which would have been unimaginable even only a couple of decades ago and, as far as the major works teams are concerned, nothing is left to chance; nothing, that is, except one feature which remains beyond human or even electronic control — the weather.

In Monte-Carlo a mere drop of just a few degrees of temperature can cause turmoil. Tyre technology has reached such a level of sophistication that the difference between victory and defeat almost invariably depends on choosing the right tyres. Cars have achieved a peak of performance; drivers have very little to separate them in terms of skill and ability; support staff are totally dedicated and back their teams' efforts to the hilt. But to choose tyres which are not absolutely right for a particular stage inevitably means that someone else will be quicker.

Tyres represent a huge proportion of the cost of competing. For every stage, each driver in a team must have the choice of whatever type is available, and that means a very substantial stock indeed and a logistical nightmare for whoever is entrusted with the vital task of getting the right stock to the right places. The best tyres in the world are of no use whatsoever if they are not available to be fitted at precisely the places where the driver demands them.

Consider a team of three cars, contracted to a tyre company which supplies six different types of tyre. That means that at the start of each special stage, a minimum of 72 tyres, each already mounted on the correct wheels, must be available. And there can often be slight variations within each tyre type, thus increasing the complexity of the rubber permutation.

Deciding what to use is not easy. Competitors will have made recces of each special stage, albeit several weeks in advance, and conditions at that time may well have changed when the event starts. When competitors were recceing the route of this year's Monte-Carlo Rally, most of the alpine passes were well covered by snow. But when the rally started, the weather had changed, temperatures had risen and most of the snow had gone.

So how, then, do competitors decide what tyres to use? The answer lies in a ploy introduced by the BMC team several decades ago and which has since been copied, refined and elaborated by every team which contests the Monte-Carlo Rally with the serious intention of going all out for victory. That answer is called ice-notes.

When competitors reconnoitre the route in advance, they make pace notes of every special stage. But a road which is dry during this recce will be quite different during the rally if it snows just a few hours before. Ice-note crews were set up by BMC to drive through each special stage an hour or two before the roads were closed by police. They carried photocopies of their competing crews' pace notes and marked on them, usually by coloured underlining, the exact location of ice, snow, loose gravel etc. Precision was important. Drivers wanted to know whether ice was solid or patchy; whether snow was fresh or packed; whether it was on the left or the right; whether it was on the apex of a corner or in the braking area. They also wanted to know whether the temperature was rising or falling, so that damp patches encountered by the spotter crews could be expected to be ice patches an hour later.

In those early years, each team would have, say, three ice-note crews, each making note additions for every car in the team. It was not an easy job, particularly if team drivers made their notes in different languages.

Nowadays, that problem has been resolved, but at cost. No longer does one crew make notes for every car in the team. Each competing car has its own, dedicated ice note retinue, which means that a three-car team will have a minimum of nine ice-note crews, possibly 12. Add to that the present practice of having additional cars devoted entirely to weather reporting, and even others to record temperature movements, and you will arrive at a veritable army of scouts just to tell competitors where the ice and snow patches are and to advise them on which tyres to use. (This is all very well if the ice-noter has the same ability, the same flair and the same competition mentality as the competing driver. If not, things can go radically wrong, and it so happened this year that many drivers even the winner lost time due to choosing the wrong tyres.)

One of the Ford ice-note crews even had a dashboard-mounted video camera, the tape of which was played back to the competing driver at the start of each stage so that he could see the conditions at first hand.

This year, Michelin produced a tyre which was known as the 'catamaran' because its tread was limited to the two outer thirds of its width. The centre third was devoid of tread. It was called an innovation, but I have to say that, many years ago, the Finnish Kumi-Helenius tyre, made in Lapland, had a centre-section minus any tread. The Michelin compound will no doubt have been improved, but the pattern was the same.

Advice, whether good or bad, need not be taken, and it is always a driver's responsibility to choose the right tyres for the job.

Entries for the Monte-Carlo Rally, the first World Championship event of 1994, were impressive. No less than six works teams were represented, and there were others who stood out.

Toyota sent two Celicas for Juha Kankkunen/Nicky Grist and Didier Auriol/Bernard Occelli, each car fitted with selectable automatic traction control. Subaru had two Imprezas, driven by Colin McRae/Derek Ringer, tackling their first Monte, and, new crew in the team, Carlos Sainz/Luis Moya.

Ford had François Delecour/Daniel Grataloup and Massimo Biasion/Tiziano Siviero as prime runners, plus the Giesse-supported car of Belgians Bruno Thiry/ Stéphane Prevot, a pair who made their names in an Opel Astra. Mitsubishi Ralliart sent Lancers for Armin Schwarz, now reunited with his old co-driver Klaus Wicha, and Kenneth Eriksson/Staffan Parmander.

Renault had two-wheel-drive Clio Williamses for veteran rally and stunt driver Jean Ragnotti (remember The Italian lob?), with Gilles Thimonier, and Alain Oreille/Jean-Marc Andrié, whilst the Skoda team had Favorits for Pavel Sibera/Petr Gross and Vladimir Berger/Pavel Stanc.

Outside the top rank of 'priority' drivers, Frenchman Pierre-Manuel Jenot and Spaniard Jesus Puras each drove a Group N Ford Escort Cosworth, whilst Monégasque Franck Phillips drove a similar car.

Down the field was a piece of rallying history which cannot pass unmentioned. Indeed, there were many who felt that this was the highlight of the whole 1994 event. To mark the 30 or so years of passing since BMC Minis trounced everything in Monte Carlo, both Timo Mäkinen (winner in 1965) and Paddy Hopkirk (winner in 1964) drove modern Minis built by DR Engineering. Co-drivers were their same partners of those past years, Paul Easter with Mäkinen and Ron Crellin with Hopkirk. Their combined comments before the start were, "It's still a great little car, and to have five gears is fantastic, but 100 horsepower isn't enough nowadays."

A BMC Mini hit the headlines in 1966 when Mäkinen and Easter were disqualified from the Monte because, so the organisers said, it had illegal bulbs in its headlights. They lost the rally, but the people in Abingdon were over the moon. They achieved more publicity by losing than they would have by winning. That a Citroën had won meant nothing. The big story was that a Mini had been thrown out because its bulbs were of the wrong sort. It had beaten everyone hands down, but had been disqualified on a trumped-up triviality. This year, the Minis attracted more attention than the potential winners, and, even now, Mäkinen and Hopkirk are as well known in the alps as Delecour, Kankkunen, Sainz and Auriol.

Maurizio Verini, another accomplished driver from the past, drove a Lancia Delta with golfer Baldovino Dassu, who took considerable time to relate irons to cornering speeds, whilst Irish cycling ace Stephen Roche, winner of both the Tour de France and the Giro d'Italia, drove a Seat Ibiza with Bernard Smyth.

There was snow in abundance during the time that competitors were recceing the route and making their notes, but when the event started temperatures had risen and most of the roads were either wet or dry, with no snow covering and with just occasional ice or snow patches, usually on the summits of mountain passes and on shaded hairpins. Such a drastic change in conditions placed considerable emphasis on the data provided by ice-note crews for works crews and those others sufficiently well-heeled to afford the luxury of advance recce crews, of course.

Following tradition, the rally started from several European towns (Bad Homburg, Barcelona, Lausanne, Reims, Turin and Monte-Carlo), the overnight concentration runs ending at Valence. Following this, the entire classification leg, the first with competition of any kind, also ended at Valence, so that the first arrival in Monaco was not until the Wednesday, a major change from tradition.

The hoteliers and restaurateurs of the Principality were not at all pleased with this format since much of their already diminished January trade had been lost to their counterparts in France. Indeed, many competitors were of the same mind, being of the opinion that one of the main pleasures of the Monte-Carlo Rally comes at the moment a crew catches sight of the Mediterranean after a long struggle through the alps.

During the concentration run, Mäkinen went through quite a trauma, for just two days before the start his car was stolen from outside the home of one of his mechanics in England. It had been on a trailer, and the whole lot was taken, only to be abandoned a few days later, minus engine and other essentials. Fortunately, another car was about halfway through its preparation, and, working two days and nights without a break, mechanics got it ready and trailered it down to Monaco. But certain essentials had vanished with the original car, including Timo's made-to-measure seat. The replacement was far too small and, when he first encountered the new car at the departure point on Monaco's quayside, he just could not get into the seat. Pillows were brought from their hotel to fill the gap between the wrap-around seat sides, with the result that he had to sit on the seat, not in it, with hardly any lateral support at all. Furthermore, his head was banging the roof all the time!

The concentration runs apart, the rally programme was such that the first and second competitive legs were entirely in the daytime, the final leg sticking to tradition by being run at night. However, the double loop in the Alpes Maritimes close to Monaco was abandoned. This year, the final night retracted none of its steps and made a much larger loop, using each stage just once. The very narrow, tricky stage from PeiIle was not used at all, and the infamous Turini was used only once, as was the Col de la Couillole.

On the Monday, 180 of the original 186 starters left Valence for the first six stages, mostly in the Ardèche region. The first was over the Col de la Fayolle from St Pierreviulle to Antraigues, where Schwarz astounded everyone by setting a time 22s faster than anyone else. Kankkunen had a slight ignition problem, Sainz and Auriol chose the wrong tyres whilst Biasion had a leaking brake pipe. Nevertheless, Schwarz's performance was incredible, especially as he had to cope with overheating brakes, as was team-mate Eriksson.

After this stage, Mäkinen and Easter had to make their way back to familiar haunts in Monaco, for their engine, having been prepared in a great hurry, gave out.

On the stage from La Souch to the Col de la Chavade most people chose 'safe' tyres, but Schwarz took the bull by the horns and opted for cut slicks. Once again he was fastest, and moved into a commanding early lead.

However, everything changed on the next one, over the infamous Burzet plateau, scene of many notorious happenings in the past. The stage was largely wet, ice-free, with a few snow patches here and there, but when Schwarz came along he encountered snow which was not in his notes and he went straight off the road. The very same happened to McRae, and they both declared afterwards that the snow had been shovelled there by spectators, not an uncommon occurrence on this event as many past competitors will testify.

Schwarz lost some 16 minutes and dropped to 162nd place, whilst McRae was stuck for nearly 40 minutes and sank to 166th. Kankkunen also went off the road momentarily, but this was to avoid a spectator and not because of snow. When Ragnotti finished the stage later, he said that he had no trouble at that particular place because the snow patch had been noted by his ice-note crews.

McRae collected a front right puncture on the next stage, but his main problem was running among much slower cars and having to cope with overtaking. At the end of the leg, his team approached the organisers with a request to drive higher up the field. This was granted and, although he restarted on the Tuesday in 12Ist place, he was actually running 19th on the road.

At St Bonnet le Froid, a place as bleak and as cold as its name implies, Auriol's rally came to an end when he went off the road and was quite unable to get back. This left Toyota with just Kankkunen, and he almost came to grief when he spun. But spectators pushed him back and he continued. McRae hit a rock but continued, only having broken his left door mirror.

After a damp and foggy sixth stage, 153 cars returned to Valence, two of them later being excluded. Delecour held a lead of 22s over Sainz who was just three seconds ahead of Kankkunen. Delecour, who always seems to have a mournful expression on his face, said afterwards that he had chosen the wrong tyres for three of the day's six stages and could have done better had his ice-note crews provided better information. No doubt he has since been told that the final choice is down to him, not his spies, who, after all, are chosen by him.

After Valence, there were wet roads and some ice and snow patches on the stages, some covered by fog. Schwarz had his left rear suspension collapse, whilst Daniel Ducruet, the 'house-mate' of Princess Stéphanie of Monaco, partnered on this occasion by veteran co-driver lean-François Fauchille, went out when his suspension also collapsed and a rear wheel folded under the car.

Sainz was experimenting with various suspension settings, but this did not prevent his encountering spectators standing in dangerous positions. Schwarz lost his rear differential and had to finish the Ponten-Royans stage with just front-wheel drive. At this point, McRae got up to 83rd place and Schwarz to an amazing 13th.

The next stage was a real Monte-Carlo regular from years past – from Le Sappey over the Col de Porte, the Col du Cucheron< and the Col du Granier to the little restaurant called the Café Carret. Many drivers complained that this was too dangerous, but it has been a fixture for many years and several past competitors who were present for this event commented: "If you drive the Monte-Carlo Rally in winter you should not expect conditions like a motorway in summer. You accept what Mother Nature dishes up."

I agree wholeheartedly.

Three more stages led to the overnight stop in Gap. By this time, Delecour's lead over Kankkunen was 44 seconds and the French driver's aim was to increase it to a full minute before the rally got to MonteCarlo.

The next day began at 5.00, when ice was at its most tricky and fog patches abounded. The 128 restarters headed for the Col de la Saulce and, a new stage, the road just south of Rosans from L'Aubergie to Laborel. Oreille landed heavily after a jump here, breaking his front left suspension bump stop and cracking his windscreen.

From Sisteron, overlooked by its huge pinnacle of a mountain, the stage to Thoard along the D3 had some four miles of ice in its total of about 23 miles. Delecour chose studded tyres, as did Kankkunen and Biasion. But the best choice turned out to be slicks, and McRae was fastest, nine seconds ahead of Sainz who was similarly equipped. Ragnotti hit a bridge and finished the stage without his front left wheel, whilst his teammate Oreille went off the road and just could not get back. Schwarz also hit a bridge, finishing the stage with a broken front right wheel rim.

After passing through Barrème, Puget Theniers, La Turbie and Roquebrune Cap Martin, all names which will pluck the heartstrings of Monte-Carlo diehards, the rally finally came to Monaco, at 13.00 on the Wednesday. Delecour's lead over Kankkunen was more than a minute and a half, but the Frenchman was still not at ease. He was fretting and pondering, worrying about what could happen and thinking about his bad luck in the past two years when victory in this event eluded him by whiskers.

Whilst Delecour's problem was psychological, Biasion's was more concrete and he was still playing around with different differentials. But there was no time to sit and worry. The final night loomed close and there was nothing for it but to sleep, unlike past years when it was common practice for competitors to spend the afternoon prior to the final leg making a last-minute recce of the Turini, Peille or whatever they thought necessary.

Kankkunen's thoughts at the start of the final night were straightforward. "Delecour is a minute and a half ahead. So I'm going to push him." No doubt the Finn was hoping that the Frenchman would be pressed into making a mistake. But that wasn't the case. Delecour started in relaxed fashion, contented to sacrifice seconds on each stage. His object was to keep his first place, and the penalty difference didn't matter a jot.

Over the Turini, Kankkunen took no less than 28s from Delecour and many thought that there would be a rerun of the 1993 situation when Auriol produced exceptional last minute steam to oust the lead from Delecour. But this was no repeat. Delecour was playing it safe and, after coping with a brake problem which resulted from pads which had not been bedded in, he drove to keep his position, which he did.

In the final stages, Hopkirk sadly went out when his fan belt snapped, his engine overheated and his alternator ceased charging, and Ragnotti was down to three cylinders after a valve spring broke. McRae, still pressing on relentlessly in his own inimitable fashion, squeezed into the top 10 despite breaking a rim and collecting a puncture. He had reckoned only on getting back to the top 20. To do so well was a great uplifter.

The final stage was over the Colle St Michel, old Alpine Rally territory, close to Annot. By this time it was all over. Schwarz made best time, scoring an eventual seventh place, whilst Delecour was content with fourth. Kankkunen, having resigned himself to second place, settled for sixth fastest time, a second behind McRae, whilst Eriksson kept up the pressure to beat Thiry and take fifth place by a single second.

It was certainly a rally with a difference. On the other hand, aren't they all? The season opener is always a trend-setter, or at least it seems to be. The year has a long way to go. G P

Monte-Carlo — January 22-27 1994
1:François Delecour/Daniel Gratloup (F), Ford Escort RS Cosworth, GpA, 6h 12m 20s

2:Juha Kankkunen (SF)/Nicky Grist (GB), Toyota Celica T-4wd, GpA, 6h 13m 25s

3:Carlos Sainz/Luis Moya (E), Subaru 555 Impreza, GpA, 6h 14m 07s

4:Massimo Biasion/Tiziano Siviero (I), Ford Escort RS Cosworth, GpA, 6h 16m 56s

5:Kenneth Eriksson/Staffan Parmander (S), Mitsubishi LancerEvolution 1, GpA, 6h 19m 17s

6:Bruno Thiry/Stéphane Prevot (B), Ford Escort RS Cosworth, GpA, 6h 19m 18s

7:Armin Schwarz/Klaus Wicha (D), Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution 1, GpA, 6h 29m 19s

8:Pierre-Manuel Jenot/"Slo" (F), Ford Escort RS Cosworth, GpN, 6h 49m 16s

9:Jesus Puras/Alex Romani (E), Ford Escort RS Cosworth, GpN, 6h 53m 49s

10:Colin McRae/Derek Ringer (GB), Subaru 555 Impreza, GpA, 7h 01m 10s

World Rally Championship positions after one round

Drivers – 1. Delecour 20 pts; 2. Kankkunen 15; 3. Sainz 12; 4. Biasion 10; 5. Eriksson 8; 6. Thiry 6; 7 Schwarz 3; 8. Jenot 3; 9. Puras 2; 10. McRae 1.

Manufacturers – 1. Ford 20: 2. Toyota 17; 3 Subaru 14; 4. Mitsubishi 10.