The modern Monte Carlo rally may be a carefully organised World Championship round, but past events have taken competitors to the limits of motoring. Monte survivor John Davenport remembers.
The Monte Carlo Rally is not the longest, nor the oldest, nor yet the toughest motor rally in the world, but it is without doubt, the best known and the one most likely to stir some kind of story to the surface.
Among the fantastic tales that are told, the one that impresses me the most took place on the second ever Monte Carlo Rally held in 1912. The starting places that year included the Russian city of St Petersburg and the only car to start from there was a Russo-Baltique driven by Andre Nagel. Ahead of him he had 3267 kilometres to drive in winter conditions on largely unmade – and un-maintained – roads in what was basically an open sportscar fitted with a detachable half-height windscreen. Windscreen wipers had not yet been invented, so it was clear from the outset that Mr Nagel was going to have an interesting run.
His friend, a certain Mikailoff, accompanied him on this jaunt, but the poor chap hurt his arm as he was cranking the engine before the start. As luck wouldn’t have it, all the necessary visas and documents pertained to the injured – and irreplaceable – Milcilloff, so Nagel set out to drive the whole way himself. To keep the engine sweet, during each night’s repose, Nagel got up every two hours and started the motor to keep the oil warm. He also slept with the magneto to keep it from succumbing to the cold that for most of the first part of his journey never rose above -22 degrees Celsius. It was so severe that when he needed to top up the engine oil, it was necessary to stop and build a fire to heat the cans before the oil would pour.
On the run down from Russia through Poland, the snow was some 20 inches deep. They did have a little bit of help since the night before the start the Russo-Baltique Company had sent a big vehicle through to make some tracks in the fresh snow. Nevertheless, Nagel could not get out of second gear for the first 100 kilometres. He was using chains fitted to tyres, each of which had two inner tubes to guard against punctures from horseshoe nails. These worked well since he had no punctures, but by the time he entered France near Belfort, his chains were gone and his tyres were more like slicks. It was then that he encountered a sheet of black ice in the night and slid gently off the road. He left Mikailoff with the car and walked back to a pub that was still open. He asked for some chains, which would be enough to get him out of his present fix, and wound up buying the ones for lowering barrels into the publican’s cellar at an extortionate price.
This man Nagel, his injured companion and his unbelievable car were the first of the 65 competitors to arrive in Monte Carlo. They had left St Petersburg at 0800 on January 15th and they arrived at the finish just before midday on January 21st. It was an exploit that has frankly not been equalled since. It would be cruel to say that what followed was typical of the Monegasques, though Timo Makinen might well understand. The Russo-Baltique was classified a mere ninth since, in the opinion of the judges, the hood and the clip-on half-windscreen that had been fitted to the car for the rally completely spoilt its elegance. The fact that without them Nagel and Mikilloff would probably have perished did not make them seem any more attractive to the judging panel.
The closest that anyone has come to that kind of exploit in modern times was during that fabulous event of 1965. Considering that ‘fabulous’ means ‘celebrated in story’, I think that describes it very well. For me it was the second time that I had competed on the Monte Carlo and I was fortunate enough to be in a works-supported 970 Mini Cooper S with Geoff Mabbs. We chose to start from Athens. Well, actually team manager Stuart Turner chose since he wanted some companionship on the long concentration run for Rauno Aaltonen and Tony Ambrose in their full 1275 Cooper S. In those days, choosing the right starting place was a major factor in your chances of success. You did not get a bonus as on the early rallies for travelling long distances, but you might get the best weather on the stages. For instance, on this 1965 rally, the starters from Warsaw, Stockholm and Minsk arrived first at Chambery and went out on the stages first. We Athenians had numbers commencing at 270 which meant that we would be going out from Chambery some four and half hours after the first of the Warsaw starters. This could be an advantage or not, and it very much depended on the weather.
Greece, Yugoslavia and Italy were totally free of snow and we travelled on main roads. The mountain roads and frequent time controls of the other routes were not for us. We arrived in Gap wellslept and well fed, but without Rauno, whose car had shed its distributor drive at the first sight of the Alps. All Geoff and I had to do was a nine-hour circumnavigation of the Massif Central to join the other routes at St Claude and approach Chambery from the north. It was at St Claude that the blizzard hit. The early numbers got into Chambery without encountering snow in any quantity but by car 90 there was plenty – and for us in car 274, there was an enormity of the stuff.
My memories of that night are like snapshots. Halfway between St Claude and Chambery just after the passage control at Le Poizat there is a triangular road junction. Mounted on it, as if on a plinth, was the Porsche 904 of Pauli Toivonen that had been running 110 numbers ahead of us. I decided that this was not the road for us and we reversed back through the passage control saying that we needed to get a run at the hill. Instead we just ran back to the main road and round by Seyssel towards Chambery. For that drive alone, Geoff deserved several medals. The large, soft flakes filled one’s vision completely and all you were looking at for most of the time was a swirling curtain flapping some 10 feet ahead of the bonnet through which the lights could not penetrate. The real problem was getting rid of the snow that built up on everything to the point where a Mini heater could hardly keep a space clear on the windscreen to see through. We knew a little bit what it was like to be Andre Nagel.
We got into Chambery without loss of time and, from that moment on, we were the last car in the rally. On the first special stage over the Chartreuse, the conditions were, if anything, slightly worse. Yes, we had studded tyres, but in the deep fresh snow they did little to provide traction, braking or steering. The Mini would hit a snowdrift, the snow would hit the windscreen, the wipers would stop, and both doors would open, one for Geoff to see to drive and the other for me to try and knock the snow off and get the wipers going again. We might just as well have been in an open sportscar!
We lost time on the road and we were certainly not fastest on the stages but we got through somehow. We then came back to Gap and went out to tackle the Chorges-Savines stage. There must have been something about the area around Gap and the Minis because on the final descent Geoff slid off the road and we were stuck. As last car, there was no one coming along to help us so we set out to walk into Savines. On the way we picked up David Seigle-Morris and Tony Nash from their works Cortina GT which had suffered a similar fate to our Mini. The four of us met some card-playing gendarmes in the back of a Citroen truck at the end of the stage and spent the rest of the night splitting a bottle of schnapps with them. The heroes of that 1965 rally were of course Timo Makinen and Paul Easter who won it for BMC. There was also the incredible 42-year old Eugen Biihringer who finished second in a Porsche 904, despite having a start number of 150. Then there was Pat Moss, third in a Saab 96, Peter Harper fourth in a Sunbeam Tiger and the amazing Roger Clark, sixth in a standard Rover 2000. In fact, one could go on since all 35 of those who finished from 237 starters were worthy of special recognition.
Since 1965, the really bad weather seems to have kept away and only appeared in local apparitions, as in the Ardeche in 1972. This shortage of the white stuff on the road has often led to the stages on the Monte Carlo Rally being run exclusively on racing tyres. When this happens, there has been a parallel tendency for spectators to liven things up a bit by shovelling some of the snow banks into the otherwise dry road. Colin McRae and Armin Schwarz suffered from this on the Burzet stage as recently as 1994 but the traditional home of such vandalism has always been in the area around the Col de Turini.
It was here in 1968 that it started. A pretty dry year meant racers on the stages and fastest times by the rear-engined cars. Gerard Larrousse in an Alpine Renault led Vic Elford in a Porsche 911T by 14sec going into the mountain circuit on the last night. I was with Ove Andersson in a Lancia and we spun first time out on the Turini going downhill on a plaque of old ice where some spectators had parked their cars but, generally speaking, the ice was where you thought it should be. On the first two stages, Larrousse took eight and 11 sec respectively off Elford, but then ‘Quick Vic’ retaliated with a time no less than 40sec faster over the Col de Couillole to lead the rally for the first time. The next stage was the Turini where Larrousse naturally attacked to the maximum. We were the first car on the road and had found some snow shovelled out on a blind uphill bend but got round thanks to front-wheel drive and left-foot braking. Poor Larrousse never stood a chance and crashed into a wall, breaking the front suspension. He was not too pleased to discover that the culprits were French and gendarmes had to be dispatched to calm things down. Elford went on to win, the first of three consecutive victories for Stuttgart. A win for Dieppe had to wait for Ove to get into an Alpine in 1971.
After the Larrousse incident, things calmed down for a bit but snow shovelling was always present in the dry years. It escalated even further in 1979 when something more solid was put in the road. Bjorn Waldegaard was leading the Monte Carlo Rally for Ford by no less than 6m27s at the start of the final mountain circuit. Second-place man Bernard Darniche had sort of resigned himself to second place in his Lancia Stratus but gave it a go anyway and, by virtue of his performance on the dry stages, he had got the gap down to 1m31 s with two stages left. The Escort had been about 25sec quicker than the Stratos on the Turini which was to be the last stage, so Bjom only had to record a reasonable time on the 13km test through Tournefort to be sure of victory. But going as first car, he discovered two very large pieces of stone placed in the road on the descent to Pont des Clans. He tried to squeeze past them but was unable to do so at the first attempt. He backed up, tried another angle and finally succeeded, but only at the cost of knocking the front wheels out of alignment. The incident cost him the lead and, despite a big effort on the Turini in what was now a poorly handling car, the rally went to Darniche by just six seconds.
Such vandalism has not been totally eliminated, but its effects have been reduced by moving the rally away from this controversial area for a while and by preventing the spectators from reaching parts of the road not supervised by police. At the same time, the teams are allowed to run ice note cars much closer in front of the rally and the organisers send a safety car over the stage literally minutes before the rally cars. Any signs of disorder, drunkenness or vandalism and the stage is promptly cancelled.
It seems a shame that such actions have speeded the progression towards the Designer Rally. Perhaps if we can reverse the effects of global warming, there may soon be enough snow for there to be no need to throw more on the road to generate excitement.
The Russo-Baltique company
The full name of this car manufacturer was the Russko-Baltyskij Waggonyj Zawod and it operated from a steelworks near the Latvian capital, Riga, between the turn of the century and the outbreak of the First World War. The design and many of the components for the cars came from Belgium and Germany. They were assembled under the direction of a Swiss motor engineer called Potterat. The vehicle driven by Andre Nagel was based on a car constructed by Automobiles Charles Fondu at Vilvorde in Belgium. It was a 24/40 hp open car, powered by a four cylinder 4.8-litre engine. The headlights were lit by acetylene and the only form of heating for the occupants was a hole cut in the floor that allowed some of the heat from the engine to rise into the cockpit.