The archives: March 2018

The Mini team’s disqualification from the 1966 Monte Carlo rally is a yarn well known, but there was almost a repeat two years later

It might not surprise regular readers to hear that I am quite a keen Brexiteer, not bristlingly, but cheerfully, optimistically so. Right now, as those who run the show apparently persist in doing their best to deny our grandchildren a democratic future within an irredeemably corrupt Europe run by self-appointed cronyism, we can look back on the 50th anniversary of a fine example of what the Gauls have ever done for us…

Now the complicated story of the alleged lighting infringement that denied the actual top four finishers in the 1966 Monte Carlo Rally – all British entries – is well known, and was much celebrated upon the 50th anniversary of that entirely shameful scandal two years ago now.

The BMC Competitions Department’s team of Mini-Cooper 1275S ‘bricks’ driven by Timo Mäkinen, Rauno Aaltonen and Paddy Hopkirk completed the event with the best scores, in reality finishing 1-2-3 to score a works Mini hat-trick in this most prestigious international rally of the year. The organising AC de Monaco similarly disqualified Roger Clark’s works Ford Cortina, which should have been fourth, and these exclusions elevated Pauli Toivonen and navigator Ensio Mikander to being declared the official winners in their works Citroën ID.

Protests, dismissals, appeals and further dismissals subsequently extended way up to the top echelons of the FIA world governing body. The entire episode stank to high heaven, yet as with so many enmeshments with Gallic regulations writers, the Rosbifs lost – big time, but short term (hurrah).

While the BMC Competitions Department had been denied its hat-trick of Monte Carlo Rally wins, as well as the biggest financial prize available in the contemporary rallying world – and the ACM, most shamefully, even refused those top-four crews finishing plaques for having completed the event, it has been the BMC Comps Department (of fond memory) and the Mini-Cooper performance that has been remembered ever since, while Citroën’s ‘win’ – disclaimed by Toivonen himself – lies forgotten.

But two years later – in the 1968 Monte – battle was rejoined between the BMC Comps Department and the ACM Rally organisers. I was working on Motor Racing magazine at the time and I recall we headlined that year’s event as ‘A piece of cake and no icing’, because it was a freak ‘no snow’ year and Porsche began to dominate the rally with its fabulous 911s.

On high-grip dry roads the front-drive Minis simply could not compete with the rear-engined, rear-drive, effectively GT entries from Porsche and Alpine-Renault. Rauno Aaltonen, Tony Fall and Paddy Hopkirk still finished 3-4-5 overall behind the Porsches of Vic Elford and – yes, him again – Pauli Toivonen. But still BMC Comps managed to get right up the collective nose of the ACM scrutineers… still perhaps enraged by having been vilified virtually worldwide as the xenophobic, sinister guys in black hats back in ’66…

Timo Mäkinen had seen a couple of prototype ‘split-Weber’ carburettors in Finland which really interested him, and through him the engineers at Abingdon. As contemporary Comps manager Peter Browning recalled in his wonderful book The Works Minis (GT Foulis, 1971) “By cutting a pair of standard Weber carburettors in half and fitting the two left-hand ‘halves’ on to the standard Group 2 inlet manifold [in place of the standard SUs], it was possible to gain Group 6 Weber-type performance in Group 2 (an advantage of some 7bhp)”.

Peter had studied Group 2 regulations with forensic care and believed that use of such cut-and-shut carburettors was entirely permissible. He took the precaution of sending details and photographs of the modification to both the FIA and Monte Carlo organiser the ACM far in advance of the event. What’s more, he released details of the modification to the press in a policy of full disclosure. As he told the tale, “Nobody said anything about it until we arrived in Monte.”

There, upon completion of the concentration run from all the various starting cities to the jewel of the Mediterranean – that “sunny place for shady people” – Browning was summoned to a meeting of the sporting commission. Upon initial scrutineering of all the cars arriving in Monte Carlo, the scrutineers had expressed doubts about the eligibility of these cut-and-shut carburettors.

Giving the organisers the benefit of the doubt, Peter considered that they were then giving him the opportunity to help them safeguard both BMC and the rally itself from a repeat of the globally publicised 1966 fiasco. They told him that there was no doubt that a rival manufacturer would protest the new carburettors if the BMC Comps team persisted in their use. Diplomatically, he thanked them for the opportunity to discuss the situation and it was agreed that for the general good everything possible should then be done to avoid a repetition of 1966.

But essentially the English version of the French-language regulations covering permissible modifications to the carburettors read: “The carburettors provided by the manufacturer may be replaced by others of a different size providing that the number be the same as that provided by the manufacturer and that they can be mounted on the inlet manifold of the engine without using any intermediary device and by using the original attachment parts”.

Tony Fall and Mike Wood took their Mini to fourth in the 1968 Monte
Tony Fall and Mike Wood took their Mini to fourth in the 1968 Monte

The technical commission believed that BMC Comps had fitted “an intermediary device” between the carburettors and the manifold. But there was no such device because the mounting was actually an integral part of the carburettor. Browning emphasised that this was, after all, a prototype carburettor that he interpreted as beginning at the point of junction with the manifold and continuing through the main body of the carburettor to the end of the inlet pipe. He emphasised that the small additional inlet stub on the carburettor was not bolted to the instrument but was welded to it as a complete unit. However, when the original French text was read, it was found – unsurprisingly – that there was a translation discrepancy between the two. The original French version read “The carburettors must be mounted on the inlet manifold of the engine without modification or deformation” – these words omitted from the English version – “…and without using any intermediary device, and by using the original attachment parts”.

Peter diplomatically agreed that only the original French text could be accepted as gospel. The technical commission then pointed out that the modified carburettors had to be ineligible because they had been modified to fit the standard manifold. He argued that “They had not in fact been modified because although his people had used basic Weber principles and some design features and components, this was an entirely new prototype carburettor designed and built in England”.

The meeting was adjourned and subsequently the technical commission informed Browning that in the event of a protest they would have to uphold it because they still felt that the carburettors did not accord with the regulations. Unlike in ’66, the atmosphere of these discussions had thus far been entirely cordial and mutually helpful, and the officials offered the opportunity of changing the carburettors before the Monte-Vals-Monte circuit. Browning had to reject this concession because, even if his mechanics could find sufficient time to do the work, they hadn’t any SU carburettors with them. Peter also pointed out the possibility – or indeed the probability – that rival teams would be outraged by the scandalous possibility of collusion between the ACM and BMC Comps in allowing such a ‘secret’ carburettor change in mid-competition.

It seems that by this time some heat was entering the conversation. The commission then offered the chance of changing the carburettors in parc fermé, but plainly “This proposal was even more stupid than the first and I reminded them that the whole purpose of our discussion was to try and avoid a repetition of 1966 and not to create an even bigger fiasco”. It was then reported to him that Paddy Hopkirk was already in parc fermé changing his carburettors, which red herring typified the Monégasques’ increasingly febrile grasp upon reality…

By that time the atmosphere was ’66 hostility revisited, and Browning finally refused to change the carburettors and declared he would consider withdrawing the team. A meeting with the drivers and navigators followed in which the debate was whether or not they were prepared to put everything on the line during the imminent timed stages, with the risk of being disqualified regardless after the risks they would inevitably take.

The BMC hope was that all of their rivals agreed with their interpretation of the regulations, and with the rally run the cars were finally taken to the usual post-event scrutineering. However, instead of just asking for the class-winning car, the scrutineers demanded to inspect all three team cars that had finished. The chief scrutineer was the same hero who had presided in 1966, and he immediately made it clear that he disagreed with the technical commission’s ‘liberal’ interpretation of the regulations.

The scrutineers’ inspections then took so long that when their appointed lunchtime chimed, the head official shut up shop without a glance at the winning Porsche. The teams left Monte Carlo after another somewhat tainted rally, which left the once world-class event’s stature further diminished. As for the Abingdon team, it resolved the matter when the FIA finally agreed that Peter Browning’s interpretation of the regulations had indeed been correct, and that the carburettors were eligible as built, and as fitted to those works 1275S Minis.

Indeed, forgive me if I am from an older generation – buried in the past – but somehow I feel there is a parallel here between these ratchet-clicks in the Monte Carlo Rally’s descent to its now much-diminished international stature and significance, and current wider-reaching negotiations being conducted by self-important politicians
in, where was it, Brussels…

A plague upon all their houses, indeed.

Doug Nye is the UK’s most eminent motor racing historian and has been writing authoritatively about the sport since the 1960s