In most minds mention of the Coupe des Alpes will give rise to thoughts of high mountain passes, winding ascents and descents and what is probably the tightest time schedule of any rally in Europe. These things characterise the rally, of course, but the minds of regular rally followers, mine included, are more or less turned in to such things and we tend to take them for granted.
For me, the biggest single occasion of the Alpine Rally is the start. The departure ramp is set up on the edge of the old harbour, in which the bobbing mastheads of yachts form an intricate pincushion background, overshadowed by the windowless fortress of the Foreign Legion. The evening crowds throng the quayside roads and when you consider that spectators, officials and police are all infused with Alpine Fever you can imagine the sort of chaotic excitement which prevails. Whistles blow, people shout, horns blast and loudspeakers bellow out three voices at once. It’s difficult to see how cars are going to leave the ramp at all, but when nine o’clock comes the free passage of competitors takes precedence over everything, even gonging fire engines!
Throughout the confusion competitors, awaiting their time to enter parc fermé and start their cars, usually sit at the tables of pavement bars. For one works team there was no time for such relaxing. A baggage mix-up had resulted in the all-important books of pace notes and navigation notes for three of the four works Fords being carted away to Evian, the northernmost point of the route where the night stops were to be.
Tradition dies hard among rallies which have become established as classics, and the Automobile Club of Marseille and Provence is among those which appear to be most reluctant to make any change. However, there were some changes this year which resulted in the duration of the event being extended by one day.
In previous years the rally ran from Monday evening to Friday afternoon, with two night stops somewhere around the Chambèry region to divide the whole into three sections. This year each of the sections was lengthened and the night stops moved north to the town of Evian, on the southern edge of Lake Geneva.
The reason for this was the heavy sponsorship both from the municipal authorities at Evian and from the mineral water company which operates there and takes its name from the town. Rallies are invariably short of money, and the extension of the route, both in distance and in time, seemed a small price to pay for the financial boost needed to keep the event alive. But it wasn’t at all popular with mechanics. Much of the route appeared as a “straight” line on the map and it was invariably difficult, often impossible, for mechanics to get ahead of their competing charges once they had left a service point.
Despite the sponsorship, the Alpine remains one of the most expensive rallies in the calendar for a private entrant. There is not haggling about starting money as there is in racing; if you want to take part you have to pay for the privilege. It’s as simple as that. In this case the paying was to the extent of about £120 and the result was a thinning-off of private entrants so that the total number of starters, even with factory- and dealer-entered cars, was only 66.
From Britain there were seven entries, four from the Ford Motor Company and three from privateers. Three of Ford’s Escorts had the long-stroke 1,852 c.c. twin-cam engines, whilst the fourth had a collection of parts having their reliability tested in readiness for possible use during next year’s World Cup Rally. These included a 2.3-litre V6 engine from Cologne, a ZF 5-speed gearbox and the rear axle unit from a Taunus 20M RS. The three twin-cam cars retired, one with gearbox failure and two with rear axle troubles. The V6 car, which had been having its share of growing pains, left the rally when clutch slip became so bad that drive was lost.
The private Britishers were Sclater and Thomas in an Escort TC, Bertorelli and Evans in a similar car and Palmer and Spokes in a Porsche 911S. Both Escorts retired, the first when it hit a bridge parapet and the second when the brake master cylinder failed, but the Porsche went on to win its class, albeit 24th in a finishers’ list numbering 25.
Alpine Renault had entered six cars, two Renault-Gordinis and four of the lightweight Alpines with production-based Renault engines mounted at the rear. Between them they took about every award it was possible to take, including the Coupe des Constructeur by finishing 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 6th.
The Alpines were separated in the general classification by the 1.6 Lancia Fulvias (still having to be in the group six category pending homologation) of Källström and Trautmann. The third Fulvia driven by Mäkinen, retired on the last day with engine failure—probably burnt pistons.
The usually reliable Daf team surprisingly had only one car finish from its team of three. One of them misnavigated and another shed its drive belts when a wrongly set-up suspension caused misalignment.
The Citroëns, again with ugly body modifications in a vain attempt to improve their power/weight ratio, were entered in a group six, but there were no Maserati engines in evidence. The cars are nevertheless reliable and one of them, driven by Ogier, finished eighth. The Alpine is certainly not an event which favours Citroëns. More to their liking are rallies over unmade tracks such as the Safari and the Rallye du Maroc.
Among the other entries were dealer teams of Opel Kadetts and Alfa Romeo GTAs and a works Porsche 911T which had been sent down from Stuttgart on loan to Larousse, who entered it privately. He held on to the leaders well, was second at one stage, but hit water on the second leg and rolled. Piot, the French driver in the Ford team, also did this and it is likely that the rear axle failure on his car was caused by oil loss during the roll.
Sixty-six starters and 25 finishers represent quite a high finishing rate by Alpine standards. Six Coupes des Alpes were awarded, among them two to drivers who now have two each from consecutive Alpines, Vinatier and Trautmann. Next year they will be in a position to have their names added to the roll of Coupe d’Or winners which presently only contains two names—Moss and Appleyard.
The Alpine Rally is more of a road race than any other, except perhaps the Tour of Corsica. Sooner or later it could well fall foul of the authorities, who are becoming increasingly strict, even in France. If this happens, the really will either be transformed completely into another Mille Miglia or disappear altogether. Meanwhile, the organisers had better give serious thought to the financial position of private entrants, for these fellows are the life blood of rallying. Without them no rally could survive, and it would be a pale Alpine indeed which only had a handful of works and sponsored drivers in its entry list.—G. P.