“Safety was very much better than last year”
It took Gonzalo Cumplido, the man immediately to my right, just three corners to start wrestling with his seat belt. The Volkswagen we were in had become slightly crossed up. Not surprising when the rear wheels were in the air. laughed. Loving it. Cumplido smiled, nervously. I laughed because I couldn’t have been less concerned. Our driver had done this all before. Michele Mouton’s no stranger to pushing a German car hard in these parts. Her story about guiding an Audi quattro A2 down a snow-packed Bariloche stage on gravel tyres couldn’t fail to inspire confidence.
Michele was enjoying herself. The main part of her work in this stage was done and this was a brief respite from the responsibility of keeping the Argentinian fans safe.
This stage was Los Gigantes. The longest of the rally. “They call it ‘giant’,” said Mouton. The first 10 miles is fast and fairly full of fans. The 14 miles which follow to the finish?
“It’s the moon,” Michele smiled, “I call it the moon. There’s nobody around and look at it...”
It’s hard to argue. When Tim Peake comes back down to Earth, if he’s pining for the last six months of his life, he could hang out on the road between Los Gigantes and Cantera El Condor. He’d feel very much at home.
The reason there’s nobody around is that the organisers have deemed this a no-go zone. Which is why Michele’s taken the wheel. She likes driving. And this road is definitely one for the driver.
Faced with world rally oblivion, Rally Argentina has stepped up and delivered a serious safety plan. It’s still not perfect, but it’s very much better than last year.
And MN has been granted exclusive access to its implementation. Which is how I find myself sitting between Cordoba’s chief of police, Cumplido, and Rally Argentina’s safety co-ordinator Carlos Borrione in a Volkswagen Amarok kitted out with coms to FIA rally director Jarmo Mahonen in the helicopter above us, rally control and police central.
Today I’m part of the decision-making process that says if this rally runs or not. ‘Part’ might be pushing it a bit. I’m here, at least. The focus in the car is incredible. From the start, Mouton’s eyes are everywhere. Like everywhere. She doesn’t miss a thing. She’s happy. The fans are toeing the line, quite literally. Red’s a no-go.
Not far from the finish of Villa Bustos she’s spotted something.
A chap in his eighties is sitting on a stool in front of his house drinking a cup of coffee while waiting for the cars. Out front of his house is red tape. He’s got to go. Borrione’s on the roof-mounted PA system while Cumplido jumps out to explain further. Full of apologies, the old boy takes his coffee and retreats.
Two things surprise me here: it’s carrot not stick and the locals are desperate to do the right thing. Mouton’s happy. Everybody’s happy. Job done.