Road trip to Monte Carlo

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SO WE ARE here in the Hautes-Alpes, and run­ning up the col ahead of us is a snaking treat of a road. It flicks and flows as it climbs be­tween the trees and rock­faces. It in­vites all the pace our car has. It chal­lenges me to try to find a straight line through the curves. But it won’t take long to learn that no, that’s not pos­si­ble and, as the speed builds, the Quat­tro’s steer­ing wheel will be arc­ing left-right-left­right in a con­stant flurry.

We’ve been here be­fore, pho­tog­ra­pher Mar­tyn Goddard and I, in an­other Audi Quat­tro. We came 33 years ago, when the Quat­tro was mo­tor­ing’s dar­ling, the four­wheel-drive won­der rewrit­ing the high­per­for­mance rule­book. We’d belted down from Lon­don in an early left-hand-drive test car with the grand no­tion of trail­ing Hannu Mikkola and Michèle Mou­ton as they strove to demon­strate their works Quat­tros’ ad­van­tage in the 50th Ral­lye Monte-Carlo.

As it hap­pened, that Jan­uary in 1982 was the warm­est and dri­est in the Monte Carlo Rally’s his­tory. The Audis’ ex­pected edge in putting power down on ice and snow – or, at the very least, wet roads – was nul­li­fied. Wal­ter Röhrl in his light, nim­ble Opel As­cona 400 showed the way home, al­though Mikkola pro­vided plenty of spice as he fought back from eighth to se­cond af­ter los­ing three min­utes in a 12-mile drive on a punc­tured tyre.

For us, it meant a three-day-and-night feast of high-speed mo­tor­ing as we leapfrogged from one spe­cial stage to an­other and perched on the moun­tain­sides or in the vil­lages to watch the world’s rally elite blast­ing past. We mightn’t have needed our Quat­tro’s trac­tion in the way we’d ex­pected, but it did help us park in out-of-the-way places that cars with­out four­wheel drive strug­gled to reach.

This time, as we head north-east from Avi­gnon to Monte ter­ri­tory in the HautesAlpes and Alpes-de-Haute-Provence around Sis­teron and Gap, it’s in­trigu­ing to get to know the Quat­tro anew. I’d driven Quat­tros at the launch in Geneva in 1980 and in lots of road tests, had that mag­i­cal week chas­ing the Monte, and then bought a 20v. It was our fam­ily car. It was fast, ef­fort­less, com­fort­able, de­pend­able and prac­ti­cal enough. We loved it.

It’s been a while since I saw a Quat­tro and I’m sur­prised how low it looks now. Quite small re­ally, al­most del­i­cate – al­though amid a field of rally cars it seemed a mon­ster un­til, in 1984, Audi sliced 12.6in from the wheel­base and 10.6in off the length to cre­ate the Sport Quat­tro. Its pro­file is still ut­terly dis­tinc­tive, de­fined by the blis­tered whee­larches its de­signer Martin Smith con­ceived as an

‘We’d belted doWn from lon­don in an early teSt car With the grand no­tion of trail­ing mikkola and mou­ton’

es­sen­tial way of meet­ing his brief to make the Quat­tro look ‘tech­ni­cal’ (see next spread).

In­side, there’s that now quaint-look­ing plaid velour up­hol­stery and door trim, so trendy at the time, and a small, thin-rimmed steer­ing wheel set high and straight in a com­fort­able align­ment with the ped­als. They’re per­fectly po­si­tioned for easy heel-and-toe­ing, a fre­quent and es­sen­tial ac­tion in early Quat­tros be­cause the widely gapped gear ra­tios de­mand a big wal­lop of throt­tle to match the revs com­ing down from third to se­cond and se­cond to first while brak­ing si­mul­ta­ne­ously. You’ll be do­ing that a lot in the Alps.

The wheel feels good in your hands, the clutch’s weight is rea­son­able and its throw is short; ef­fi­cient. The gear­knob, show­ing a nice patina like the leather wheel, tops a shift that is and al­ways was some­what clunky. It works well enough and you won’t wrong-slot, but there’s noth­ing sen­su­ous in its ac­tion. You need to take the shifts a lit­tle slowly in a one-pausetwo mo­tion to counter the five-cylin­der en­gine’s flywheel ef­fect.

The steer­ing im­me­di­ately re­minds you that it’s one of the Quat­tro’s stronger suits. It’s well­weighted, fairly di­rect and has rea­son­able feel. A lit­tle dis­tance reac­quaints you with a much greater Quat­tro virtue – its ride. It’s com­pli­ant and com­fort­able, with enough travel and spring and damper set­tings to deal as­suredly with what­ever nas­ti­ness as­saults the wheels. Where we’re go­ing, there’ll be a lot of that.

This Quat­tro’s sus­pen­sion, though, is a bit clat­tery, per­haps con­sis­tent with its 34 years and 74,000 miles. It was de­liv­ered new in Scot­land to a mem­ber of Jackie Ste­wart’s fam­ily who later sold it back to the dealer, where it stayed un­til Audi UK bought it for its clas­sic fleet 15 years ago. Still, the lack of road noise from the 205/60 Goodyear Ea­gle NCTs is im­pres­sive, wel­come con­trast to many later high-per­for­mance cars with ul­tra-low tyres.

In the traf­fic, be­fore we hit more open roads north of Vai­son-la-Ro­main, the 2144cc in­jected and tur­bocharged over­square five-cylin­der en­gine showed its flex­i­bil­ity and how hap­pily it’ll slog along in a high gear. But while there’s torque enough to make driv­ing easy, there’s no urge if you want a spurt of ac­cel­er­a­tion.

The 210lb ft torque peaks at 3500rpm and the 197bhp comes at 5500rpm – not high but the dif­fer­ence be­tween on- and off-boost re­sponse is pro­found and typ­i­cal of early tur­bocharged en­gines. So you ei­ther grab a lower gear or wait un­til the revs reach 3000, when the boost gets cy­clonic and a great whack of power thrusts the Quat­tro for­ward.

In a car with a kerb­weight of 1290kg, 197bhp was enough for a 0-60mph sprint of seven

‘On the Open rOads Of the val­leys lead­ing tO the hautes-alpes, the Quat­trO can stretch its legs and get On with what it’s sO gOOd at’

sec­onds – Porsche 928 and Fer­rari 308GTB ter­ri­tory. With 137mph at the top end, it wasn’t far shy of a con­tem­po­rary Porsche 911.

On the open roads of the val­leys lead­ing to the Hautes-Alpes, the Quat­tro can stretch its legs and get on with the things it’s so good at, and which gar­nered it such praise, re­spect and af­fec­tion three decades ago. Now it’s into long sweep­ers with good vi­sion, and I can keep the en­gine singing in the all-im­por­tant 3000-4000rpm range so it will soar through those wel­com­ing curves, rolling a bit, its sus­pen­sion soak­ing up the oc­ca­sional bumps, with plenty on tap to whip past slower cars or the odd truck.

The Quat­tro ex­celled in those con­di­tions in the ’80s, and still does. Aside from the po­ten­tial its four-wheel drive gave it as a rally car (ini­tially in 300bhp and ul­ti­mately 591bhp form), Audi rightly saw the stan­dard Quat­tro as a lux­u­ri­ous, high-per­for­mance road car – a clas­sic grand tourer boast­ing de­cent ac­com­mo­da­tion (if not a big boot), quiet and com­fort­able sus­pen­sion, good seats, plenty of top-end urge, mighty road­hold­ing and con­sis­tent han­dling. From that week-long jaunt to the Monte in 1982, three-up and with loads of kit, I knew just how well the Quat­tro per­formed in that role. When the weather was bad it was peer­less.

But now we want to push it in tighter con­di­tions too, on clas­sic Monte stages, some used in the ’82 Monte and oth­ers in later years. So, as we near Gap, which will be our overnight base, we peel off the D994 just be­fore L’Epine onto the D26 to tackle Col des Tourettes and the 31km loop to Rosans. Mar­tyn had watched Colin McRae and Richard Burns here in the 1999 Monte.

And here is that dream of a road invit­ing all the Quat­tro has to of­fer. Now we see again how well it puts its power down and gen­er­ates those high cor­ner­ing forces, re­spond­ing best to a slow(ish) en­try to the bends – to avoid too much un­der­steer – and then pow­er­ing out with the throt­tle flat to the boards.

If you get to the limit in fast bends its be­hav­iour is a lit­tle cu­ri­ous. If the front pushes wide and you ease the throt­tle, what hap­pens next, I wrote in 1982, is pe­cu­liar to the Quat­tro. ‘It hangs a se­cond in limbo and you feel as if you’re in a roller-coaster at the top of its arc: sort of weight­less; sus­pended. For a mo­ment, it can be scary. What you do is go back on the throt­tle. Then it sweeps out to­wards the exit, per­haps with just a trace of over­steer need­ing a touch of op­po­site lock. The ul­ti­mate step is a fi­nal over­steer semi-drift that is gor­geous – but the split se­cond in which you hang in be­tween is not a pleas­ant time.’

As much as the long se­quence of bends reaf­firms the pleas­ant­ness of the Quat­tro’s steer­ing, the strength of its grip on ra­di­als merely six inches wide, and the ab­sorbency of its ride, they also high­light its flaws: the brakes, and poorly stepped gear ra­tios.

So many early Quat­tro driv­ers wished its brakes had more bite, sharper re­sponse and hauled its speed down more re­as­sur­ingly. And no anti-lock­ing seemed very odd – a frus­trat­ing anom­aly in a car at the cut­ting edge; a bit of sheen knocked off the Vor­sprung durch Tech­nik im­age. By to­day’s stan­dards, they’re very poor. And, of course, if you have to push

very hard, with no ABS you’ll lock up and slide – some­thing that caught out many own­ers: te­na­cious cor­ner­ing grip, but stan­dard (or worse) brak­ing abil­ity.

The wide lower gear ra­tios de­mand – when you’re whip­ping be­tween bends, com­ing down from third to se­cond or even first for the hairier hair­pins – a big throt­tle-blip to bridge the gulf, or you must en­dure the jolt when the lower gear bites. And the shift is clunkier than ideal. So it’s a meaty old process, chang­ing cogs in the Quat­tro.

De­spite all that, if you can keep the en­gine above that 3000rpm wa­ter­shed, as you may on so many sec­tions of th­ese alpine roads, you’ll flow and fly and the Quat­tro will sing its bur­bly song and you’ll love the tune.

Over a day-and-a-half, Mar­tyn and I drive three more stages: a cou­ple – Col de Faye and Col des Garcinets – where we’d spec­tated in 1982, and an­other, 37km on the D3 from Sis­teron to Thoard, that’s new to us.

The Col de Faye run is the most spec­tac­u­lar. We use the 31.15km route from the 1999 Monte, in re­verse or­der. That takes us from Ven­tavon over Col de Faye on the D21/D48/D49/D149/ D20 to Bar­cil­lonette and Plan-de-Vitrolles. There are fast, open stretches where the Quat­tro can run full-out with­out the need for fre­quent gearchanges and there are plenty of gor­geous se­quences of left-right-left-right bends like linked chi­canes.

Three-quar­ters of the way round, south-east of Chateauneuf-d’Oze, we climb into stark grey peaks where the D20 cuts into the moun­tain­sides. It’s pep­pered with fallen stones that some­times call for swift avoid­ance and it crests at a spot with ex­tra­or­di­nary views down the vast val­ley of the Céas to Vitrolles and La Saulce. Then it awes us again as it etches its way across the face of cliffs as bar­ren as the moon.

But the fact is that it doesn’t mat­ter where you go in th­ese Alps. They teem with en­tic­ing, chal­leng­ing roads that will in­dulge your driv­ing de­sires. Pick any part of the map and you’ll be spoilt for choice. And there are as many strik­ing views as there are roads. If you want to find stretches used by the Monte Carlo Rally, plenty of sources pop up in Google, in­clud­ing and www.ewrc-re­, which has spe­cial stage itin­er­ar­ies go­ing back to 1973.

Gap, long since an overnight stop for the Monte, is a con­ve­nient base with plenty of good restau­rants. We opt for La Mai­son Jaune at 18 Rue Pas­teur, con­ve­niently open on a Mon­day night.

Af­ter our fourth stage, deeply ful­filled, we point the Quat­tro south on the Route Napoleon to the A51 and en­joy once more its mi­le­gob­bling ef­fort­less­ness – though in 34ºC heat, air con­di­tion­ing would have been a treat. In 1982, af­ter a week on board, we’d learned that the Quat­tro’s cre­den­tials as a grand tourer were ex­cep­tional, with an un­ri­valled edge if the weather was foul. All th­ese years later, it’s still an im­pres­sive car with a very pleas­ant na­ture that’s not brought down by its un­der­par brakes and gappy gear­box. Its heart and its abilites are too big for that.

BUY THE BOOK! Mel Ni­chols’s orig­i­nal story on fol­low­ing the 1982 Monte Carlo Rally in the Quat­tro is in his book And The Revs Keep Ris­ing: Great Drives In Fast

Cars (ISBN 978 0857 3327 07), along with sto­ries on the Sport Quat­tro and rid­ing with Hannu Mikkola.

Top, above and far right Audi in­te­ri­ors have moved on some­what from this func­tional cabin; that war­bling turbo five; trail­ing Team Audi’s Hannu Mikkola and Michèle Mou­ton on the ’82 Monte.

Above, below and far right Four-wheel drive makes for se­cure

and tidy han­dling on Alpine roads now as much as it did three decades

ago; diff locks aid trac­tion in rough go­ing; meet­ing stylist Martin Smith.

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