Tails out, 38 classic Porsches tackle the Monte Carlo Rallye Historique up in the Alps: we brave the drifts to catch the action!
hat persuadesmore than 300 rally crews – 38 of themin Porsches – to brave the winter elements, covering 3000 kilometres across continental Europe? To catch a couple of daysʼ Mediterranean sunshine, thatʼs what! Well, thereʼsmore to it than that, lotʼsmore, but essentially thatʼs why themonte Carlo Rallye was invented, to provide northern Europeanmotoring enthusiasts with an opportunity to thaw themselves out for a few days.
That was 107-years ago, and, along with many top-line competition events, the WRC Monte has a historical shadow, the Rallye Historique, introduced in 1998, and which runs a few days later, almost exactly in the studded tyre tracks of the FIA event.
Invariably staged in late January and early February, this yearʼs 21st Historique attracted 317 entries, with six start cities including Glasgow, Reims, Oslo, Bad Homburg, Barcelona and Monte Carlo itself. Spurning the run north to Scotland – from whence the 12 Glasgow starters faced snow crossing the Pennines – instead, we make for Reims.
After the obligatory zoom around the former road circuit at Reims-gueux, plus pits-side photocall, we attend the Reims start. A champagne reception (what else?) precedes the 8.00pm start, where 96 cars are flagged off from the ramp outside the Mairie at three-minute intervals, speeding through Friday eveningʼs drizzle on their convoluted passage southbound to Valence.
That Rhône-side city is the confluence for the rest of the starters, all 317 of them, this year, as opposed to gathering en masse in Monte Carlo as had been customary, before heading back to Valence, for a couple of daysʼ regularity stages in the Ardéche hills and Vercors mountains.
The diversity of entries never fails to amaze: fromalpineRenaults and Alfa Romeo Giulias to Volvo PV544S and Wartburgs, even the odd Panhard and Vespa 400 – with an Austin Taxi the joker in the pack.
Many crews hadnʼt slept for 48-hours, and they queued long into the evening to be clocked through the time control gazebo and pass into Valenceʼs ample Champ-de-mars parc fermé. This is where the Historic Monte reverts to a social gathering, with special bonhomie between rival crews whoʼve competed against each other many times, and certain bars literally heave with joshing rallyists.
They pace themselves in the restaurants as well as the regularities. The first cars clock out at 6.00am, heading for a series of stages in the forested Ardéche, 20 and 30kms west
of Valence. Winding, narrow country lanes, centimetres deep in snow some years but mainly clear in 2018, though higher up the snow fields are unmelted.
Winners of the very first regularity are Tine and Torhild Hallre, mother and daughter, in their Norwegian VW 1303. Thatʼs right, itʼs not horsepower that counts, so much as navigational skills and stopwatch savvy. Later on the Saturday itʼs a tiny DKW and a Wartburg that top the charts.
Media types like Alex and me are allowed out onto the stages, displaying the appropriate press plaque in our Boxster windscreen. We clamber up steep banks and hover in ditches for best camera angles. But how do we know where the stages start and end? That in itself is obvious, given the roadside signage: red or orange A-signs with circular icons, then the red Automobile Club de Monaco gazebo with all the attendant electronic digital timing read-outs. Cars line up and are dispatched individually by a three-two-one countdown of the stewardʼs fingers.
In the past Iʼve located the stages using a set of local French Ordnance Survey maps of the concertina variety, obtained ten years ago when I followed Vic Elford and David Stone in their orange 911, and Quick Vic marked the stages in felt-tip for me. Now, though, although most of the stages remain the same, itʼs simpler to plumb in somewhere like Burzet, for instance, into the sat nav and arrive that way, with a fair idea of how long itʼs going to take to get there, too.
Thereʼs another welcome respite in the evening as Valence comes magically alive with the fairy-lit trees by the bandstand in the park. Sundayʼs action is focused on the Vercors, foothills to the Alps proper, and we queue to follow Porsche gods Jürgen Barth and Roland Kussmaul up the Col de lʼecharasson in their 924 Turbo-based Carrera GTS, an exact replica of their 924 Carrera GTS that finished 20th in 1979 and 19th in 1980.
The stewards glance at our state of the art Vredestein Giugiaro winter tyres and shake their heads: got to have studs, itʼs that icy on this stage. We can walk into the wilderness, though, and with hindsight, this proves to be the most challenging stage of the whole rally from the competitorsʼ point of view.
Surprisingly, given the prevailing snow and ice, power tells as an Alpine A310 and two German girls in an RS2000 head the rankings in the first of these Vercors stages. Thereʼs plenty of snow lying up here, though snow ploughs have cleared the bulk of it off the roads. Awesome icicles up to a couple of metres long hang precariously in tunnels, and itʼs uncanny driving through the clouds as if in an aircraft.
Covering the progress of the rally involves a certain amount of leap-frogging stages, otherwise weʼd get left behind, and we spend up to an hour on each one, shifting to different vantage points along the route. Itʼs difficult to see every car, and quite a
number we never see at all; and though itʼs possible to predict who might be where, to a certain extent, thereʼs a good deal of luck involved in being at the right corner on the right stage to see a different batch come through.
The road from Col de Gaudissart descends to Col de Carri, and beside one corner in Saint-andré-les-alpes we watch a dog sled team uncouple their hounds. At Col de Perty we pause by a section looking down on innumerable hairpins, distracted from the rally cars by as many as 20 eagles soaring slowly overhead. What about the Ford Falcon, you ask? Ah yes, thatʼs a big beast on these tight rural roads, and it came 1st on the Digne-lesBains stage, but didnʼt make the finish, sadly.
We motor on the flat through Die (the appropriate quips unavoidable), and then back to Saint-nazaire-le-desert, where eventual overall victor Gianmaria Aghemʼs Lancia Fulvia bests the timings; heʼs been bubbling under for a while, as have some of the Porsches, though none sufficiently consistently to have an impact on the results.
After the final nightʼs rest-up in Valence itʼs an even earlier start, this time over the Alps and down to Èze, just outside Monaco, where the entourage pauses ahead of the final push. Much of the route uses the awesome Route Napoleon, up which the 19th century French Emperor journeyed to meet his destiny at Waterloo.
Itʼs a blend of soaring rock faces, deep chasms, tunnels hewn through the mountains, ancient fortified towns, and the broad bed of the meandering River Var, amazingly bereft of water, even though the snows have obviously melted. On transit sections such as this the cars travel far faster than they do on the regularities, where to arrive at the end of the stage ahead of time is to incur swingeing penalties.
But on the largely empty public roads the crews let their hair down and really go for it. Even driving a Boxster hard itʼs difficult keeping up with seemingly mundane machines like an Opel Kadett, Ford Escort or Volvo Amazon, and I make a point of pulling over whenever a rally car catches us up.
The rally route runs out of spectacular Provençale country a few kilometres north of Nice, and thereʼs little alternative to tossing a handful of shrapnel into the voracious Autoroute tolls as we make for picturesque Èze, high above the Med. The AC de Monaco has a staging post in a municipal building itʼs commandeered beside the marketplace car park, welcome relief after another full-on dayʼs driving
We hang out with Jürgen Barth and Roland Kussmaul for a
while. Theyʼre doing nicely, down in 105th, but not stressing; they lived that dream nearly forty years ago. Itʼs OK for us, too, but itʼs not done yet, far from it. The rally crews are obliged to regroup down in Monaco, beside the mega-yachts on the Quai Albert 1er, home to the F1 pits garages during Grand Prix time.
For now, thereʼs brief respite before the nocturnal showdown, high in the mountain passes above Nice. That means another autoroute blast, and then a sinuous run up the never-ending single-track hairpins, via Sospel, Lantosque and Peira Cava, up to the legendary Cols de Turini and Saint-sauveur-sur-tinée.
The optimum strategy for journos and snappers, if youʼre so inclined, is to miss the final starting ramp in Monte Carlo and head early for Turini where there are a couple of decent hotel restaurants, ahead of the rally retinue. Even for a pressman itʼs not to be taken lightly: in previous years, Iʼve encountered longhorn cattle lying in the road that wouldnʼt budge, deep snow and ice, and once up there, the roadside scene at Turini is one of alcohol-fuelled mayhem, braziers, barbecues and crêpe stalls all a-go-go.
As the rally cars come through, a couple of minutes between each one, the volume of enthusiast acclaim drowns the engine noise and a hail of camera flashes blinds the crews. Another year, a bunch of Japanese fans plays tag with the cars as they slither by. Elsewhere, ʻfansʼ kick snow onto the hairpins to help liven things up. By midnight we call time and wind our way back down to the Principality, along with rally cars similarly bound.
Itʼs late morning, and we bask in the much-revered sunshine as we stroll downtown to parc fermé. Quizzing some of the crews as to conditions on Turini last night, most are dismissive: it wasnʼt the challenge it usually is; little snow and ice and relatively easy: easy enough for vehicles as disparate as a Lancia Stratos and a VW Golf GTI to come out on top here.
Come midday the final reckonings are posted on the boards outside the AC de Monacoʼs vast harbourside Portakabin. Itʼs important to point out that the Historic Monte has been won by Porsches in the past: a 2.0-litre 911 in 1999, a 914/6 in 2006, a 2.7 Carrera in 2007, and another 2.0-litre car in 2011 (which was leading in 2012 until it was disqualified for punting off a tardy Mini Cooper on the very last stage).
Have any of this yearʼs crop made it into the top ten? We scan down the lists: nope, itʼs not a vintage year for Porsche; the highest-placed 911 is 14th, a 2.4 T crewed by Spanish pair, Alvaro Ochagavias-temino and Marc Gutierrez-dominguez. Then a gap to 21st, where thereʼs a 912 belonging to Spaniards Antonio Sainz-cenamor and Secundino Suarez, with 911s (two 3.0 SCS and a 2.0 S) filling the next three places from 22nd to 24th, then a 2.2 and a 2.7 in 34th and 36th, and in 40th, a Finnish 356B. So, you can tell from that theyʼre fairly well spread out, with the 914/6 of Alex Mcewan and Alan Stark the lowest placed Porsche at 215th.
The homeward run up the Autoroute starts off bathed in glorious sunlight, which lasts, ironically, until Valence. Thereafter, the weather deteriorates till we hit blizzards at Reims. Paradoxically, the conditions in northern France are worse than anything weʼve passed through on the actual rally. Weʼve covered 3000 miles (5000km) in a week. Job done for another year! CP
“THERE’S A BRIEF RESPITE BEFORE THE NOCTURNAL SHOWDOWN…”