MONTE CARLO HISTORIC RALLY

The Rallye Monte Carlo Historique attracts a fair number of crews from Scandinavia – 20 out of 305 entries this year – and their prevailing winter climate means they have a natural aptitude for rallying. We follow the fortunes of two Norse 911s as team insiders.

 

The power goes down, the snow flies from the wheelarches like a ship’s bow-wave, and the blue and white 911 rockets through the snowfield that’s doubling as a road junction. Say ‘Hi!’ to Mauritz Lange, wildman pilot of this rocketship, hovering on the outer edge of adhesion. Traction control? Get away!

We’re watching the action on an Ardèche stage of the Historic Monte Carlo Rally, the AC de Monaco’s 18thclassic incarnation of the FIA’s WRC event, and it’s a 300-car fest of bangers built between 1950 and 1980. No fewer than 53 of these are Porsches: 911s, 356s, 914s and 924 Turbos. My cousin Fran Newman and I have been co-opted into two of the 911 squads – Mauritz Lange’s Swedish enterprise with the ex-Rothman’s team 911SC (co-driven by Norwegian Trond Brørby), and Norwegians Tore Johannessen and Tine Hallre in their Signal Orange 2.2 911T – so we are observing the action from the inside, and that includes service halts along the way - and a total immersion in Scandinavian bonhomie in the bars for the daily debriefing. The rally lasts six days for long-range entrants – seven if you stick around for the results and the evening’s swanky après rally ball. There are six start cities: Glasgow, Copenhagen, Reims, Barcelona, Turin and Monte Carlo itself. We’ve elected to go with Mauritz’s team from Copenhagen, hacking up from Hook-of-Holland in the Peppermint Pig 964, having crossed the North Sea with Stena Line.Mauritz and his amiable navigatorTrond (dubbed “Fjordy” by Fran) will be serviced byHams Eriksson and Telle Marninge, their VW Transporter van packed with tools and 18 wheels shod with studded tyres.

 

A slight glitch with the Peppermint Pig’s new Specialist Components induction mods finds us scarily stationary in the centre lane of the autobahn, but luckily handy for Porsche Centre Hamburg where the new Kevlar air pipe is refixed. At Copenhagen there’s a reception and speech by Rauno Aaltonen (Mini-Cooper’s Monte winner in 1967) and he flags off the small coterie of starters from the dais outside the city hall. In southern Denmark we stop to give a tow to a Renault Caravelle (aka Floride) that’s simply run out of petrol. Then there’s a relaxing half-hour crossing aboard ScandLines ferry from Rødby, Denmark to Puttgarden, Germany.

 

It’s a slog, this transit section, tempered by blizzards as we drive through northern Germany. First night’s stopover is Bad Homburg, a former Monte start point, and hospitality includes dinner in the casino, a model for Monte Carlo apparently, though when Fran asks why it is a modern building she’s advised that the original got bombed. Whoops! There’s a rather more enthusiastic send-off than at Copenhagen, and the German flag bears Walter Röhrl’s signature for good measure. We make for the French border at Langres, though some cars route through Luxembourg and get stymied by snow and stationary traffic. Now we link up with Reims and Glasgow starters and the retinue quadruples. Snow on high ground is the order of the day, making life interesting on the French B-road route that loops 500-miles south and southeast via Roanne, Montelimar and Gap down to the Principality for the first time. The first special stages at St-André-les-Alpes and Villars-sur-Var snap open drowsy eyelids. A long, long, largely sleep-deprived night, and you have to wonder why… There’s a certain pointlessness to this 36-hour journey, but it’s traditionally part and parcel of the Monte. By now the cavalcade is united with starters from the other three “short haul” cities and, after a fretful overnight at Monaco, the whole entourage winds northwest via three snow-laden stages to Valence for an intensive four stages rallying. That’s a full day in the forested Ardèche mountains. In the snow.

 

We rendezvous with Tore and Tine. They’ve started from Reims and are currently in the top ten.Most of the 911s sport distinctive colour schemes, but their Signal Orange 2.2T is as easy to spot as Mauritz’s SC’s Rothman’s livery. We hang by a viaduct that provides shelter beneath its arches for service crews as well as a superb vantage over the transit road and the hillyArdèche backdrop. The Norwegian 2.2T is one of the first to blast past, giving us a flash and a blast on their klaxons as it goes by. Even experienced rally spectators behave like twerps on the fringes of stages, and the blaring airhorns at least give them a jolt. We saw this on several stages, not least the daunting Col de L’Écharasson that summits over the Vercors east of Valence. The serpentine rally stage is surfaced with hard-packed snow and ice and there are snow banks either side from previous ploughing. Where it appears clear there’s perilous black ice and sheer drop-offs into trees. At least where it’s snow ploughed there’s a white barrier at the edge.This is our haunt for the moment, but some distinctly underdressed souls stand on the stage and their dancing avoidances would be amusing if it wasn’t dangerous for the sliding rally cars as they swish this way and that through the turns.Nevertheless, Tine is upbeat; spectator adulation is part of the Monte mystique: ‘It’s not only in the villages where you’ve got loads of people who have come out to watch,’ she says; ‘that’s the magic part about Monte Carlo - they are in the Alps, in a snowstorm, and they’ll sit under an umbrella if it’s really bad weather and they’ll jump up when a rally car comes by, and they wave you to go faster. And since I’ve got this horn here that sounds like a siren, I switch it on whenever I see spectators and they just love it, the crowd goes crazy, and that’s the joy of Monte Carlo: the atmosphere, and that people are actually on every single turn throughout the entire rally; they’re enthusiasts, and they don’t care about bad weather, they make bonfires, and it’s just mental, its blitzkrieg, and because of theircamera flashes it’s hard to see the road!’

 

Stages like Col de L’Echarasson are also Mauritz’s natural habitat: ‘I enjoy it most when we have a lot of space and a lot of snow, and then I start driving fast. Nobody else is driving fast in snow, but this is my strong point.When you’re driving fast and you feel the car and the engine between 6- and 7,000rpm it’s sensational, but you must not touch the steering wheel, you’re driving with the engine, on the throttle, and this is the best car in the world when you have a lot of power, a full differential, and a 100 litres tank so it is a little bit heavy on the front, and my rack has only 2 ½ turns lock to lock. You must concentrate though, because at 200kph it starts to get a little scary!’

 

The Rallye Historique follows much the same route and stages as the FIA WRC event, and locals are flushed with excitement from the big time bonanza that passed though a week earlier. The flags and bunting are still in place in many villages. Comments Trond, ‘We drove through the night, and at 3.00 o’clock in the morning in these small, deserted villages and on the roundabouts there are maybe 20 people with warm wine, cheering and waving!’ Place to be in Valence is the Bistrot-des-Clercs, whose patron regularly campaigns a BMW 2002. Our respective Scandacrews are known here (as are we) and there is suitable joshing and sploshing with the staff. For four hours cars continue to roll into the checkpoint at the municipal Champ-de-Mars gardens, and six hours later they begin to head off again, going west into the Ardèchesnowfields once again. Mauritz swaps from snow tyres on Fuchs to studs on steels, while Tore has studs on all the time. By comparison, Mauritz uses 16 of his complement, while Tore just four. Nucleus of this set of stages is the little market town of Ste Agrève, snowy and chock-a-block with rally cars ploughing in and out of the cattle market timecheck. Baguette-clutching shoppers stop and stare. The afternoon’s stages are largely snow-free and just like belting along country lanes, then it’s back to Valence for another hardcore evening. Covering stages involves leapfrogging one or two so we are well placed on the third one to snap the cars as they snarl past. We’re also serving half-a-dozen classic car mags so we need shots of the more esoteric cars and not just our two Scandewegians.

 

Next morning we make for Puget-Théniers via Sisteron and Barrême, over the Haute-Alpes and Alpes-Maritimes along the fabulous Route Napoleon with its hairpins, impressive rock formations and netted cliffs. It’s about now that Mauritz calls. ‘My engine is f*cked, he moans. No compression on one cylinder, so we are going to limp straight to Monte Carlo.’ He’s bust. The same can’t be said of Tore and Tine. They’ve been in the top ten on several stages, even led a couple. Historically, Tore and co-driver Anita Sørstø finished 8th overall in 2014, and Tine has ‘done’ the Monte four times in an Alpine-Renault A110. ‘We like the snow,’ she says, ‘and if a night stage is full of snow then we usually climb up the results, and also it’s fun, more slippery. It’s more challenging, it’s harder to stay on time, it’s challenging for the driver, with a little bit more action going sideways.’ They are inveterate rally addicts, these guys, tackling the Midnight Sun, Winter Challenge and Tour de Corse without batting an eyelid. Tore, a schoolteacher, owns nine 911s. Mauritz too is a 911 connoisseur, having done the Historic Monte seven times, including being co-driven by Lars Helmér (winner in 1969 and ’70 with Björn Waldegård) inhis own 911T. The Rothman’s SC will be superseded by a 930 rally car, though worryingly he waxes lyrical about a Lancia Stratos. He’s philosophical about the retirement: ‘the car may be broken now, but it’s the best three days rallying we’ve ever had!’

 

A few brief hour’s respite in Monte Carlo and, one by one, at roughly1-minute intervals, the whole enormous field departs the rostrum by La Rascasse on Quai Albert 1er, heading for Lucéram and Sospel, by night magical mysterious places commencing the endless hairpin lanes winding up to La Bollène and Col-de-Turini stages. Here lurks sheer madness, braziers and thunderflashes, crêpe and vin chaud vendors; last time Fran and I were up here at midnight, a gang of yellow anorak’d Japanese got off on touching the rally cars as they careered by on the brink of disaster.It was a miracle no one got killed. On the way down, a herd of shaggy longhorns blocked our way. This year the roads are mostly clear, though when half the field has gone through it snows again, ensuring a number of cars manifest battered corners the following morning. Tine and Tore are unscathed: ‘There was only a little bit of snow over the top of Turini, and the rest was not very slippery at all, though it was a quite hectic four hours of hardcore in the dark, but we didn’t have to worry too much about sliding off.’ Spectator interaction can be useful:‘There are four different ways to go down from Turini but the fans are blocking the two wrong ways so it’s easy to see where you are supposed to go, and they do that throughout the rest of the stages as well, they block wrong exits and even if you know where to go, they still help you, they’re standing there pointing for every single car that shows up!’ By 3.00am the majority of cars are back in parc fermé and the mood is palpably elation, as corks pop, tops flip, and crews hug and relax.

 

Results are posted by midday, and although Mauritz and Trond are unclassified, Tore and Tine are a satisfied 15th overall. ‘We won our class, and we won the male-and-female class,’ enthuses Tine, ‘and we came 2nd in our category, and we were the 2nd best Norwegian team.’ But for one glitch on the last night they could have been higher. ‘We missed a compulsory stop to have the transponder verified,’ says Tore. ‘You’re supposed to stop for 2 seconds and the committee reads this GPS in the car and they’ll give you the thumbs up and you drive on, but we never found the control. For the 13 other controls they’ve been sitting in a car with huge signs telling you to stop, but this time it was just a guy standing in the crowd, so we didn’t realise that was actually where the control was, and we kept on driving looking for the control; so we got 500 penalty points, and without those penalties we would have won the entire stage.’They’d have been 10th overall but for that. Frankly, though, it’s gratifying just to make it back to the finish, and there are 254 classified cars out of 302 starters. What’s this? A Golf GTi won? Put it this way: it was only a matter of time. As the eligibility time clock edges closer to modernity, hot hatches from the late ’70s are appearing higher up the results sheets as their efficiency tells. Thus, the outright winner is a Golf GiT, crewed by Italian duo Piero Ranchi and Giovanni Agnese. Highest Porsche is the ’67 911 2.0 of Raymond Horgnies/Christophe Hayez in 4th place, and there are seven in the top 20.

 

A final burger in Stars and Bars and a session in the Tip Top, and we depart Monaco at 3.30am. We elect to use the autoroute and swallow the 80-euro’s worth of tolls that will sponge. Progress north is beset by the Mistral or one of those spooky winds that funnel down the Rhone valley, and the Peppermint Pig ducks and dives with the gusts. We share the driving and the 964 is a sublime cruiser. 18 hours later we’re back in Somerset, licking our wounds. Tell you what, it was fun going up to Denmark, but the haul back down to the Med really is a schlep too far unless you’re an actual competitor.But actually, that brief blast of Mediterranean sunshine and warmth makes the whole thing worthwhile. It’s why the Monte was invented in the first place – and why it’s so popular with the Scandinavians.

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