5 April 2017

Rally de Corse musings...

Jerry Williams has been covering rallying for more than 40 years, attending World Rally Championship events across the globe to get all the insider knowledge.

This is the week when we fly off to Corsica for the WRC’s Rally of France. I have to say it’s a whole lot better for being back on the Ile de Beauté. 

I was never much of a fan of the event’s five years based on the outskirts of Strasbourg, a city nauseatingly in love with its status as the European Parliament’s alternative base.

No, what made everything special in the past were the endlessly twisting mountain roads of the Mediterranean island.

Over the years I’ve seen some pretty amazing editions of that event and I fell to musing the other day on the ones that stood out for me.

This was a difficult exercise … akin to choosing between Cloudy Bay and a first growth Chateau Lafitte as my favourite wine!

But for sheer emotion 1986 would obviously top the list. But that year I was on the Welsh, not in Corsica. I have, however, visited Henri Toivonen’s monument outside the town of Corte since.

For times when I have been on the island you couldn’t nominate any year but 1995 for despair and sadness.

That was the year when the hugely likeable Belgian, Bruno Thiry led from the second stage in his RAS-backed Escort Cossie. He was, as ever, approachable and unassuming, never broadcasting that victory was in the bag.

Then, as he passed us on the road from the end of stage 20, Eccica Suarella, there was a horrible grinding from his right front wheel. This could only be a bearing. 

There were two stages to go. But at the next halt no mechanics or outside spares were allowed. 

We spent the next half hour watching the agony of Bruno and co-driver Stéphane Prevôt, sweaty, desperate and brake dust-streaked as they tried to fix the problem.

Rival team chiefs stood around, full of sympathy but watching like hawks to check there was no outside help. Eventual winner Didier Auriol couldn’t watch: “It should not be like this,” he murmured. In the end Bruno and Stéphane ran out of time. Thiry staggered over to a grass bank and sat there, in tears, being comforted. He had never won a WRC event before. He never would now.

There are times, of course, with happier memories: like 2000 and 2005. The first saw Sebastien Loeb on his first-ever WRC event in a “big car”… and old Toyota Corolla WR Car. He came 9th with a scintillating display. My best rally mate David Williams, of Motorsport News, had prophetic words: “Mark me, that boy will be a world champion and soon.” Five years later he was already champion for the second time and we saw what must be his best-ever performance in Corsica, winning every one of the event’s 12 stages. Corsica, though, was often tight and he beat Toni Gardemeister by less than two minutes.

But it was 2003 that brought possibly the most amazing display. Petter Solberg had half destroyed his Subaru Impreza on the pre-event shakedown, going off at speed and smashing it into a telegraph pole. When the team eventually got the car back to Ajaccio and found a workshop it didn’t look good. Stewards wouldn’t let Prodrive fly out a new car because this one has been scrutineered. Then new teammate Tommi Makinen offered his car as a substitute. Instead, the entire team buckled down and repaired the car, finishing, exhausted, at 6.00 am on rally morning. Solberg was unusually subdued – and hugely grateful! The Impreza was mechanically fit but looked a bit scarred.

On the rally’s first day, Petter did his best but there were, unsurprisingly, a few problems and he was usually 7th or 8th, up a minute off the leading pace. Meanwhile, four drivers had a go at leading: Carlos Sainz, Markko Martin, Sebastien Loeb and Francois Duval, in the order. All but Sainz went off, losing time and places.

Then, on the second day it started raining. Solberg’s Pirellis were always good in the wet and suddenly he saw an opening, decisively winning three stages on the trot. Now he was, amazingly, leading!

On the final day, the rain abated somewhat and Sainz looked menacing. But Solberg hung on to win by 36.6 seconds. In a car that had been a near-total wreck two days earlier. The celebrations went on till after dawn!

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