9 February 2018

FRSL: To Money Town and Back


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.

Rallye Monte Carlo! It’s the WRC’s oldest, most famous event; gold dust for publicity; a name that all sports editors and TV executives have heard of. For those deaf to The Safari, the RAC Rally, The 1000 lakes – all those great names of the past – the Monte still trips naturally off the tongue…

Believe me, those three years when it went to the IRC and 1996, when it was bizarrely left out were times when the WRC really suffered from its absence. But, let’s never forget, despite its name it is a French event. And as such it is always at risk of suffering from ‘Frenchness’; that state that, while indefinable, always includes likely cock-ups or absurd decisions. Anything can, and sometimes does, happen.

I’ve been to most editions of the Monte since 1986. In that time it has been dotted around the country. We’ve been based in Money Carlo itself, in Valence / Monaco and now we’re split between Gap and Monaco. Two of those iterations mean immense road mileages; only one is in any way compact!

That 1986 run was an epic. Back then the Monte still started with the “concentration run”.  We were there with Austin-Rover on the Group B Metro 6R4’s debut. ARG flew a plane load of journos to Paris for the official launch; then six of us carried on in three Montegos to follow Tony Pond and Malcolm Wilson through the event.

As always, the entry list held a WRC who’s who: Timo Salonen, Walter Röhrl, Markku Alen, Juha Kankkunen, Hannu Mikkola, Henri Toivonen, Bruno Saby, Miki Biasion, Michele Mouton, plus the two Brits… priceless names, all of them. Of course, that concentration run took it out of us even before the rally proper started! Like a thousand km or so of road driving for the crews (we only did about 750 km) and then stages totalling 881 km over six days. 

We were knackered at the finish, competitors too.

In 1990 Didier Auriol won for Lancia after going unbelievably fast on the last leg. He beat Carlos Sainz’s Toyota by less than a minute. There were many rumours flying around about turbo irregularities on the Lancia and of exotic fuels being used. But nothing came of it. The lead changed an amazing 10 times throughout the event… all between Auriol and Sainz. 

Blomqvist started the '86 Monte from Bad Homberg in Germany

The next year brought tears of frustration for Francois Delecour when he led all but the final stage before going off on the Turini. He finally got the monkey off his back in 1994. That was the year the snow-shovellers got Armin Schwartz. He’d led the first two stages, then went off and eventually finished seventh in his Mitsubishi.

By 1997 the event was forced into the modern era. That year crews had just 1,300 km of road driving and 398 km of stages. Controversy was never far away. In 1999 M-Sport debuted the new Focus. Colin McRae finished third but was eventually excluded for an illegal water pump. Then inn 2002 Tommi Makinen won after initial winner Seb Loeb was spotted by a clever rival team chief changing tyres in a forbidden zone. After a protest, rally stewards reluctantly give him a two-minute penalty, demoting him from the top of the podium.

But farce is also never far from the Monte.

Cleverly, Citroën instantly appealed the penalty. Results stood until it was heard, which allowed the French to blanket Europe with success advertising. Few remembered that Tommi actually won – curiously, his only victory for Subaru. Loeb eventually won the Monte seven times; including the next year, 2003. It’s an unrivalled record although Seb Ogier is getting close, on five wins.

And would you believe late thatat night after the finish, myself and dear old DKW (David Williams) rushed down to the media centre from our hotel in Beausoleil to change our stories. Crucially, we forgot our WRC passes. And the men in blue blazers on the press room door just raised their hands: 

“Non!”

“But you saw us leave two hours ago.”

“Non, no pass, no go in.”

There was no way around it, we had to gasp all the way up the hill (and another 190 steps) to get said passes!

In 2005 I seem to remember Marcus Grönholm and Petter Solberg each ripped a wheel off their cars, going off on snow shovelled onto the road after the summit of the Col de Turini. That was one - nil to the spectators. But that’s just what they do up on top of the Turini… that and engaging in snowball fights between the Italian and French fans! 

Loeb had the last laugh, winning the event a record 9 times!

It does make you wonder a touch, though. Where’s the point in sending two of your heroes off the road? Actually, Grönholm made it all the way back to service, amazingly on three wheels. He eventually finished fifth. Try doing that in Britain!

In 2006 the unbelievable happened. Loeb led, then went off near the end of day one! Marcus Grönholm took full advantage, winning in his Focus. And The Little Master? He recovered to finish second for Citroën, winning 10 of the 18 stages. What a drive. Even hardened journos were full of admiration.

Such pitfalls wait on every metre of the Monte! One year, all the Peugeot 206 “silver bullets” froze up while parked overnight.

Of all the places the event has been based, my favourite is Money Town itself. The last time that happened was, I reckon, in 2006. It also included the full 31.25 km Turini; run twice. Least favourite are Valence and Gap; Valence because the service area is in a run-down, scabby amusement park. Plus, it’s a long trip down to Monaco. Gap because here are too few hotels in the ski town… and it’s a very long trip down to Monaco.

This year we were back in Gap. Fortunately, a couple of years ago, I found a great hotel nearby. But it was the rally schedule that got to me. The teams all convened in Gap, then went to the shakedown outside town. Then they trekked down to Monaco for the ceremonial start. Then it was back up to Gap, via two night-time stages. Then there was a day all around Gap, followed by… yes, you’ve guessed it… another trip down to Monaco for the final four stages in the Alpes Maritimes.

Given that from Gap to Monaco is 240 km or so, if you go the scenic route or 310 km via the easier Autoroutes, competitors will have travelled around 725 km just batting to and from. Media and other rally followers who took the sensible route will have done 900 or so km. Needless to say, we stayed in Gap! So what’s the chance of getting this ridiculous format changed? Pretty much zero, I’d say. 

The French insist the event needs the Alps. And TV shots and photographs of the cars on the ramp outside Monaco’s casino are just too valuable… Don’t get me wrong; I think it’s a fabulous event… just needs a little refreshing, that’s all.

Loeb got caught changing tyres in a forbidden zone and lost out on a win in 2002!

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