That fist faint whisper of an exhaust note in the air just does it for me. Excitement takes over, as the growl grows louder. You know what’s coming, yet waiting for the first glance of headlights is infectious. Today is different. I’m perched on the wall of a very old looking natural well, right in the heart of a picturesque French alpine village. As the sun has risen over the past hour, the beauty of the surroundings become more apparent. Houses look hundreds of years old, and a winding narrow road looks designed for cars of a bygone age. But that noise in the air is no wheezy 2CV or Renault 4, because in a flash, the ancient stonework is truly reverberating. The Monte Carlo rally is in town, and this is unlike anything I’ve seen before!
To see a world rally car at full chat is something everyone needs to experience at some stage, but to see them on the knife-edge through real world environs like this tiny village is just blowing. As the roar becomes deafening, the DMack liveried Ford Fiesta of Elfyn Evans is flung around the hairpin below with the deftest of flicks and is now heading straight towards me at quite a rapid pace. The wall lined road is barely wider than the car, but with incredible precision, a flick to the left sees the car dart past the gable end of a house and across the town square to the even tighter adjoining road. There is no let-up in speed here, and after all that excitement waiting for the first car, Evans has come and gone from sight in less than 5 seconds. Mind suitably blown, and that’s only 1 car in!!
Every sport has its iconic events, those that have withstood the test of time and have their own distinct history spanning decades. Rugby has the Triple Crown, football has the FA Cup, but to Rally folk, the name Monte Carlo just sends tingles down the spine. The Monte just stirs the emotions unlike any event in World Rallying. Every period of significant change in the sport it seems can be cross-referenced to tales of heroics in the icy hills above the Principality. Rally’s earliest pioneers tackled the treacherous Passes in ordinary road cars in a time where adventure was the ultimate aim. In 1964, Belfast’s Paddy Hopkirk guided his tiny Mini Cooper to victory, and thus cemented the cars legendary status in the motoring public. The Group B era is remembered through tales of Lancia’s mid-stage tire changing decisions, or the utter dominance of the Peugeot 205 on the twisty mountain stages. The Monte is almost dripping in history, and 2017 was aiming to be classed as one of the best.
As I wrote in the preview last week, 2017 had all the hallmarks of being great before the off, and it lived up to that in spades. The all new breed of WRC cars saw stages for the first time and in the flesh, spectacular is what comes to mind. More power, more aero and much more of a sense of occasion. More than just the new cars, the driver line up also gave a glimpse at how open this year should be, with the top talent spread evenly among the various teams, with no single team hogging the best a-la VW the past few years. Everything built to a crescendo Thursday night when the countdown hit zero, yet it was less than 10 minutes before the sobering reality of what this year has in store hit home.
Rallying, as a spectator sport, is about as free-spirited as they come. If you want to watch the stages, then pitch yourself up on the ditch and that’s you sorted. Simple as that. But things are never quite that easy, and unfortunately, we are in the midst of a serious spectator safety issue worldwide at the moment. It is impossible to have every inch of a rally stage manned by marshals or security, so a serious onus is on spectators, and media alike, to know the dangers, and choose their vantage points with that in mind. Unfortunately, on Thursday night a spectator didn’t think safe, and was killed while standing right on the outside of a quick, icy bend. Haydon Paddon could do nothing as his Hyundai ran wide and rolled, but the actions of the fan, and their quest to get GoPro video’s cost a life and put a dark shadow on the start of the event. But alas, the show must go on, and on it went.
If reading any of the coverage online before the event, Dungannon’s Kris Meeke was too many people their favourite to take the rally win. The Citroen had been flying in testing, and the mix of man and machine looked perfectly balanced. Everything looked bright, and after the first few stages on Saturday the C3 WRC was up to second. But fate and sentiment plays no part in motorsport. An innocent looking left kink was attacked just a few miles an hour too quickly, and an impact with the roadside bank sent the car spiralling into another, breaking the suspension and ending Meeke’s hopes in one go.
The Monte was showing it ferocious teeth all around as I sat watching and listening to all manner of live reports in Dublin Airport. Sebastian Ogier, reigning World Champion on his first outing in the M-Sport Fiesta, lost 40 seconds stuck in a ditch. Elfyn Evans done likewise, while all manner of crews were reporting spins and stalls. No other rally see’s crews in full Tarmac-spec cars tackling snow and ice mixed in among the dry winding Tarmac of the south of France. Toyota, back in the WRC for the 1st time since 1999, were watching their epically be-winged Yaris fly in the hands of Juho Hannonen and Jari-Matti Latvala, but Hannonen would also be caught out on the way into a hairpin and planted his Yaris firmly in a tree!!
As I landed in Nice, the crews were tucked up for the night, resting before the 5 stages that Saturday would bring. The stages were at a lower altitude, so there would be no heavy snow like Friday, but plenty of ice remained. That drive on Friday night opened my eyes to what is involved in following a rally of this proportion. Just shy of four hours is what it took to cover 170km to my chosen spot for the night. Corner after corner on twisting roads became mentally draining, and the brakes on the poor rental Clio were rightly squeaking by the time I hit the stages at 2AM. What hits you on approaching is the sheer volume of spectators already bedded down for the night. Lines of Campervans stretch for miles, but ignorantly driving on gets me a spot to park up no more than 10 feet from the stage. Wrecked, the only job was to roll out the sleeping back, drop down the back seats and get the head down for the night.
Three hours sleep was what I got, before the sound of anti-lag and straight through exhausts woke me. This wasn’t a string of Altezzas out messing like at an Irish rally, but here at 5AM the Ice crews were out driving the stages making notes for their respective drivers. When watching any rally on-boards, the thing that jumps out is the Co-Driver delivering a constant stream of notes that describe the road ahead for the driver so they can adjust their speed and line. While it is possible to purchase Pace notes from suppliers here in Ireland, most crews at WRC level create their own, during a period called Recce. This allows the drivers and Co-Drivers to drive the stages in road cars, and make notes. With the changeability of the Monte, Ice crews are a further backup. Sent out to drive the stage before it closes to traffic, Ice crews note any fresh areas of loose stones, slippery conditions or general things to look out for before relaying this back to the crew in service.
As I stood perched on my little wall, it became noticeable very quickly that there are subtle differences that you can pick up between the various cars as they pass. The standout here is the Yaris. Harking back to the heyday of the 90’s, the little Toyota squeals and bangs like a Group A machine, and the distinctive turbo blow off can be heard from miles away. It’s a JDM fan boy overload, and the fact the crew is strapped in with green Takata harnesses is spot on! The Citroen is obviously a product of the companies WTCC success in recent years, as it covers ground exactly like a Touring Car, absolutely pinned to the ground thanks to the array of diffusers and aero package. The Fiesta, with its outlandish frontal plane, seems to need constant steering as if never truly settling in a straight line, but this obviously aids the all-out style of Ott Tanak as seen by some serious sideways driving over the weekend. And then there’s the Hyundai. I noted last week how good the car looked in pics but in reality, it is beautiful. Looking a lot less weighed down in aero add-on’s, the i20 seems to just float as if the upgraded power is in constant battle with the downforce available. The way it moves around on tarmac is a sight to behold.
The Hyundai itself really caught a lot of us off guard. Thierry Neuville, the lead driver for the Korean’s, went off at a blistering pace from the off and held a massive lead entering the last stage on Saturday. A man who’s endured a lot of up’s and downs over the last few years, the Belgian looked cool, calm and collected. All was good until the right rear of his i20 Coupe ran wide and slapped a roadside pole. The control arm snapped, and all hopes of a Hyundai win were gone. While that lifted Ogier to an unexpected lead, more impressively it lifted Craig Breen to 4th overall. Anyone that watched TV coverage over the weekend may have been mistaken for thinking the Waterford ace was sitting at home, but he was truly flying.
As Citroen rush to get more C3 WRC’s built for the season ahead, Breen was sent out in last year’s DS3 in an effort to get stage mileage under the belt and to allow Craig experience the Monte in a world car. With the buzz around the new cars, Craig went under the radar, but holy god was he plugging in the times. Each stage saw more scalps taken as he crept up the leader board, added to that an ice cool head left Craig sniffing a podium place on Saturday evening. I got a lift from Craig’s parents back to the car after stage 13, after walking 5KM up a mountain to stage end, and they were rightly buzzing from his performance. Alas, the weather went against Craig on Sunday, but finishing 5th overall is a massive achievement for the young driver, so now eyes are on Sweden when Craig gets a run in a ‘big’ car.
Elsewhere, looking down the field brought a number of battles just as exciting as that at the head of the pack. A trio of Skoda Fabia R5’s, decked out in a very cool livery harking back to a Skoda entry in 1977, were regulars in the top 10, and the standout cars in WRC 2. Andreas Mikkelson was a class above and easily took the R5 bragging rights. Irelands Eamonn Boland had a solid drive all weekend, hampered by a few punctures but bought his Fiesta R5 home in 28th place. Elsewhere, all manner of R3 and R2 Clio’s, 208’s, Fiesta’s, C2’s and Twingo’s made up the rest of the field, with plenty of personal battles going on right down to the last car. Just getting to the end line is an achievement, no matter how long it takes to do it.
One of the more interesting categories within the rally is R-GT. Developed by the FIA over the past few years, the whole idea never fully took off as much as hoped, unfortunately. The class came about as an opportunity to get sports and GT cars back into rallying, and since its inception we’ve seen Nissan and Toyota dabble with their 350Z and GT86, but it’s been privately built 911’s that have been the mainstay of the class. This year, two French legends would do battle for RGT honours, with Romain Dumas in a 911 and Francois Delecour taking the wheel of the brand new Fiat 124 Abarth. Dumas took the glory, and although the class only attracted 4 entries, the sound and visual appeal of a 4 Litre Porsche scrabbling for grip on an Icy rally stage is worth all the effort!
A service park is always a busy place, but in the WRC it is a battle of the various teams to have the swankiest workshop spaces. Hyundai is the obvious kings around here, as their 3 story premises would be impressive as a building, but the fact it’s totally mobile is astounding. Here is the chance for fans to get as close as possible to the machinery, and as such the crowds are massive. Come Saturday night, once service was completed, it was southbound for both spectators and crews. 4 hours lay ahead, and the satnav read Col De Turini!
Certain stage names just have that ring about them. Iconic, legendary, epic. Think Molls Gap, Knockalla, Sweet Lamb or Ouninpohja and the Col sits right up there in the pantheon of dream stages. As you stand on this 200m stretch of road, your mind wanders to thoughts of McRae fully sideways in the Focus, Miki Biasion snaking the Lancia 037 through the snow or Tommi Mac roaring through in all manner of Evo’s. History here lies in the ground, and the buzz is in the air when I arrive at 11.30 the night before. Hundreds of campers line the approach roads, the smell of campfires fill the air and there is a constant rattle of fireworks. This is a special place and a true bucket list location. Standing stage side at 1700m up is so calm and quiet, but as soon as the cars start to blast over the top and fire off down the far side, flares and air horns take over. A French leader is the cause of much of the frenzy, but the influx of plenty of crazy Italians certainly helps.
As the last few stragglers pass on their first run, a light shower of snow falls. By the time the leaders come back a second time, it has turned to a blizzard. The perfectly dry road was now a white and slippery lottery for the crews. Flat out driving was replaced with distinct caution as the end lay in sight. Ott Tanak thought his dream podium finish was gone as he ran on 2 cylinders for Sunday, but he went balls out on the 6KM descent to the finish in the snow and took over 30 seconds and finished 3rd as a result.
All in all, Monte Carlo is an experience, unlike anything I’ve experienced. Everything seems ramped on anything we have in Ireland, from the massive distances to travel between stages, to the number of spectators out in the ditches. Witnessing the new breed of 2017 WRC cars was something I couldn’t pass up, and even the thought traveling alone didn’t stop me. Granted I truly roughed it for a few days and nights sleeping in the Clio, but that was an experience in itself and good god it got you the best access come the stage going live. What was a booking on a whim to see at least the start of the season, is now a serious bug to get to more Finland? Germany? Spain? Nothing booked……yet.