Cold. Very very cold. And Tired. Very very tired. Huddled for warmth, wrapped snug in a thin duvet and a plethora of blankets, the urge is to dismiss the intrusive phone alarm, acting as an unwelcome distraction from the desire to remain in a state of unconscious, accepting your body’s urge to regain some much-needed sleep that had been neglected all trip. Pulling myself from the bunk bed already fully clothed, cold dampness fills the surroundings. Windows, rendered translucent by a thick layer of ice, give a guide that that the sun is yet to rise. Sliding open the door, an icy breeze hits me in the face, and the view consists of snow piled feet high against steep rock faces. The air is thick with the smell of dying fires that have provided warmth all around, yet notably thinner than normal at this height. The silence is pierced by the bark of an un-quenched 5-Cylinder Volvo, and you remember that you’re parked a matter of meters from the Col de Turini in late January. Welcome to the Monte Carlo Rally!
Much has been talked about in recent times with regard the belief that endurance and challenge had appeared to have ebbed away from Modern Rallying, but come Sunday evening, it was obvious that Rallye Monte Carlo is a gruelling event, and that was only from a spectating view! Five consecutive mornings came, with the desire to watch rally cars being pushed to their limit being the sometimes only objective for the day. Having made my first trip to a WRC event exactly a year ago, it was pretty certain, in my head at least, that the traditional season opener would feature in my 2018 plans. Having only experienced two days last year, living out of a Renault Clio, this year was going to be done properly and in as thorough a manner as possible. Ryanair bargains sorted almost 5 months in advance, a week in the South of France beckoned. The following is a personal journey chasing the world’s most exciting rally!
Monday & Tuesday
In Ireland, the majority of events are wrapped up in a single weekend. Bar the larger championship events, Scrutiny and Recce takes place on a Saturday, with the competition confined to Sunday. The Monte is a whole other spectrum in this regard. As we sat in Dublin Airport on Monday afternoon, our social media channels were swamped with live pictures of crews out making notes over the rally route. Meanwhile, the service park was awash with scenes of cars coming and going, undergoing final preparations and the various team hospitality premises taking shape. Feet on French soil, natural course of action was to grab a few refreshments, and before long a right crew of Rally fans were to be found in the nearest Irish Bar!! Next morning, as the sun shone on a beautiful Mediterranean January morning, we picked up our transport and accommodation for the week, an Indie Camper Fiat Ducato. Obligatory detour into Monte Carlo for a bit of sightseeing and the obvious lap of the F1 circuit, the Sat Nav was set for the mountains, primarily 3 hours north to the town of Gap.
Nestled amongst some intimidating Alpine peaks, Gap lies 3 hours from Nice, roughly halfway between it and Grenoble. The French Autoroute makes the journey easy, if somewhat dull, although anyone planning on heading to the Monte in the future should be aware of the large Toll’s along the way. The M50 charge seems reasonable when you roll up to a barrier and see €16.50 shoot up on the screen. Once in Gap though, the only true destination was Service Park, the beating heart of any event. Under darkness on the eve of the opening salvos of the year, cars sat looking pristine and ready to rock, as mechanics applied the final touches or gave a wipe of cleaning sprays. A calmness hung in the air, almost as in that odd moment before a storm is about to hit. A 10-minute drive and we set camp in the rough for the 1st night.
Less than a handful of kilometres from the Service park, the Shakedown stage gives teams the opportunity to get a running into their cars at proper rally pace before things kick off properly the following day. The short 4km blast had everything, from tight twisty sections to flat out arrow straights, but this year was different to 2017. Firstly, the crowds, which were massive last year, seemed somewhat more subdued. The natural answer for this was the general excitement for the public debut of the 17-spec cars that existed a year ago had somewhat passed, yet most locations were still very busy. Also, compared to 2017, the Shakedown was completely devoid of any semblance of Snow or Ice.
The whole stage was a proper fast flowing stretch of Dry Tarmac which was indicative of how most of the event would be for the crews. Usually in bursts of 15-20 minutes between tire and setup changes, we got to experience the top crews blast past over a two-hour window as the sun set. By the time the stage became available for those outside of FIA Priority 1 (ie. WRC crews), it was complete darkness. First day of action ticked off, the natural destination was back to Service at which we made camp for the night, bedding down to the crackle of exhausts and the whine of Sequential gearboxes coming and going to all hours.
The opening day of the season is always exciting, no matter the sport. A sense of anticipation is palpable in the air, as everyone begins on a level plain with all manner of dreams and ambitions for the year. Walking around service as the sun began to rise, excitement began to emanate through each and every person you talked to. Cars were being loaded onto trailers for the long spin back to Monte Carlo for the start ramp, and almost devoid of any other spectators, this sprawling mass of awnings, power tools and rally cars felt almost serene. As the crews headed in one direction, we headed towards what way, in reflection, to be the greatest rally experience I was to ever have. I like to get to a stage nice and early to minimise the walk, but at 1pm the trusty Ducato rounded a tight right hander and we set eyes on Rallying Nirvana. The first competing car would be tackling the route at 11pm!!
As all the pomp and ceremony took place down in Casino Square in Monaco, the proper rally fans were sitting up in the mountains. The rally starts, rather spectacularly, with a brace of uber-difficult mountain Stages run in the darkness of Thursday night. While Sisteron, the opening test, is truly historic, it was the tight and twisty hairpins at the start of the second Bayons-Breziers stage that was our destination of choice. A succession of four tight switchbacks, The Turnstiles as they are called, are stunning in day light, but are on another planet spectating wise once the sun goes down. The initial research suggested a 2km walk uphill would greet us, yet in reality we parked, thanks to some sweet talking of some French Gendarme, less than 200 m from the natural arena. Never before have I been in place exactly five hours before the first car was due, but such was the size of the crowds and the desire for spots, it felt almost sensible. Of course, perched on the side of a French mountain on a Thursday evening, we would find a crew of other Irish fans. As the beer flowed and darkness set, fireworks, speakers and smoke bombs became the norm. When Sebastian Ogier and his Fiesta came into view though, all hell broke loose. This was an assault on the senses the like I have never felt before. I took no camera to the stage, mainly as I wanted to truly experience the evening, but it was impossible not to record the scene!
Due to the lateness of getting off the Thursday night stages, the traffic and the grief of dealing with tight French backroads not designed for the invasion of a spectating circus that the WRC attracts, it was well beyond 3am when we parked up, and set our alarms for 6.45am! The town of Barcelonnette will always have a special place in my heart, as it was exactly here that I got to experience the WRC for the very first time. Wandering through the tight and twisting streets, it all felt so familiar and welcoming. It could have been the sleep deprivation, but I’ve never enjoyed a nap as much as the one I got in a ploughed field once a spot was found just beyond the town boundary. By now, we had learned of the incredible drama and events of the previous nights stages, where countless crews had hit trouble on patches of ice and lost masses of time, but stage side it matters very little. Cars pass in a matter of seconds, and with stages sometimes lasting over 20 minutes, its impossible to decipher time loss or gain in the flesh.
As is my in-built desire to try and get as many angles as possible when shooting a rally stage, I’m a nightmare to go to a rally with. While my gear is battered and truly bargain basement compared to others, many must come away with galleries chock full of the exact same images. I try different things, move around and experiment on a constant basis. I travelled to Monte Carlo with Brian and Den O’Connell, two massive rally fans and competitors themselves, but I often left them to go wandering. Before long, I was atop hills, near the apex and even across the road, while still at the same corner.
The size and breath of any WRC event makes it almost impossible to hop between stages, so we simply took in the two running’s of every stage we visited. For the second loop, we moved back to the town centre Fountain I had stood on a year previous and took in the spectacle.
While the eleven full blooded WRC cars are the main attraction, the rest of the field is chock full of over a hundred other crews each competing alone the same route. All weekend, we made a point of hanging on to support the two Irish crews of Eamon Boland/ MJ Morrissey and Enda McCormack/Colin Fitzgerald. I know we must have been invisible to the crews, but its great to get a chance to wave the tricolour at our own!
Saturday morning was an odd experience. The plan all along, after three days of watching cars on Dry Tarmac, was to experience the spectacle of a proper Monte and have the crews slithering about on Snow and Ice. The Ski resort of Ancelle offered, we though, the best opportunity to live this scene, as a Ski Lift was laid on for spectators to bring them to the top of a mountain where the stage crossed a ski slope. Driving up the night before through freezing fog, the cleared roads reinforced our belief that this lift would be the only route to seeing cars on snow. Parked up at what we believed was the correct spot, we drifted off to sleep thinking we had only a 10-minute walk and a lift to get to the stage, yet we awoke to two odd realisations. Firstly, two feet of fresh powder had fallen the night before, making the roads completely white and treacherous, and secondly, we had parked barely 10 metres from the stage itself, nowhere at all near the ski lift. Result!
Ski gear in full use, ankle deep in snow and full of excitement, the first car to greet us was Craig Breen. The Waterford man had had issues the previous day with the brakes on his Citroen C3, meaning that he had the disappointing prospect of two days sweeping the snow-covered roads. The WRC Citroen scrabbled for grip that just wasn’t available in its Tarmac setup, an issue that is such a staple of the Monte Carlo rally and part of its challenge. As the road cleared, speeds increased, although anyone that ventured off the main tire tracks were still prone to sliding, and the roadside snow banks were being used in a way akin to Sweden.
Oddly, for a ski resort in late January in the Alps, the sun began to shine, as in properly shine. Layer after layer began to be discarded as the temperatures soared. The van read 13 degrees between stages, and even higher afterwards. As the snow melted into slush, crew really began to excel in the conditions. Where the first run was a cagey and cautious affair, the second run was full blooded and at speed. All around, the clouds opened and the scenery on all sides came into view in spectacular fashion. Taking in the surroundings, it was incredible watching rally cars charge across such beautiful vistas, although at times it did mean standing ankle deep in an icy cold river to try and get the best shot!
After a day in the sun, we made our final call into Service, just in time to experience the madness of what a rally cars arrival can truly be like. We passed the M-Sport awning and crowds stood 10 deep in preparation of hometown hero Ogier, but we kept going to the Toyota service area to witness the reception for Ott Tanak. Previously an M-Sport driver, the Estonian changed team during the off season, although his pace wouldn’t make that obvious. Blisteringly quick from the start, the Yaris had become intuitive in his hands and he was truly pushing the World Champion’s Fiesta to the limit. As the car rolled in, the masses parted almost in a biblical way, and the tide crashed back in within inches of the rear wing to great cheers and waves. Over at Citroen, even after a number of hard days, a huge cohort of Irish fans stood to cheer on Breen and Dungannon’s Kris Meeke upon their return to service.
Cold and tired, as I said at the top, was the mood of the day come Sunday. Perched 1600m above sea level though, its hard not to feel a sense of excitement walking down past the sea of motor homes and tents as the infamous stretch of tarmac, barely 100m long, looms into sight. Some rally stages hold legendary status that has transcended through the generations, and right near the very top of any list sits the Col De Turini. It just isn’t a Monte without the Turini. Leaving Gap in the evening sunshine, it would be nearly 4 hours before we joined a convoy of vehicles at the base of the climb. Access is solely by police escort, so although progress is slow, it allows time to take in each and every corner. Here’s where Sainz went off, here’s where Latvala ran wide. Every inch has history, none more so than the Col itself. While perhaps not as spectacular in the daylight, it still has such historical significance.
As a parting shot for an already difficult event, the two KM’s over the highest part of the Turini was caked in thick black Ice, totally at odds with the bone-dry tarmac lower on the climb. Again, the crews struggled to deal with the changes they were experiencing, so passage over the top was done so with extreme care. That the crews knew of the situations to expect was definitely down to the Ice Crews who drove the stages two hours before the competing cars, each working to record stage conditions and relate information back to drivers and co-drivers about what to expect.
While the majority of crews came through unscathed, some lower runners were caught out and made excursions into the snow banks, much to the enjoyment of the massive crews. While everyone comes to see the WRC stars, I have a soft spot for the R2 guys running at the back of the field. Screaming FWD cars being pushed to their limit
is never short of spectacular in my book and seeing a plethora of French Tarmac spec Peugeot 208’s and Renault Twingo’s is my idea of a good time!
And so, as the cars passed over a now damp and slushy Turini, they disappeared out of sight for the final time. Worn out, drained and exhausted after five full days of chasing across France watching rally cars, it was time for home. Back to Nice and camper returned without a scratch, it gave us a few hours to reflect on the week and look forward to the season ahead. Seb Ogier ran away in the end, as he always seems to do on the Monte, but Tanak, Latvala and Lappi all showed how strong a team Toyota have put together. Hyundai has a disastrous run of luck, but Neuville and Mikkelsen showed incredible pace that will stand to them all year. Elfyn Evans had a solid event alongside Ogier in the M-Sport Ford, a promising outlook for their desire to retain the manufacturers crown won last year, while yet again Citroen are made to look confused and without a properly set-up car. Breen was unlucky with the Brake issue on Friday, and although Meeke stunned everyone with the power stage victory, all does not seem well in the Gallic camp. It’s a long season though, with plenty of bumps along the way, but WRC 2018 is go, and the Monte kicked things off yet again in style!!