Monte Carlo Challenge
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Monte Carlo Challenge, February 1996. The navvy’s view.

For our fifth challenge we were prepared for the first time in our history of rallying.

Never before had the car been ready to test a week before a rally, the Halda Twinmaster and Speedpilot checked, with time left to do the trim and fill all the holes that let water and engine fumes into the cockpit. Previously, it had been the early hours of the week before a rally which had seen John rebuilding an engine. The trip to the start had been used to sort out the important things such as the Halda and map lights.

Well, this time the only panic was the recovery insurance which National Breakdown, in previous years, had kindly transferred from my wife’s car to the rally car. This time, however, the computer refused to allow a fifteen year old plus car to go abroad. Luckily, we did not need it. My daughter managed to contact me during one of my brief periods in a hotel room to let me know that the computer had seen sense.

We tried Le Shuttle this year and would recommend it as a means of avoiding sea-sickness (an ailment to which I am not unfamiliar…!), although the duty free shop leaves something to be desired. It had started to snow in Belgium and by the time we arrived at Noordwijk, just west of Amsterdam, there were a few centimetres to let us test our M&S tyres (Mud and Snow, not the lingerie firm!). Another first! We arrived before scrutineering closed and were second to complete the paperwork. John then started to worry as we had nothing to do on the car and five hours to kill! The wait was worth it, as we had a good meal followed by the excellent reception put on by the town before the last good night’s rest for a week.

The whole of Noordwijk turned out for the start. The pre-war cars looked splendid in the snow with their spades and snow chained wheels. Being 147th, we had to wait in order to be near the end of the 60 starters from this venue. We were to meet up with the Oslo and Bristol starters in Germany, the Swiss and Spanish starters in Colmar. The snow eased up as we went inland, although navigation proved difficult for some in the Dutch towns due to the poor maps, but all controls were easy to make on time. We experienced some difficulty in finding leaded petrol and had to wait until the German border to fill up. Incorrect distances on the route caused many competitors to fly past a control which doubled as a café and provided soup for the wearied travellers. This café refused to take my old German Marks (even though the next café did) which was lucky because it was all we had. At a petrol stop soon afterwards I had to push start the Rochdale as the battery had drained flat. The car then started to misfire, culminating in John and I swapping to the spare dynamo in the freezing cold and then praying that it would work. Luckily, a long Autobahn section allowed us to make up the time which we had lost. A friend had booked our hotel in the sleepy Rhein town of St Goar, but due to our late arrival, around 22.30, with subsequent food and drink intake and lots of talk meant that we arrived to find our hotel closed. The prospect of a night in the Rochdale was not inviting. We found a bar with some life further down the street and some pidgin German produced a comfortable room.

 Close to the end of the Monte Carlo

A few of us missed the turning off the Rhine and spent a few minutes going up and down the road trying to find it. A diversion soon followed to throw the Halda out before the distance check on the French border. FIA rules mean that navigators have to ensure that the driver stays below an average maximum speed as well as keeping above the minimum speed in order to make the controls on time. Whilst I was working on distance calculations we went ten minutes off course. This gave John something to do but we were unable to regain all the time and lost five minutes: we had relaxed too much! The snow was now laying thick as the mountains became higher on the Valle de Ehn, Col de Charbonniere and Col du Bonhomme. We enjoyed the beautiful scenery and picturesque villages well described in our narrative notes which few find time to read. We welcomed the end of the concentration run at Colmar.

Although lying 70th, we were not re-seeded and started two hours and 37 minutes after the first car, which gave John a sleep in. We had four regularity stages, where one has to keep exactly on an average speed, and 12 time controls, where one has to make it on time, within the next 13 hours. The snow was getting thicker, making it more difficult to keep between the minimum and maximum speeds. One knows that one must speed up to gain time for the difficult bits. Just before one of these difficult bits, there was a secret check. Many had difficulty restarting on the ice. Half way up the Col de Biche we were caught behind 15 other competitors who were stuck in the snow. We put the chains on and waited 20 minutes for the jam to clear. We arrived at the control two minutes after the 30 minutes maximum lateness in Seyssel. I decided to miss the last regularity check, since this might have made us late into final control in the worsening conditions. We arrived 17 minutes late, which with 15 minutes’ penalty-free lateness should have given us two minutes’ penalty, but because the entrance to the car park was changed we had no penalty.

Thinking that with all those penalties we would be well down in the running, the alarms were set late. Luckily, I had no need to traipse through the snow to HQ to check restart times. I discovered we were 35th! Wake up John! We skipped breakfast and rushed to the car park. I did not have time to read the re-route which had been necessary because of the snow before we were off. It was a case of "follow that car!" for a couple of miles…. We used the snow chains once, taking four minutes to take the wheels from behind the seats and change them. We had by now made friends with the crew of a VW Oetlinger which uncannily followed us for the whole rally. They had completely missed the control where we were stopped changing our wheels - probably distracted by the joy of overtaking us! On the Col de Chamrousse, which was a regularity stage, we were held up by police for six minutes clearing locals involved in an accident. The regularity turned into something else! Luckily there was sufficient time for the sprightly Rochdale to catch up.

The snow became gradually worse. The massive Ford Falcon had quick release chains and regularly stopped to swap between chained and regular tyres, going past us again, bouncing off the snow walls. The snow was so heavy and drifting that the tracks of cars which had passed a minute before were obliterated. Worse was the fact that the snow was settling on sheet ice. We stopped to check rally cars that were off the road and were not displaying O.K. signs; one Volvo was upside down. Six cars were stopped on one bend of sheet ice; we slowly slid out of control because John dare not use the power with so many people around changing wheels. We were attracted to an MG Magnette which we gently kissed. On the next stage we were following the Volvo of Peter Rushforth, which pirouetted neatly a few inches in front of a snow plough which was extracting a car from the forest. Even the plough had no traction on the ice which we all fell down on! The Volvo, however, was pushed easily sideways out of the ditch there was so little grip. The time lost here made us 14 minutes late into Corps. The snow had reduced visibility to 20 feet, making it difficult to keep up rally speed. The complex decision to cut and run was made, meaning that we would miss two controls and a regularity (900 points) but it would get us to the main control, Gap, without being excluded. Without the previous delay which was not sustained by the leading cars, we would have made it. With only 17 minutes to spare even the Rochdale and John could not guarantee making it in time.

There was a major delay in Gap whilst the organisers decided on a new route. We left at 22 minutes past midnight, skipping ten stages through to Digne. Confusion over the re-route on a regularity caused that stage to be annulled. The only competitive section was the so-called regularity up the Turini. This was quite simply a hill climb as fast as you can go on snow and ice! We breakfasted at 8.30am and dropped down into the sun of Monte Carlo. A quick drink and sleep was then snatched before the night leg commenced

We started 20th; determined not to fail as we had done on this leg on previous rallies. The night was clear and moonlit but the roads icy; the times tight. This was how it should be. One road which had been introduced for this rally was superb: very narrow and twisty with a little gravel or ice in convenient places. This was what the Rochdale wanted all along. We overtook one after another, climbing four places. A Renault Gordini buried in a stone wall warned of ice ahead. A bit better timing on a Targa regularity may have gained another place, but the effect of those delays on the previous days mean that we had no hope of a top ten finish.

There is always next year….but for us it was back for bed, then a gorgeous day lapping up the sun on a secluded beach half way to Cap St Martin, followed by dinner in the Hotel de Paris; high jinx in Rose’s bar and a drive around Monte Carlo in a 1920 Studebaker at four in the morning. That’s why I do it.


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