Later this week, the 2015 World Rally Championship kicks off with one of its most historic and hazardous events, the Monte Carlo Rally. And it’s an absolute belter with which to begin motorsport’s most frantic and frenetic championship.
First conceived more than 100 years ago, this most stern test of car control in which intrepid crews battle ever-changing conditions in the Alps above Monaco – dry asphalt round one corner, sheet ice round the next – and a lattice of cliff-edge hairpins, is as intrinsically linked to the WRC as the Monegasque Principality’s narrow streets are to Formula 1.
Unsurprisingly, since that very first event, laid on at the behest of Prince Albert I in 1911, the rally has cultivated its own special reputation – one that has enticed all the great drivers and manufacturers to time and again try to win over its unique charms.
Monte historians among you will know all about speed-camera king Maurice Gatsonides winning for Ford in 1953, Paddy Hopkirk’s Mini victory in 1964, the headlamp-bulb scandal of ’66, from which the clean-sweeping three Minis and Roger Clark’s Ford Cortina were disqualified, thus allowing local marque Citroën a controversial win from fifth place, and ace all-rounder Vic Elford’s win for Porsche in ’68.
Magic Monte moments every one of them, and they all came before the event sealed its place in the annals of rallying history by becoming the inaugural WRC qualifier in 1973.
Who can forget Sandro Munari’s hat-trick in the Alitalia Lancia Stratos from 1975-’77? Or Walter Röhrl’s four victories in five years for four different manufacturers, Fiat, Opel, Lancia and Audi? What about Ari Vatanen’s mind-scrambling comeback from a huge time penalty to win for Peugeot and deny Monte master Röhrl a fourth straight win in ’85? And then there’s Henri Toivonen’s final career win in the Group B Lancia Delta S4 at the start of the tragic ’86 season, or Tommi Makinen’s four on the bounce in the Group A heyday across the millennium.
The Monte’s that kind of rally.
Fortunately, this week’s 83rd running looks set to add itself to the classics. The prospect of nine-time world champion Sebastien Loeb coming out of retirement to tackle a rally he won seven times between 2003 and 2013 in his final eight attempts (it was relegated to non-WRC status for three years in the middle of his run) is a delicious one. A year racing in the World Touring Car Championship with Citroën will have kept Loeb sharp but will he be able to turn it on again on the special stages and get one over namesake and former nemesis Sebastien Ogier, the double world champion and Volkswagen star? In their last Alpine adventure together, in 2013, Loeb beat Ogier at the start of what would be a bit-part final season.
I’ll be metaphorically wrapping up warm and donning studded boots to follow every yank of the handbrake around those icy hairpins from motorsport’s hardiest heroes and I can’t recommend highly enough that you do the same.