Good Friends, Muddy Clothes, Full Backpacks, And The 2020 Rally Legend In San Marino
Photography by Armando Musotto
Historically, Italians have been known to be religious people, but all groups are made up of individuals, and we don’t all go to the same church on Sunday. While some sit in pews lit by stained glass rainbows, others can be found praying at a different type of altar—at Monza, Imola, or Mugello for example—or simply standing outside at the edge of the forest, eagerly waiting for a face full of a WRC car’s rooster tail.
I am devout, but I still find it difficult to pinpoint the nature of rallying’s attraction because there is no single source of it. It comes down to the list of ingredients. The discipline embodies so many pieces of other types of motorsport, and is completely unique in doing so. The precision and speed of circuit racing, the stochastic nature of hill climbing and off-roading, and the spectacle of drifting—it’s all wrapped up into rallying. And the men and women who take on the challenge are some of the bravest drivers and navigators in all of racing.
During the course of a normal year, world and regional championship events are held on any surface and in any locale you can think of, and while I’ll always be drawn to the competitive cutting edge of the modern side of the sport, the historic events are every bit as exciting—at the very least, they aren’t always won by somebody named Sébastien.
This fall, some friends and I made plans to attend one of the best of these vintage gatherings, a three-day festival that included the WRC pioneers of the 1970s, the indomitable machines of the Group B years, the iconic “video game” cars of the Group A era that followed, some modern legends for good measure, and a solid cadre of the drivers that defined (and are defining) the WRC. I’m talking about the aptly named, Rally Legend.
Every year in October, fleets of enthusiasts and historic rally cars and teams gather to celebrate the history of this amazing sport in one of the most evocative places on earth: San Marino. For three days, the streets of the small city-state become a showcase for the giants of the past, allowing the young to experience what they missed, and for those who saw it the first time around, a chance to indulge in their nostalgia firsthand. For my friends and I, it was simply one of the best weekends we’ve spent together.
Rally Legend all started in 2003, from the mind of Vito Piarulli and his brother-in-law Paolo Valli, two diehard rally enthusiasts. The event was born from their desire to bring together the people and cars that have been canonized by time, and put them on modern stages in a new, fresh, and closer-to-the-people context.
The first editions of Rally Legend were not nearly as well-attended as they are now, more like a provincial rally where you only look at the results rather than pack up your car for a long weekend of spectating. But from year to year, the efforts of the two were unfazed, and the result was a steady increase in attention a the event grew larger and larger, gaining a critical mass that has seen it become what Vito and Paolo always knew it could.
Over the 18 editions held thus far, the best drivers in the sport have come here to slide and jump through San Marino, like Jean-Claude Andruet, Harri Toivonen, Lucky Battistolli, Dario Cerrato, and Mauro Pregliasco. Aliens to me. Men with a driving ability beyond even abnormal human ability.
The Rally Legend is a competition then, but for most of the people in attendance, it’s really just a big party, an excuse to spend time with friends and let the worries of the world wait until Monday.
In my case, it started in a WhatsApp group amongst friends; “Guys, we have to go to Rally Legend this year, who’s in?” A simple question, with an obvious answer.
With everyone committed almost immediately, we wasted no time in booking our rooms at Riviera Romagnola, the best place to stay for Rally Legend. It is not so far from San Marino, has fair room and restaurant prices, great hospitality, (and Piadina!) What more can you ask for? I then booked my flight, put the camera gear and some soon-to-be-mud-caked clothes in my backpack, met my friends, and left for Mount Titano, a mountain in San Marino that would serve as the backdrop to our fun for the weekend, wearing its typical cloudy black hat.
Before we even entered the paddock, the festive atmosphere had made its presence known, absorbed us into through the membrane separating Rally Legend from the rest of the world. Audible delight was everywhere, the cheers and whoops of the people like us who had trekked in from all around Europe, battling for aural supremacy against the machines themselves—and losing whenever one of the really gnarly cars was being warmed up. Full of color, full of sound, the place was a welcome change of pace from a year defined by the opposite. A few spritzes of rain did nothing to dampen the mood, as if we were all protected by the same wax as the cars, all traces of negativity beading up and rolling off of us.
The party continues into the night, and our merry group trudges up and down the hillsides to every vantage point we can find, accompanied always by sweeping headlights and the Doppler effect pendulum of engines. We’re cold, our maps are largely useless, phone reception is poor, our feet ache, and our happy laughter is nearly constant.
Exhaustion mounts, the lights start to blur and leave luminous tracers in their wake, and the sense of time starts to lose its linearity as the hours slide by. It is a long night, and all 130+ cars—spaced at a distance of one minute per car—have to face the night rally stage. After the boisterous procession is finished, we make our way back to the hotel, destroyed and satisfied.
The second day starts very early. My eyes open at five in the morning and somehow my body follows my mind out of bed. Put something in the stomach and go. Reload. The first test of the day is “The Legend,” I love industrial spaces with cars, and this test took place right inside the industrial area of San Marino, not far from the paddock. What characterizes it is a sizable jump where all the drivers brave enough to go for it are launched with all four wheels airborne. I plant myself next to the jump for much of it, watching with renewed awe and glee at each car’s temporary transformation into an aircraft. Frank Kelly, the acrobatic British driver with his Ford Escort, Ken Block with his, Paolo Diana with his Fiat 131, and a source of every Italian rally fan’s pride, Miki Biasion, at the wheel of a marvelous Lancia Stratos.
Sunday’s grand finale sees us leave the gray and industrial areas behind for “Le Tane” special stage, another historical test that takes place between the towns of Serravalle and Cailungo, on an uphill road with treacherous curves taken at great speed, and not often with full traction. With the edges of the course riddled with other spectators, being on this narrow route with these cars felt like being in those YouTube videos of the decades gone by.
And this is no parade-pace driving happening in front of us. The drivers push their machines as if they were contemporary, and it just makes me want to get that much closer to it all, to reach out a hand and risk having it obliterated by a side mirror. It’s not as insane as the footage of the Group B days, but it makes that madness seem logical.
After 12 special stages and against 135 other cars, in the end, between all the different categories, it is a Lancia that wins overall. And it only feels natural. The victorious Lancia 037 was driven by Marco Bianchini paired with Giulia Paganoni. A car that was both a Goliath and a David, the good old 037 platform racked up another win. And thanks to the organizers of Rally Legend, it felt like everyone who watched did, too.