I Followed A Vintage Rally Through The Muddy Woods Of Southern Belgium
Photography by Mathieu Bonnevie
Originally held in the Belgian capital city of Brussels when it was created in 1953, the road race formerly named Routes Blanches (“White Roads”) has morphed quite a bit over the ensuing decades. In 1966, Alphonse Delettre took over the organization of the event and moved the rally to Spa, establishing also a new loop system between the stages. This led to the Boucles de Spa (“Loops of Spa”). Then, 40 years later in 2006, Alphonse’s son Pierre launched a historic version of the event, also in Spa, called the Legend Boucles. For the Legend’s 10th edition however, it was moved once more to its current location in Bastogne. I was there earlier this month for the latest event in the tradition, and it was a terrific experience despite being mostly surrounded by cold mud for its duration.
We went to the woods of Bastogne, Belgium to figure out what happens during this classic winter rally, and we found that it was a total time machine back to the good old days of rallying. As a spectator, the first day of the race begins with a mandatory stop to purchase programs in order to track the rally through its various stages, and we also came across some drivers prepping their Escorts and Audis and Subarus before the first action of the weekend. No 5-star-grade assistance here; they just came by themselves with their own racing cars to the fuel station, getting ready to reach the first stages the same way you or I might. It was here at a dark filling station that we met a gorgeous Subaru Impreza 555. This edition celebrates the Subaru Impreza from the ‘90s that McRae helped to popularize, and 10 of them attended this event!
We should have had an actual ex-Colin McRae WRC Impreza too, but unfortunately the engine had issues when loading the car to come to Belgium. In the program we discovered the list of drivers and nearly 300 cars to distract us from that though, with many Ford Escort RS2000 Mk1 and Mk2s, and a few Porsche 911s, which were the fastest in the hands of those like Bryan Bouffier (winner of this edition of the Legend Boucles, the first non-Belgian winner since 1994), Bernard Munster, Grégoire de Mevius, and François Duval. There was also a pack of more unexpected cars in the lineup too: Volvo 242, DAF 66, Lada 2105, Trabant P601… How can you race these cars?!
The star of the event, the Belgian Thierry Neuville, three-time vice-world rally champion, was driving a Opel Corsa A 1300 GSi, the first car he raced with professionally. He bought it again and rebuilt it with his brother in their family workshop, and modified it a bit with a kit-car engine making a health 185hp for the little thing. He won the 2017 edition in it, and drove out of classification this year (but his Corsa was faster than the traditional heroes of these historic races).
With the weather swinging between rain and snow depending on the stages’ altitude, it really reminded one of the Belgian rallies from the period, with now-vintage cars sliding through wet snowy leaves in the forest. We also felt like we’d gone back a few decades when we saw that there was no service park here: cars just stopped here and there on the side of the roads with their mechanics, just like in the ‘80s.
When we reached the stages before the stream of cars were sent down them, there were so many people who came to watch the race that we had to park very far away indeed, and typically had to walk for more than half an hour to even approach the viewing areas. But of course, this extra exercise was totally worth it. Stages were chosen so well for this year’s rally: it was an intense show wherever we went, with fast straightaways, hard hairpins, mud, cobblestones, pot holes, wet tarmac, dirt hills, all sorts! The drivers were really fast despite the older cars and the slick conditions, and so many of them are so used to the event and the Belgian weather that they knew how to handle their cars appropriately and kept the pace up astonishingly well in my opinion. It was also great fun to see the occasions when cars would catch up to one another and do some close-quarters chasing.
Overall the Legend Boucles de Bastogne was spectacular event with a friendly laid back spirit and a large crowd of enthusiastic fans with good attitudes (helpful when having dirt slung towards you in the middle of February!). People came to celebrate this great Belgian rallying festival, and the day was spent so fast that we couldn’t even reach all of the stages, even if they drove from 8AM to 10PM! So yes, we must come back next year as there is still a lot to discover in this wonderful event.