POV: Following 350 Rally Cars Around The Island Of Corsica
Photography by Will Broadhead
A crowd of people has gathered a thousand feet above the sea up in the hills of Porto-Vecchio, on the island of Corsica. There are taller peaks amongst the mountains that loom from the clouds, but today these are only of interest if the narrow ribbon of tarmac that constitutes a road in these highlands, passes underneath or between them.
Overhead the clouds have closed in, despite the day beginning in 26-degree heat, and the first drops of an impending rainstorm are beginning to land on on our outstretched palms. It will do little to dampen the excitement and enthusiasm here though, and in the distance there is a clue as to what the crowd has massed here for. Far off, but approaching quickly, is the unmistakable sound of a highly tuned flat-six. As it approaches, the sound of rubber looking for traction and the pop-bang of rapid gearshifts crack out through the humid air, and there are just a couple of corners before the source of the sound makes its appearance.
Phone cameras and DSLRs are raised in readiness around me, almost as quickly as the hairs stand up on my arms, and then in a rage of noise and color and blurred motion, a Porsche 911 bearing the number 1 appears on the road, scrabbling forward across the roughshod asphalt before leaping at and through the next bend before disappearing again, leaving nothing but its doppler signature and the smell of high octane fuel as an indicator that it was ever here at all. Welcome to the Tour de Corse Historique, arguably the coolest classic rally out there.
Corsica’s obsession with rallying stretches back to the first Tour de Corse, held in 1956, an event that would find itself part of the World Rally Championship for 35 years from the championship’s inception, and sporadically so ever since. So it is only natural that the island should host a classic rally that pays homage to the history that’s been made here over the decades.
The Historque version runs as the Tour de Corse used to, completing a loop of the island across five days and contested over nearly 1000km of stages. Three hundred and fifty of those kilometers are closed road special stages—18 in total—and are plotted along the same tarmac that many of the current and historical WRC stages have used and continue to use. It is a huge challenge that’s not to be underestimated for being “vintage,” for “the rally of 10,000 corners” is as much a statement of fact as it is a nickname.
And the entry list is almost as densely populated as the road book at 350 cars strong and with a list of marques that reads like a spotter’s guide of significant rally cars. Lancias of all varieties, Escorts, Alpines, Mitsubishis, BMWs, Audis, Subarus, just name it, it’s on there, including some rare objets d’arts like Mazda’s Group B RX-7 experiment nestled in amongst the more regular faces.
Then, there are the drivers themselves, with WRC stage winners, world champions, and a team of five cars run by Le Mans winner and rallying talent Romain Dumas. But for all of those in the paddock that have prestige and heritage attached to their names, there are an even greater number of people who’ve entered to test themselves against the challenging and often dangerous stages. Rallying has always been accessible relative to most high-profile motorsports disciplines, and the organization behind the Tour de Course Historique have recreated that openness with aplomb. Having spent a few days around the pits with the crews before the event got going, the air of camaraderie is self evident. People are competing, but mostly against themselves. People are talkative, welcoming, and it’s hard not to smile when everyone else is.
Once the rallying got underway on Monday (it ends this Saturday), it was clear that there was going to a group of front-runners charging as hard as possible on every stage. It reminded me of the difference between the WRC factory teams leading the way, to be followed by the local cars that make up the unsung majority of WRC contenders. The leading pack put on some great front-row action for me and the rest of the rally pilgrims wedging and balancing themselves into any available space on the edge of the asphalt, and there was no shortage of sketchy moments for those that pushed the relationship between gumption and adhesion a little too far.
As I write this the rally is just a few days old and has traversed a route north to Borgo after the first proper day’s competition. The excitement of the paddock at Porto Vecchio has traveled along with the group, the stages littered with fans and the adjacent roadsides jam packed with support trucks, ready to service the fastest cars in the competition. There has been action aplenty already, but for me it feels like things will only get wilder as the mountains get bigger and the stages stretch longer as the route pushes west to toward Calvi. My alarm is set for 5AM, again, such is the distance that must be covered and the number of cars that must be funneled through. But I fear that despite attempting to get an early night, my sleep will be disturbed as the anticipation of another day of sensorial assault gets the better of me, again. For once, I cannot wait for my early wakeup call. More to come.