Snowdrifts, Sunshine, And Starry Nights Made The 2019 Rallye Monte-Carlo Historique Unforgettable
Photography by Will Broadhead
It’s 10PM and I find myself balanced precariously on a rocky outcrop, staring into the darkness of a moonless night. I can see nothing but the outline of the mountains against the remarkably star-filled sky above this world, and far below me I am aware of the rushing waters of the Bollène lock, swollen with the meltwater cascading from the mountains after the recent heavy snow.
There is another noise as well, far in the distance. Across the peak of this particular mountain pass comes the sound of highly tuned engines in a variety of cylinder counts, cascading the darkness like some rampant nightmare, growing in number and decibels as the convoy of machines comes closer. I focus on the black, and as the din increases the flicker of headlights signals the arrival of the competitors of the Rallye Monte-Carlo Historique to the Col de Turini, the most famous special stage of them all, and for me, the end of what has been a wonderful week of rallying. The night of the long knives (headlight beams) as it’s known will be my curtain call, and it’s a fitting outro to an adventure that began a week ago, all the way in Glasgow.
The Historique echoes the Rallye Monte-Carlos of days gone by, and converges on Monaco at the end of multiple concentration legs that begin across the four corners of Europe. Glasgow would be the starting point for myself this time, along with the majority of the English crews. We had a three-day slog that would see the competitors arrive at the city of Valence late on Saturday after spells of driving straight through the night to get there in order to start the rally proper. With some 400 competitors from across the world contesting 15 regularity stages across 1400km of tarmac, gravel, snow, and ice, it was more than enough to get excited about even after spending so much time getting there.
The smattering of cars that embarked from Scotland left me woefully unprepared for just what a huge event this really is, but by the time we convened on the ancient city of Reims, the scale was becoming quite apparent. As I walked the car-lined avenue, set up outside the wonderful Notre-Dame cathedral, I gazed upon many of the sport’s poster children. Stratos squared off against Alpine A310, Porsche represented in all manner of 911 variants, as well as other famous three-digit machines emblazoned with the Stuttgart manufacturer’s crest. There were Lancias, Citroëns, Fords, Minis, Triumphs, Fiats, and Volkswagens, along with the occasional Jaguar and Saab for good measure. There were even a few funny little two-stroke Vespa 400s making the trip, the toy-like machine from Piaggio slotting in with the larger and more powerful four-strokes that made up the lion’s share of the entry sheet. If the sets were even half as good as the cast, I knew that the next few days would be a magical experience.
Of course, they were—motoring in any alpine environment is always a treat—but with the unusual amount of snow in the Rhone region as of late, the twists and turns of the mountain passes would be extra dicey. As if to reinforce the point, a heavy snowfall during the first night in Valence created road-blocking drifts and the cancellation of nearly an entire day of competition.
The crowds gathered under the cold winter sun in Tournon-sur-Rhône didn’t seem to mind though, with many thousands of fans gathering around the cars before they were dispatched one by one back to Valence for the evening, and what was thankfully a night with no precipitation. The roads that made up the following days of rallying were some of the most dramatic and spectacular I have ever had the pleasure of traveling on, with glorious views across the Alps and her snow-capped peaks a constant windshield-filler.
Punctuated with the rip-snort of rally cars driven with enthusiasm, the mountains added an extra level of awe to what was an already perfect day, and the sight of rear-wheel drive machines struggling for traction on the icy inclines will be a vision to treasure for a long time yet.
It wasn’t all snow and ice of course, and in fact as the rally made its final assault towards Monaco the winter weather ebbed away and the bare blacktop was soon bathed in light—as exciting as the slip-slide was to watch around the “verglas fréquent” road signs with the little counter steering car on them, it was a welcome change of pace to see a color besides white. Snow trails were switched for dust trails, spikes were swapped for less aggressive tread patterns, and the cars moved on through more spectacular mountain scenery and beautiful towns, most of them with quite a bit of their histories.
Everywhere the rally passed through, the crowds were tremendous, the passion of the French fans eclipsing everything I had seen at regularity rallies back home. It was no less than this event deserved though, as its wonderful entry list and magnificent and breath-taking route had more than done justice to its heritage.
As the last of the cars raced down the Col de Turini, I had a few minutes of reflection under the carpet of stars in the now-silent valley. I was very much awestruck by the whole experience, and while I had plenty of memories to take back with me, I was aware that as a virgin to the event I had no doubt missed a lot of good stuff along the way. But then that is one of the great beauties of rallying, and especially displays of it like this. There is such a vast quantity of sensory data to take in that you can feel some FOMO even as you’re watching a Stratos wag its tail through some slick esses. As if I needed more reasons to come back next year.