This Is What It’s Like To Spend A Week Chasing Classic Rally Cars Up, Down, And Around Corsica
Photography by Will Broadhead
A hand is held out, its extended digits silhouetted against the cool light of the early morning. The driver’s focus is wholly on this hand, no other distractions seep inside his tunnel vision, all other information is unimportant. As the fingers retract into a fist, the drivers own, encased in gloves, tighten on the controls, simultaneously applying the precise amount of pressure required for a good launch to the accelerator pedal and then, as the starters hand is finally lifted, the clutch is dropped and the car scrabbles away from the line and disappears around the first corner. The next pair of hopeful contenders roll up to the line, ready for their attack on the clock at the Tour de Corse Historique.
It’s an incendiary moment, the goosebumps-inducing noise and motion of the cars matched only by the difficulty of the stages they attack, stages as treacherous as they are infamous. The first few days of the Historique were impressive enough, but as the rally plotted its path from east to west across the north of the island, the contenders are vying for time on the magical hairpins and mountain curves that define rallying on Corsica.
Thanks to its Mediterranean location, the days are still largely warm, despite it being October. That is of course until you climb up into the lofty heights of the island’s interior, where the autumnal colors and nip in the air remind us that summer is well over. But the route soon finds its way to the coast again, threading a narrow path, to and fro zig-zagging along the border between land and sea, amongst the Island’s constantly evolving topography. On its western coast, the granite rocks cut jagged silhouettes into the sky, lighting up orange in the sun and descending steeply down into the waves below as the road slices its way beneath the gaze of these stoney sentries that watch over the bays and lagoons that litter the coast. The drivers, putting their full trust in the pace notes of their co-drivers, beat a frantic but rhythmic driving line between the rock escarpment and the ocean.
Those that know come here in droves to see their heroes pushing these classic rally machines for all that they’re worth on these equally classic stages. Heroes like Bernard Béguin—who won the WRC round here in 1987 and this year was tearing around in one of the many 911s entered—and Bruno Saby, who won the TdC in 1986 and is a Dakar legend, and rather than tending to his garden like most pensioners, would rather be ripping up the stages where he once beat the very best in the world. There are other former pros here, and then there are those that perhaps aren’t quite so quick, but still willing to put their dollars where their mouths are and enter.
Back to the action though, for perhaps the only way that Tour de Corse Historique could be any better would be if one were sat at the controls or in the co-driver’s seat. But for those of us without the talent or the budget to indulge in that particular flight of fancy, the rocky outcrops and banks around the stages still put you within inches of the action, and the danger. Not quite in a bad old days of Group B kind of way—there has to be a line drawn somewhere—but certainly close enough to feel the anger of the engines pounding through your senses. There are marshals of course, and safety measures, but largely people are left to use their common sense and skill, and as far as I had seen that week, it’s a good system.
And that can be said about the event altogether, with respect going in all directions, from spectators to the organization to the drivers, creating a wonderful atmosphere that allows everyone to revel in the sport of it all, not in trying to outdo and out-cool each other. There’s a definite feeling of bonhomie around the place, with everyone united under the rallying umbrella—some are going for broke on the stages, but you can tell they are racing against themselves more so than the other entrants. And the Corsicans are naturally proud of the event, as they should be, and proud of their rallying heritage and their island. They have an in-depth understanding of the sport and are all seemingly caught up in the swell when the rally comes to town, joining the spectators who’ve traveled from all around the world to be here.
It’s a wonderful thing to be part of, and it all left me, well, emotionally breathless. From the first ear-splitting crescendo of a highly tuned motor echoing off the backdrop of rocks, to the first unified sharp intake of breath at the sight of a well-executed Scandi’ Flick, this is a sport and an event that brings together all that are present in more ways than just being in the same location. The feeling of anticipation as I hear an approaching rally car, to the heightening of all my senses as said car careers into view, seemingly on a direct collision course, is thoroughly addictive for a photographer.
Of course, there are other classic rally events worth trekking the globe for, and each has its own unique facets, but the combination of cars, topography, history, and people seem to meld together here to create something on a different tier than most. Perhaps it’s the sheer distance covered, or the number of special stages, or maybe just the amount of cars—350 on the entry list—that add up to the Tour de Corse Historique’s unique equation. Whatever it is that makes this event special, it now has me strongly under its spell, and I will, must, come back for more—with open invites to join me.