Sunday, 3 October 2010

Obituary: The Tour de Corse

It was incredibly dangerous, the spectators were unruly and frequently partisan and you had to be French to win it, but maybe we're going to miss the Tour de Corse.

The Rally of France, which ended this weekend, has now moved to the mainland, but for the previous three and a half decades it was on the little island of Corsica. With long stages and short road sections, the Tour de Corse was in many ways a continuation of the old road races such as the Mille Miglia and Targe Florio.

It was also known as The Rally of 1000 Corners, and as well as the bends competitors often had to contend with wild pigs, locals using the rally route in their cars and gravel shovelled onto the road by spectators. Carlos Sainz even met a bull on a stage in 1990, quite appropriate for the driver they called El Toro.

The Tour de Corse had been in the World Rally Championship since it began in 1973. For the first decade and a half it was largely ignored by the outside world, and was in effect a round of the French National series masquerading as a World Event. Before Colin McRae's two wins in 1997 and 1998, only three foreigners had ever won;Sandro Munari, Markku Alen and Carlos Sainz. In the first two decades Italian cars won twelve times and were withdrawn whilst leading twice.

The Tour de Corse is usually remembered for the wrong reason: the sabotage of the Leyland team in 1978, the death of Attilio Bettega in 1985, and worst of all the fiery end of Henri Toivonen and his co-driver Sergio Cresto the following year.

That crash also marked the death of Group B. These years were certainly exciting, but on twisty tarmac like Corsica it was the height of folly. 500bhp, plastic bodywork, no under body protection and fuel tanks under the seats were no way to go rallying if you valued your life.

The death of Group B did make Corsica interesting again though. For a long time it was the only true tarmac round of the championship, and that meant two wheel drive held out longer here than anywhere else. The Audi Quattro never won, and the Lancia 037 Rally was king until ousted by the Peugeot 205T16. In the Group A era Corsica saw the only victories of the Sierra Cosworth and the old style BMW M3, the latter the last front engined, rear wheel drive, normally aspirated car to win a World Rally. Eventually rally cars ceased to be specialised and the same cars won in Corsica as everywhere else, although lightweight 'Formula Two' cars in the 1990s threatened a shock result a couple of times.

Classic Tour de Corse's are harder to remember. Darniche's victory in a private Stratos over the official Lancia team in 1975 was one, as was his victory in the, by then ancient, Stratos in 1981, a win he put down to sheer physical endurance. In the 1990s victory was often a matter of seconds, and in 1995 a Subaru manager calculated that they had run the equivalent of two Grand Prix and effectively had nine cars on the same lap.

However my choice of the best Tour de Corse ever was 1982. It was sunny, of course, the island was clogged with traffic, of course, and the spectators were unruly, of course. The day before it started HMS Sheffield was sunk by a (French) Exocet missile and the day it ended the (French-Canadian) F1 driver Gilles Villeneuve was killed in qualifying at the Belgian Grand Prix. Meanwhile in Parc Ferme in Ajaccio was perhaps the most exciting line up of cars yet assembled for a World Rally.

In the days when a 245bhp Opel Ascona 400 was a bit tasty, the average output of the top 12 cars was 315bhp. We had a brace of Renault 5 Turbos (265bhp), a Porsche 911 (280bhp), a pair of Lancia 037 Rally's on their debut (310bhp), a Ferrari 308 (315bhp), two Audi Quattros (330bhp) and mightiest of all, Bernard Darniche's 430bhp BMW M1.

Most of the exotics fell away pretty quickly. The Quattros couldn't go round the corners, the Lancias were in pre-Evolution trim and handled abysmally, and Darniche retired whilst lying fourth, but the rally was interesting never-the-less.

In the end it was the agility Jean Ragnotti's Renault against the power of Jean-Claude Andruet's Ferrari. Andruet shot into an early lead, but Ragnotti overhauled him as the roads got narrower and twistier. Round the island they blasted swapping fastest times, Ragnotti in front, with Andruet catching him up where the roads were wider. Then the rain came, just as Andruet had started a long stage on slicks. Later he had brake trouble and received road penalties, but the weather had already given Renault the event. Ragnotti, a likable former stunt driver, celebrated with his party trick of smashing plates over his head at the post-rally party.

To the outside world it mattered little, the man who was to become World Champion that year, Walter Rohrl, wasn't even at the event, but fun was had by almost all.

Almost, because one man who wasn't at the post-rally party was Attilio Bettaga. He had been flown to hospital in Italy the previous day after breaking his legs in an accident that was horrifyingly similar to the one that was to claim his life three years later.

Corsica was always a very dangerous kind of fun.