Home ARTICLES A Week Chasing The Monte

A Week Chasing The Monte

Intro

It’s the cold that becomes draining as the days tick past.

Wake up in a cold bed, every surface touched sending an icy chill through fingers and toes. The phone screen, grabbed as a confirmation of the early start, is clouded and damp. A hurried succession of layers thrown on, each absolutely frigid to the touch, as well as hats and gloves, makes the thought of stepping outside become somewhat bearable.

It’s cold out there as well.

The darkness pierced by head torches and wood fires, it’s a case of grab the bag and set off walking, find a spot and sit on the icy cold ground. You wait, wonder, and become somewhat amazed as feeling comes back to your extremities.

This is what it takes, this is the Monte.

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The cold becomes almost normal over the week, and mixed with tiredness it makes for a constant state of ambivalence.  The days begin to blur into one another, and rational conversation breaks down as survival mode kicks in.

Living off cans of beer, pan-fried sausages, bananas and bits of baguette, alongside the maybe three to four hours sleep a night, a toll is taken. Following Rallye Monte Carlo is unlike anything in the rally world, and if you’re going to do it, you may as well go all in.

Here’s what it’s like to follow the most famous event on the WRC calendar.

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The build up to any new season is always exciting, but this year feels exceptionally so. We are at an absolute zenith in top-level rallying right now, with four big manufacturers committed to pushing the latest regulations to the limit.

We have without any doubt the quickest cars to ever see a special stage amongst us in 2019, and yes, I do include the fabled Group B beasts in that statement. This year the driver pool is laden with some of the true greats that will be talked about well into the future.

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That drivers roster played a sizeable part in building the pre-season excitement, simply due to the amount of movement that went on.

Current champion Sébastien Ogier waved goodbye to M-Sport Ford in favour of a return to Citroën. His partner in the C3 WRC, Esapekka Lappi, had come in from Toyota, while Kris Meeke had gone in the other direction.

At Autosport International last month, the world got to see the stars and cars in their new colours for the first time, but the biggest talking point of all was the man a few thousand miles away in Peru: Sebastian Loeb.

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Racer. Hero. Legend.

It’s hard to describe this man to the uninitiated. A former gymnast from Alsace, France, Sébastien Loeb took up rallying in 1999. Two years later he won the Junior World Rally Championship in its first year, and by 2004 he had a first WRC title to his name. The following year he repeated the feat, and the following year, and the year after that again.

For nine consecutive years, Seb and his co-driver Daniel Elena wiped the boards, to a point that it felt like one man was destroying a sport.  It’s rather ironic that in the six years since leaving the championship, the title has been won by another Sebastian, also from France.

After years away from rallying, enjoying a nice quiet retirement by just doing two seasons of World Touring Cars, destroying the then Pikes Peak International Hill Climb record, driving Porsche GT3 racers, three Dakar attempts, restoring a Peugeot 306 Maxi, and taking part in the World Rally Cross Championship, Loeb announced a three round return to the WRC in 2018. The first two outings showed the speed was still there but luck wasn’t, but Spain in October felt like the reigniting of a dream as the cunning elder statesman rolled back the years to take victory number 79.

With all intentions to do a few more rounds in 2019, it was a given that it’d be in the ubiquitous red of Citroën, but it was a funny off-season as I said.

Build Up

Tell someone that your jetting off to the South of France for a week, and you can almost taste the resentment in the air. ‘I’m off to watch Rallye Monte Carlo,’ you say; a sarcastic ‘La-di-da’ they retort.

Flying into Nice and exploring the old cobbled streets, this seems pleasant. After a hard night in a very budget airport hotel, the camper-vans are collected. I’m not alone this time, travelling with five mates is a handy way to avoid the onset of ‘Monte madness’ and unending any sense of wanting to give up.

Although equipped with beds, sinks and fridges, our campers are most definitely on the lower scale of what we met over the week, but they did the job perfectly, if rather coldly.

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Three hours up the AutoRoute to Gap, the service park is rather quiet when we roll in on Wednesday evening. There’s a buzz in the air as exhaust crackle and sequential boxes bang up and down the roads. The crowd dispersion is obvious even from a cursory walk around.

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The largest crowd is found at Citroën. Hometown hero Sébastien Ogier, in a French car, in a French event, on French tires – it’s the mother load for any marketing man or woman, and everywhere it seems around the town is adorned with Ogier-themed posters announcing the event.

The cumbersome C3s, now adorned in Red Bull livery, sit silently under the Citroën awning.

The Ford and Toyota service areas are like ghost towns, save for the odd few catching a glimpse of the Yaris and Fiesta as they sit still and quietly. Having lost Ogier, this is a difficult year for M-Sport, with Elfyn Evans and Teemu Suninen leading their charge.

Toyota have come in this year looking very steady. Ott Tänak is still nutty quick, and Jari-Matti Latvala is his cool Finnish self, but the addition of a hard charging Kris Meeke is a big boost to the Yaris brigade.

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The rest of the crowd seem to be gathered around the Hyundai complex. I could call it a service area, but that would be disrespectful. Larger than the service area of most main dealerships you’ll come across, the vast two story structure is a hive of activity. Three i20s sit poised, yet it’s the middle one getting all the glances. Thierry Neuville strolls around casually, yet only a handful stand at watch, as they want a glimpse of the even bigger hero.

After 19 years contracted to Citroën/Peugeot, the unthinkable had happened. Loeb, the Seb Loeb, in a Hyundai?

Thursday

Thursday began with excitement, I think. I’d know if my head wasn’t so numb. First day of the season, waking up in a van and the temperature reads minus nine (16°F). There is ice inside. Layered up, the mood changes – it’s shakedown time.

Watching the sunrise over the alpine landscape makes things feel worthwhile, although you then realise the sacrifices of others when you find people somehow sleeping on an air mattress in a Citroën AX GTi.

I’ve been there, not only sleeping in my car for the Killarney Historic, but doing my first Monte in 2017 sleeping in the boot of a Renault Clio, so I admire their resolve. It’s a long week in a small Citroën.

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A 2km blast on the edge of Gap, the shakedown is a beginning and a finale all in one. Spectators get a first sight of cars in action, while teams make final changes to setups.

The crowds are large, and as expected, it’s all about Loeb and Ogier, although the diverse mix of nationalities on the ditches all seem to have differing attachments.

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While a regular special stage is a once-and-done chance to see the top cars fly past, shakedown is like a two-hour, never-ending spectacle. Crews make up to five passes, looping back onto the public road between runs, weaving between the eye-opening long line of camper-vans and cars while returning to service or lining up for another run.

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Flat over crest, massive compression through a dipping right, and then flat uphill again past the masses. Held back by no more than some flimsy tape and the constant whistling of some paid French security guard, the crowds edge closer and closer to the road.

In a modern world of more and more stringent health and safety regulations, rallying feels like a last bastion of raw connection between spectators on the ditches and the stars as they fly past at what feels like warp speed.

Shots in the bag for now, it’s back on the road again. Surreally following Loeb back through the afternoon traffic, the climb into the mountain begins.

After the eventual warmth and sunshine of the days first action, it was the turn of the cold and dark to really usher in the new season in style. The stage was a chore to drive in the afternoon, a fast-flowing downhill sweep through a few valleys, pockmarked with severe ice amongst the dry tarmac sections, that to do it at the speed of a modern WRC car felt silly.

To do it in the dark? That’s just another level.

I am still unsure whether I enjoy watching rallying in the dark. It’s an incredible feeling to see the piercing beams of an LED light bar breaching the black of night, the whistle and pops more visceral in the cool air, and the radiant glow of exhaust and brakes become more apparent, but it’s something to enjoy rather than to document.

Shooting at night is never fun, and when you have one shot at it, things get even harder. From the first sign of lights to the disappearance back into the dark abyss takes no more than five or six seconds.

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By 10:00pm it’s time to hit the road again, in a day that seems to not want to end. It’s a mark of the Monte that it has retained such an endurance element, for both crews and spectators alike. In driving snow and fierce winds, our campervan convoy rolls out. Over a few steep climbs and icy descents, progress is slow, and moods are tense.

The roads become worse and the snow heavier as the clock rolls past midnight. What looked like a decent spot on a stage map now seems like an inaccessible fool’s errand.

Tired, a retreat is decided upon and it’s a case of find the nearest piece of flat ground and get some sleep in. It’s still only Thursday.

Friday

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Friday begins early once more, wrapped up and walking down the stage before the sun rears its head over the intimidating mountain scenery all around. Defeated by conditions the night before, the opening test of the day would be experienced within the open kilometre. In position, cameras primed and cars sitting on the line, the stage began to run late.

The minutes ticked by with little if any communication. Once a quarter of an hour had passed, we knew there was an issue. Head down and buried in the phone, the sighs from the banks said enough: Stage cancelled. Crowd control issues were blamed further along the road.

The only route for the crews was via the stage, so one after another, the cars popped and banged at a reasonable speed through the throngs of fans walking back to their vehicles with the prospect of now having five hours to kill.

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While the special stage not running was a bummer, getting to spend some time around the start line was a rare bonus. Being obsessed with getting the best action spots on stage, I have long ignored the more behind-the-scenes side of rallying that is rarely, if ever seen.

One after another, a sequential whine would grow in the valley below as yet another rally machine approached the Arrival Control. Last minute repairs, adjustments, cigarettes or friendly chat, before the helmet is donned and things get real.

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By the afternoon, and the second running of the stage, things looked much better. The sun was absolutely stunning, illuminating the crisp winter afternoon to perfection and making the spectacle even more of a visual treat.

The speed is exceptional as the top cars burst into view, throttle pinned, tyres shrieking and sump guards bouncing through the deep cuts. Barely 1km in and Neuville passes with some added decoration to the back of his Hyundai, a strip of tape a reminder of how lucky he had been to escape a high-speed off on the first corner of the stage.

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As the sun begins to set, the rest of field begin to filter through. For all the glitz and glamour surrounding the main WRC cars, their entry accounts for about one eighth of the total start list.

From those chasing dreams of making the big leagues by rising through support categories, through to plucky amateurs just wanting to enjoy their own Monte adventure, the event welcomes all.

The knowledgeable locals have heroes that get rapturous cheers every time they pass, and the diminutive Citroën C2 is one of the most adored.

Saturday

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‘Here, take a look at this. This is a ballistic spot,’ was the gist of the conversation. Over a few beers, huddling together for space and warmth, we sat around encapsulated by a small iPhone screen. Rally folk, on a rally holiday watching rally videos.

As I said earlier, following the Monte is unlike any other WRC event, not only for the endurance and cold, but also for the simplicity of the organisation. There are no designated car parks or shuttle busses, no walking routes or detailed spectator plans, there’s simply a stage map and times released and away you go.

Picking a spot, for us non-experts, is just a case of matching Google Street View to a shaded line and guessing what it looks like in reality. Well, the only real alternative was to watch spectator videos of previous years, and then use every directional skill we had to pick out the elusive stretch of tar amongst the hundreds.

Waking up at 1,400m above sea level, the air is decidedly thinner than the rest of the week. Undeterred by stern gun-carrying French police blocking access the night before, camp was made along a twisting side road.

The 10-minute uphill hike felt like a real chore at the altitude, but watching the constant stream of spectators from the valley well below made the campervan decision fell worthwhile. Cold mornings or 6km walks?

The weather was once again spectacular, but the action was frantic. A deceptively steep, very fast downhill series of sweeps would see cars at near maximum velocity, but the Monte always has an added layer that makes it more interesting than any other event.

While the tarmac here is bone dry and the sky a sun-drenched shade of blue, the crews had already driven through a frozen mountain resort, crested two climbs, and taken a series of hairpins on a snow-covered ski slope. On the most unsuitable tyre combination imaginable come the end, the car movement was incredible, any semblance of grip being scrambled for.

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Looming in the background, the snow-capped Alps added a drama to the scenery unlike any I had experienced before.

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The reaction to some of the back markers had struck me the day before. Yes, some of these guys were reasonably quick, but why all the cheers, claps and flares? On the inside of a long, sweeping bend I got my answer in the form of a sideways Peugeot 208. I like small Peugeots, as in really like them, and the 208 R2 is a cracker in my book. The hilarious way they shuffle for forward traction is brilliant to watch, but I had never seen one driven like this.

Had this been Drift Games or Formula D, the little Pug would have been right in contention. Turn in, handbrake up, rub outer ditch, full counter steer, bounce over inner apex (still with handbrake locked), power down, rub outer ditch again on exit, and off down the road.

Others tried a similar trick, some more successfully than others.

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Finished up for the day, back to the van and time to hit road. Enamoured by the incredible speed display today, the sight of the crowds marching down the road in the late evening sun felt really special.

Here, in the middle of nowhere, easily 10,000 spectators had stood to watch the rally machines pass by in a quick blaze of noise, dust and adrenaline. Those of us under a certain age had only seen scenes like this on scratchy VHS tapes and YouTube, crowds stretching for miles as far as the eye could see.

The current generation of cars are quicker than anything that has ever come before, and I would argue the spectacle is even greater. This is a golden age of the sport, and when 2022 rolls around and with the imminent dawn of electrification, there was an overwhelming realisation that we will look back on these times as ‘our Group B’.

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Sunday

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Final morning, jump up, full of pep and cheer ready for the final blast over the most iconic stage of them all. Or not.

The buzz and emotion of the feelings experienced coming off the Saturday stages had well and truly evaporated by the time the Col de Turini was reached. The sat nav said three hours, whereas in reality it took nearly 10. Motorway, bite to eat, more motorway, and then a lot of waiting around.

Sitting in traffic queues for hours on end as the French police tried their best traffic control routine, it was near 3:00am before head met cold pillow. The stage was  at 8:00am. Ugh.

Tired, cold and truly exhausted, the final day was nearly a non-starter, but this is the Turini, and having endured the ordeal getting there, it would have been rude to not see the action.

The crowds seemed visibly smaller this year compared to others, and the evident lack of snow on the road certainly made things look a lot less spectacular than normal on the famous alpine route.

Waiting for the action, fans huddled around campfires and stoves to keep warm. Through the trees, cars blasted over the iconic mountain top and into a series of fast bends that signal the start of the descent.

With the special stage over, vans packed and fresh clothes on, the next priority was to get pulled in somewhere to see the conclusion of the event. Out on a stage it’s fairly routine for me to have not a single clue of who is actually winning the rally, but this was special.

Parked in a village square, and above the drone of an idling Opel Adam R2 that had failed on its attempt to summit the Turini, we huddled around a laptop screen. Neuville had thrown everything he had at the Monte, but just not enough.

The spin on Friday now seemed even more significant. There has to be a winner though, and it was a display of pure class. Seb Ogier, in a brand new car, over a rally consisting of a majority of brand new stages, had done enough. 2.2 seconds separated the pair after 221 minutes of flat-out, on-the-limit racing.

Two point two seconds.

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Rolling down into Nice, the sun shone, and the temperatures soared. Inside campers, van, busses and cars, weary bands of rally fans wandered down from the mountains.

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Scruffy, unshaven and utterly exhausted, the Monte had taken its toll. The flight home was easily the quietest I have experienced, everyone onboard either fast asleep on the verge of.

Landed, on the road and home by 3:00am, I jumped into bed. It was cold. I panicked, then remembered it wasn’t in a van on the side of a French mountain.

Result.

Cian Donnellan
Instagram: ciadon
Facebook: ciandonphotography

The WRC on Speedhunters

Cutting Room Floor

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