When Maurice Gatsonides won the 1953 Monte Carlo Rally, Ford Britain promptly despatched a plane to Nice to pick up the Dutchman and his victorious Zephyr in order to start celebrations in London as soon as possible. When 10 British cars were excluded from the same event 13 years later, the story ran as a lead item on the BBC. The Monte Carlo Rally is that important.
And, with the 78th running of that event just days away, the event still stands among the highlights of the motorsport calendar. A January without a Monte is unthinkable. But, for the second year in succession, this will be a Monte Carlo Rally without the World Rally Championship as the event organiser. The Automobile Club de Monaco prefers to remain with the Intercontinental Rally Challenge and the extensive Eurosport television coverage which accompanies such an agreement.
There are undoubtedly factions within the ACM that firmly believe the Monte is bigger than the WRC - and, historically-speaking, with some justification. The WRC can boast a mere 36-year history for its manufacturers' award and 30 years for the drivers' title, both comparing unfavourably with the event which first ran in 1911.
The debate over whether the Monte should return to the WRC is an on-going one. With a Frenchman - Jean Todt - now presiding over the sport's governing body, it is hoped the two can be repatriated. If such a move fails, Monte Carlo only needs to look a few hundred miles north to the centre of France and arguably the world's greatest motor race, Le Mans, to see that long and prosperous living is possible outside the FIA family.
For now, with or without the WRC, the Monte remains the Monte. And it remains an exceptionally challenging event - considerably more so than when it began 99 years ago.
Bentley 4.5 litre © LAT
In 1911, cars were becoming more and more common around Europe (Ford Britain was established in this year) and there was a desire from the Societe des Bains de Mer (a company which controlled high-end hotels and entertainment in Monaco) to see more people and more cars in the principality in the traditionally quiet winter period. The idea of a car rally was considered, with drivers coming from towns and cities throughout Europe to converge on Monte Carlo.
And so in 1911 Rallye Automobile vers Monte Carlo was born with a 20-strong entry list. Weighting was given according to the journey taken to Monaco, with a starter coming from Athens given more leniency than one from Paris, but the real competition was on the seafront in Monte Carlo. The winner of the event was essentially decided by a single speed test and an examination of the comfort offered to passengers in the car. The first winner was Henri Rougier in a Turcat Mery.
The event returned 12 months later and was even more popular, but that was it for the Monte until 1924 when the organisers decided to give the rally another go - but this time in March. There was uproar. This wasn't what the Monte was about. In 1925 it returned to January and has stayed there ever since. One of the key attributes for the event is the juxtaposition of the harsh Alpine winter conditions through which the drivers battle to reach the finish beside a mild Mediterranean coast, where they would shed their overcoats and celebrate with a firm handshake and a stiff gin.
The event's popularity grew quickly and the rallies leading up to the Second World War drew as many 200 entries. The rally returned quickly after hostilities had ceased and just four years after V-E day in May 1945, the rally returned.
At this stage, cars were still virtually standard - save for a couple of extra blankets and a snow shovel in the boot - but with the 50s came a new and significantly more determined approach from car manufacturers. The realisation of what a Monte Carlo Rally win could do for the popularity of a brand was becoming clear; professionalism was upon us.
1961 Monte Carlo Rally winner Maurice Martin © LAT
There were also some rule changes to the post-war event, with a mountain test being added to the itinerary. The idea was that a driver would set his time around the test and then have to match that time - through a series of checkpoints (an early form of split time) at precisely the same second at which they arrived the first time around. They then had to cross the finish line on the same second.
These regularity sections were quite difficult to time precisely due to their length. In 1953, the chosen 'stage' was a 46-mile loop around the Col de Braus (which has subsequently become one of the most revered stages in the event's history).
Driving a 46-mile section to the second was not the work of a moment. But, luckily for the drivers, these were the days before the arrival of the two-day recce. In fact, Gatsonides, who won the 1953 Monte, was on holiday with his family for four weeks around Christmas in 1952 and drove the stage pretty much every day in a Zephyr he'd helped Ford to tailor to the Monte after entering the event eight times previously.
Unable to garner the use of his British co-driver Peter Worledge for four weeks over the festive period, Gatsonides took his 10-year-old son Tommy along for the ride. With an eye to the safety aspect of honing along frozen alpine passes, luggage straps were deployed to tie the stop watch-wielding Tommy to the front seat in the absence of seatbelts.
All that practice did the trick and Gatsonides celebrated his first Monte win, with Ford equally keen to rejoice in that first post-war win.
Sandro Munari/Piero Sodano Lancia Stratos on the 1978 Rallye © LAT
It hadn't all been plain sailing for Gatso, however. He recalls one significant moment on his way down to Valence, in a book written by his co-driver William Leonard.
Gatso says: "When descending from the Massif Central, we went like smoke. Consequently, I was not surprised when rounding a blind corner to suddenly observe a tractor with a cart load of hay in the middle of the road. This happened at seven o'clock in the morning and I suspect the driver was still asleep. He woke with a jerk, desperately pulled the wheel right over so that the haycart swayed like mad. The man standing behind him on the tractor must have broken the high jump record by several feet. He saved his skin by landing on the hay."
The onset of another decade brought more significant changes to the rally, with special stages - and an itinerary vaguely recognisable in comparison with that of this week's event - arriving in 1961. By now, the event was becoming popular beyond belief with close to 400 crews setting off from places as far away from Monaco as Scotland and even Russia, bound for the race through the Alps.
With special stages came a new approach to timing, with a weighting in favour of smaller, less powerful cars. Paddy Hopkirk's winning performance on the 1964 Monte raised eyebrows from those who saw the Ulsterman tearing through the mountains in his Mini 1071cc Cooper S. Twelve months later it was Timo Makinen who used every one of the 1275cc Cooper S's 100bhp and renowned agility to show the rest of the field the way home on a particularly snowy Monte. A year on from then and the timing equation known as the 'factor of comparison' was binned.
1985 Monte Carlo Rally winner Ari Vatanen © LAT
It was another decision which the 1966 Monte will be best remembered for, when the stewards' decided to exclude the top four finishers (all in British cars, and 10 British cars in total). Such was Prince Rainier's disgust at the decision, he departed ahead of the prize-giving, where a previously fifth-placed Pauli Toivonen, a Paris-based, Citroen-driving Finn found himself celebrating an unexpected win.
The controversy centred on the headlights being used by BMC on the Minis and Ford on the Lotus Cortina. Both cars had employed non-dipping single filament quartz bulbs in place of the double-filament dipping bulbs which had come off the production line. Rules had changed at the start of 1966, with regulations stating that the cars must have come straight from the production line. The headlight alterations, which effectively meant the cars ran on main beam all the time, contravened those regulations. But the Monte organisers had at the time BMC and Ford entered, stated the event would run under pre-1966 rules, only altering that stance once the entries had been accepted.
Timo Makinen was denied his win, Roger Clark (Ford) lost is second place and the Minis of Rauno Aaltonen and Paddy Hopkirk also disappeared from the results. At the time Makinen said: "None of us dreamed that the stewards would turn the result upside down - and for such a stupid reason."
A spokesman from one of the British teams went further, stating: "This will be the end of the Monte Carlo Rally."
It wasn't. And only the oil crisis in 1974 has stopped the event running every year since.
Piero Liatt and Fabrizia Pons won the 1997 running in their Subaru Impreza © LAT
The next big change for the rally came with the onset of the World Rally Car era in 1997. Having been absent from the WRC during its calendar rotation season in 1996, it was a very different start to the 1997 Monte. The concentration run was no more. In the previous WRC year the concentration run had taken crews from Bad Hombourg, Barcelona, Lausanne, Monte Carlo, Reims or Turin to Monaco in a fascinating throwback to what was the old road-trip style Monte Carlo Rally.
But, in the modern era of rallying, it was decided the concentration run served no purpose and had no place in the event. The 1997 Monte was also divided into two rallies, one for the professionals and one for amateurs. Amateur entries could service where they wanted, but they would not be permitted to tackle the event-closing dash around Monaco's famed Formula 1 circuit.
It was around this time that the WRC was undergoing significant change, with those road trip-style events being shunned in favour of more homogenised rallies running in a cloverleaf formation out of a central service point. Rally organisers are nothing if not traditionalists and the Automobile Club de Monaco is the most traditional of those establishments. The event and the WRC's promoter International Sportsworld Communictaors were at odds as to the way forward. The ACM bowed to pressure from the WRC and ran rallies based solely out of Monaco, but the events which were unable to reach the stunning - and often more snowbound - stages of the Ardeche were far from classic affairs.
Tommi Makinen won four straight Montes from 1999-2002 © LAT
In the end, the ACM had enough and in 2007 shifted the event and its service park to Valence, much to the chagrin of ISC's then boss David Richards who described the service park as a "car boot sale".
The ACM was now flying in the face of the prescribed outline plan for a WRC round and it came as no surprise when the decision was announced to move away from the WRC and into the IRC for 2009.
Since then, the organisers have returned to a route which blends the benefits of both the Ardeche and Alpes Maritimes regions. Rally fans have been among the chief beneficiaries, with the return of what's known as the night of Turini.
The new route has allowed a return to what has become the Monte Carlo Rally's most famous test: the Col de Turini. This stage, usually running from Sospel on one side of the Col de Turini to La Bollenne on the other side, has decided the outcome of many a Monte Carlo.
But it's on the roof of the event, at 1642 metres, alongside the Turini's summit sign on Friday night that the fans will be cheering as long and as loud as they have done for 77 of the last 99 years.
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