As I started to write this post, right after Christmas day, 2020, the teams and drivers were getting ready for the kick start of the 2021 season of the World Rally Championship, or simply “WRC”.
As it has happened since 1973, the opening round will be the most traditional and important race of the calendar: the Monte-Carlo Rally. For this year, the “Automobile Club de Monaco” will be celebrating the 110th anniversary of the first Monte-Carlo Rally; the race, which is the oldest competition of this kind in the world, helped to immortalize the popularity of “Rallying” around the world and also helped to shape the image of the City of Monte-Carlo as a place forever connected to motorsports.
The First Edition
In the early 1900s, the automobile was considered more like a hobby than a necessity, something like a toy for the millionaires. The car owners were even considered as sportsmen and as such, they were constantly in search of new challenges and for this reason, rallies were very popular among them.
In 1909, Prince Albert I, of Monaco, came up with the idea of a rally competition that would not only promote all the technological advances of the recently created automotive industry but above all, attract wealthy car owners to the country and present Monaco as an amazing destination in the glamorous Mediterranean coast.
The First Edition
The Automobile Club de Monaco received the task to organize the competition and to turn it into reality. They didn’t wast any time and the first edition of the Monte Carlo Rally happened in 1911. The core of the rally was very simple, 23 cars left from different cities across Europe, towards Monaco and their start was staggered according to the distance to the capital city Monte Carlo. The competitors followed the rules of the regularity rally, also called time-speed-distance or TSD rally, which is driving each segment of a course in a specified time at a specified average speed. Competitors set off from Paris, Brussels, Geneva, Vienna and Berlin, arriving in Monte Carlo on Saturday, January 28th.
Seven cars failed to finish the rally, due to the harsh conditions of the roads during wintertime and the overall winner was the German sportsman Von Esmark, from Berlin, but thanks to a few controversial rules, he was disqualified.
Rallies in the early 1910s were quite popular among the adventurous car owners who were in pursuit of new challenges for themselves and their machines as well, but the Monte-Carlo Rally had a different approach. Since one of the main purposes of this event was to promote the city as an affluent destination in the French Riviera, some of its rules were related to the elegance of the cars and crew, and what would be considered laughable in modern times, were very important back then; important enough to push Von Esmark to the 6th place.
Points were given not only based on the skills of the driver but also based on the elegance of the car, the comfort of the passengers, and the condition in which the car arrived at the principality. At the end of the rally, the racers had to go on a parade around Monte Carlo and the machines were supposed to be clean and with the least possible amount of visible damages, and apparently, Von Esmark’s car wasn’t in “tip-top” condition.
Since the competitors were very wealthy people, some of them didn’t even bother to drive their cars throughout the rally, leaving the job to their chauffeurs and the comfort of the passengers was also an important aspect to collect points toward the victory.
In the end, the winner was the French airplane pilot Henri Rougier, who was among the nine competitors who left Paris, to cover 1,020 Kilometres (634 mi) route. Von Esmark, who finished the rally 14 hours before Rougier, considered himself the legitimate winner and he didn’t take lightly his disqualification, he refused his prize and also didn’t parade his car around Monte-Carlo at the end of the rally.
The Second Edition.
For the next year’s edition of the rally, the number of cars increased to 60, and there were ten different cities all over Europe as starting points.
Certainly, the most thrilling route that year was from Saint Petersburg in the Russian Empire to Monte-Carlo. It took more than 8 days for the Russian adventurous duo Andrej Platonovitsj and Vagym Mihajlov, to cover 3.257 km (2.024 mi) of treacherous winter roads.
They drove a 1911 Russo Balt model S24-55; the brand was well known for manufacturing military vehicles for the Russian Army and that might explain how the car withstood so well the punishment of the trip. The low average of 16.7 km/h (10.4 mph), and reputedly the less-than-shiny appearance of the car upon arrival and inspection by the judges, dropped them back to ninth place.
The picture above shows the winner of the 1912 Monte-Carlo Really: Julius Beutler, from Germany, and his French-built Berliet 16HP.
Female drivers were encouraged to participate in the Monte-Carlo Rally, not in the name of diversity but to bring charm and beauty to the event instead; quite sexist indeed. The picture above shows Mademoiselle Cabien, ready to start the parade, at the end of the 1912 edition. Cabien, at the wheel of her 2 cylinder Peugeot, had an admirable performance, finishing the competition with an average speed of 32Km/h. Very impressive for the 1910s standard.
The public and the media couldn’t understand how a few elitist rules, about elegance, comfort, and cleanliness, prevented the Russians to win the rally. After all, they overcame a much bigger challenge and they did it with gallantry. Just like the year before, the 1912 Monte-Carlo Rally ended in controversy.
After only two editions, the rally was failing to conquer the hearts and minds of the public. The sponsors of the event were pressuring the officials to change the rules, fearing the Rally wouldn’t have much chance to survive.
The economic uncertainties in Europe prevented the 1913 edition of the rally to happen and in 1914, WWI dragged the whole continent into 4 years of bloodshed and later on, into economic depression.
It would take 12 years for the next edition of the Monte-Carlo Rally to happen. For 1924, the Automobile Club de Monaco implemented some well-received changes, like eliminating most of the elegance rules and including a 90Km route throughout the Alps.
This mountain circuit gave the unique opportunity for the public to see the cars in action in the vicinity of Monte-Carlo, helping to popularize the event. Later on, this Alpine section became the core of the rally, even if, in the beginning, the French police almost ruined it because they didn’t allow the competitors to go over 30 km/h.
Of the 30 participants, only one failed to finish the competition. That year even motorcycles were allowed to participate.
The picture above shows the winner of the Women’s Cup of the 1927 Monte-Carlo Rally, Mildred Bruce, impatiently waiting for the refuelling of her AC “six”. Mildred, who was already a reputable adventure seeker at the time, received financial support from AC (the same British maker that gave the world the AC Cobra), to drive an AC car during the competition. Another clear sign that the rally was moving towards professionalism.
During the 1920s, the Automobile Club de Monaco started to reshape the rally towards a more professional competition. New rules were implemented, regulating the power and the weight of the cars and also the maximum number of passengers.
By the 1930s the automobile had evolved quite significantly, it was faster, safer, and quite reliable. If the cars had improved, so did the highways. Crossing Europe towards Monte-Carlo was a much easier challenge now than it was 20 years ago.
The organizers implemented a series of tasks to be performed at the end of the rally, meant to evaluate the driving skills of the participants, and on top of that, the Alpine portion of the competition was increased to 160Km.
By the mid-30s, the Monte-Carlo Rally was well established as one the most popular automobile competition in the world, attracting not only wealthy car owners but also, aviators, professional race drivers, and celebrities as well. Every year thousands of tourists would flock to this “fairy tale” principality to see the drivers and their machines and most of them also enjoyed everything Monte-Carlo has to offer, like the gorgeous beaches and marinas, and also luxurious hotels, and casinos. The mission given to the Automobile Club de Monaco to open the doors of the country to the world, was fully accomplished.
The last Monte-Carlo Rally of the decade happened in 1939, in that same year the Germans invaded Poland and started World War II.
Europe and the rest of the world were pushed once again to the horrors of a total war and it took 10 years for the organizers to put together another edition of the Monte-Carlo Rally.
The Modern Era.
After WWII, the rally steadily shifted to a more professional event. Since the highway part of the competition was no longer a challenge, the treacherous mountain course completely replaced it, and there was an ever-growing involvement of the automakers, with official factory teams.
During the 1950s and 60s, the rally experienced a surge in the number of small, affordable cars. Thanks to the evolution in technology, an average car was not only able to withstand the punishment of the rally but also able to fight for the first position.
The Mini-Cooper dominated the Monte-Carlo Rally in the 60s. The tiny British car won in 1964, and again in 1965, driven by the legendary Scandinavian duo Rauno Aaltonen and Timo Mäkinen.
For 1966, the Mini-Coopers finished the rally in a smashing 1-2-3 position, but unfortunately, the organizers had imposed a draconian new rule for that year, stating the cars must be 100% factory original.
The Automobile Club de Monaco was firmly decided to put an end to the British winning streak. After the end of the rally, the technicians spent more than 18 hours, dismantling the cars, measuring and checking every single part. Everything seemed fine when they finally found something wrong: the original headlight bulbs had been replaced with a more powerful ones, and that was enough to disqualify all three winner Mini Coopers. The drivers, the team managers, and the fans were furious, they vehemently protested against the judge’s decision and even the press joined them putting as much pressure as possible to reverse the decision, but it was all in vain. Once again the Monte-Carlo Rally ended in controversy.
The stolen victory in 1966 was just a small set back, in the next year, Rauno Aaltonen, driving for the British Motor Company official team, brought the Mini-Cooper once again to the highest place on the podium. There is no doubt the Monte-Carlo Rally immensely contributed to the Mini’s popularity around the world.
The supremacy of the small cars in the rally was short-lived. During the 1970s the competition was dominated by sports cars like the Renault Alpine, Porsche 911, and the legendary Lancia Stratus.
Here it is, all the winners of the Monte-Carlo Rally, during the decade.
Lancia Stratus: 1975, 1976, 1977, 1979
Renault Alpine A110: 1971, 1974.
Porsche 911: 1970, 1978
Lancia Fulvia: 1972
The 1970s were amazing years, not only for Monte-Carlo but for rallying in general. The heavy participation of the automakers plus some solid sponsorship, allowed the teams to bring to the battle amazing professional drivers and the best sports cars the auto-industry had at the time.
The decade set the perfect scenario for the introduction of the infamous Group “B” cars, during the 1980s, but that might as well be the subject of a future post.
The legend of the Monte-Carlo Rally lives on, it is impossible to imagine a WRC season without it in the same way it is impossible to imagine an F1 season without the Monaco GP. The evolution of the event helped to make rallying as we know it today, so demanding for the competitors and so passionate for the fans.