Tracking Classics Across France And Into The Alps For The Winter Challenge Rally
Photography by Will Broadhead
Yesterday we took a look at the preparations of the 22 crews running in the 2018 edition of the Winter Challenge Rally, and with the first two stages now behind us, it’s a good time to recount the past few days of triumphs and tribulations for the slew of vintage cars tackling the thousand-mile route that goes from Northern France to Monte-Carlo.
Distance is a funny thing, we often conflate it with time when we’re driving, and usually assume that because we’ve been traveling in any one direction for a long period, we must have covered a lot of it. Certainly, that was the conclusion that I came to when I awoke after a few hours of fitful napping in the back of the media wagon on the first leg of the HERO Winter Challenge. Indeed, we had covered plenty of ground on the concentration run of this five-day bash through France—“concentration” because out of all of the days on the rally, this first one is probably the dullest, as it is designed mainly get the group into the middle of the country in one hit before the more fun, less efficient legs of the journey. Concentration also because that is something easily lost as the odometer clicks ‘round mile after flat mile. Good progress was made as the morning drew on, but then I’d look at the map be reminded of just how vast France really is. We had barely even dented it, and indeed we hadn’t even dropped below Paris yet! Ok sure, this isn’t America or Russia—coast to coast here barely even registers on that scale—but it was apparent that the day was going to be a long one.
The drive had begun early, still dark in fact when I emerged onto the deserted streets of Le Touquet before sunrise. It was icy underfoot as well, something the armed police officer who appeared out of the darkness seemed to appreciate as he greeted me with a cheery “Glissant,” before disappearing back into the gloom. As the crews started to warm up their machines and chip ice from the windows, there was a palpable excitement, a real “kids out of school” feeling permeating the frigid air between the smiling people. Through the hustle and bustle of the makeshift paddock, and under clear skies, the first car departed: a Volvo PV544, of Dermot Carnegie and Paul Bosdet. An extremely excited official from the town waved rallycross legend Carnegie away and repeated the action with just as much gusto for each departing crew afterwards.
As is normal for this part of France, as we headed inland the cool sun of the morning turned into thick fog, and by the time we had reached our first stop ahead of the rally the gloom had descended all around us. Not that the teams or the cars seemed to mind though as they rumbled through the French towns and countryside of the Somme on their way to the first lunch stop, a break that was swiftly followed by the first regularity test of the trip. Whilst the morning run had been all about covering as much ground as possible to enhance the time spent up in the mountains later in the trip, the regularity sections are all about completing a set navigational exercise in an allotted time. Seconds are added for variations either way on this (the goal is to the hit the “right time,” not the fastest) and vehicles are timed at various points throughout the section. Sounds simple, but on the narrow back roads of rural France maintaining the correct average speed is not an easy feat. Coupled with the challenging navigation and less than perfect French road maps, even the most experienced crews find these tests hard ones to master.
Time then for the drivers and navigators to ponder the challenge ahead over lunch, as they basked in the sunshine that had broken after the morning’s murk. Three regularity tests awaited the teams for the rest of the afternoon and into the evening, the last of which would be completed in the dark as night fell over the countryside. I’m sure as the cars pulled into the hotel for the night some 11 hours after departing to start the day, that all involved were ready for a good long rest after a debrief over something cold and fizzy. Or perhaps dark and red, since the overnight location of Beaune is the wine capital of the Burgundy region. Unfortunately, not all the cars arrived at the day’s end under their own power, with the worst of the casualties being the gorgeous baby blue Triumph TR4 of Tony Sheach and Rachel Wakefield succumbing to a broken half shaft in the famous town of Chablis. A nervous wait into the night followed, to find out if spares could be located to fix the stricken British classic.
The countryside of France never ceases to amaze me with its beauty, and no matter how many times I travel through this country I don’t tire of looking out the window. It is all the more enhanced by a group of burbling classic cars of course. So if today was the “boring” day of the tour, then the bar is already set extremely high. Tomorrow’s trek up and into the beginnings of the mountains for leg two of the rally promised to be a super day.
If I had woken up this morning and you would have told me that during the I was going to experience bitter cold, the first signs of a long-awaited spring, golden drifts of jettisoned leaves, and temperatures more akin to summer than February, I would have assumed it had been a long night at the inn for you. But assumption and fact rarely dine at the same table, and on the second day of driving I did indeed bask in beautiful warm sunshine and also got up to my knees in freshly plowed snow!
Emerging from my motel this morning, I looked more snowboarder than sunbather though, and as I scraped the ice from the car it seemed my choice of clothing was appropriate. Particularly as the day was leg number two of the rally, and while the previous day was about distance, today marked the beginning of the assault on “Les Alps”! Unfortunately, one car from our expedition was not to be joining us, as the beleaguered Triumph TR4 had not yet been fixed, though the hunt was on to secure the team parts so they could rejoin the rally further into the route.
As we left the drudgery of the Monday morning commute in our overnight stop of Beaune, we started to ascend through the more traditional towns and villages that populate this area of France. Hillsides were claimed by sprawling expanses of vineyard, and as the altitude increased the roads became narrower, tighter, and much more “the ticket,” as it were.
The day was to feature many more regularity tests, as if negotiating the constricting roads whilst navigating using methods as old as the cars was not challenging enough. Thankfully the cold of the morning had abated a bit when the first of these got underway, but the sky remained a dreary grey, matching the mood of the rest of the populous returning to work after the weekend (rather than driving vintage sports cars against the clock!).
The crews were concerned with cutting a neat ribbon through the upcoming hairpins and ascents of test one, and traveling in reverse order from the previous day’s finishing times, it was very much the fox turning the chase upon the hounds. Anyone who has driven through the backroads of France will be familiar with how inaccurate the maps can be—an issue compounded by the many offshoots of roads popping up seemingly at random and headed to goodness knows where. Crews were caught out almost instantly by these, and this was a precursor to how much more of a trial today was to be over the previous days bolt and dash through the easily-navigated lowlands.
As well as the regularity tests, day two of driving also included the first of the off-road speed challenges. Wherein keeping to an average speed is the order of the day on the public roads of the regularity races (flowers on the road in various places on the route reminded us of all the risks of pushing too hard in the mountains), the speed challenges are, as you may have guessed, about completing the course in as fast a time as possible.
This took place on a go-kart track in the area, and was a fabulous opportunity for the drivers to put pedal to the metal and use their machines in anger. It also gave the media teams time to escape in front of the pack and put some distance between us and the cars on the run, and to lay in wait in an appropriate spot upon the slopes alongside the switchbacks. I had taken my turn to drive the press wagon, and the constant order of accelerate, brake, turn, climb during the route was hard going. It was also a bit slippery, and the boots of the Opel hire car were struggling to gain purchase on the scree and debris that littered the road beneath. I could barely begin to imagine how tough of an ordeal it was for the classics to remain planted and progressive on the at-times very difficult terrain.
As we continued to play our cat and mouse game with the train of cars on the route, the scenery began to transform with seemingly every turn. Beautiful sunshine now accompanied us, and the heat was such that the windows of the car were down and winter clothing had been cast aside too. In the distance though, we could see snow-capped trees, the white frost reflecting the sunlight in a fabulous display of contrast between the darker greens beneath. At our chosen places to photograph the cars, we looked over serene postcard-esque backdrops to the Porsche 911s and BMW 2002s turning the heads of hardy French farmers as they tore a strip through the scenery. It was dazzling stuff, and oh how I wished we were in a Lamborghini Miura or some-such thing ourselves!
As the needle on the altimeter rose and we hastened our approach toward the white-capped trees, burbling mountain streams gave way to colder and harder ground and, eventually, the snow we had been looking for started to appear alongside us. A little at first, until at the second stop for pictures I found myself sinking into the stuff with the large drifts built up at the sides of the plowed roads. I knew that this was just a taster of things to come though, and the day finished in bright sun again as the cars climbed the final test of the day, overlooking distant mountains and ancient glacial lakes in the valley floor below. Four seasons in a day indeed, and what a day it had been.