- By Tony Borroz
- January 21, 2010
1911: The first Monte Carlo Automobile Rally is held. Twenty-three cars starting out from 11 different locations around Europe eventually converge on the tiny Principality of Monaco.
The event, officially the Rallye Monte Carlo, was organized at the behest of Prince Albert I (great-grandfather of current Prince Albert II and grandfather of Prince Rainier III, who married American actress Grace Kelly). Like many motoring contests of the time, it was seen primarily as a way for auto manufacturers to test new cars and new technologies, much like the Indy 500 and the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
Results of the hybrid event depended not on driving time alone, but on judges’ assessment of the automobiles’ design and passenger comfort, as well as what condition the vehicles were in after covering 1,000 kilometers of roads not really made for the horseless carriage. The arbitrary system provoked a minor outrage, but the judges’ decision stood.
Automobile dealer Henri Rougier won first place in a Turcat-Méry 45-horsepower model. Second place went to a driver named Aspaigu in a Gobron and third to Jules Beutler in a Martini.
The rally was held again the following year, but then not again until 1924. World War II and its aftermath interrupted the annual event, with no rallies from 1940 through 1948.
Winning the rally gave a car manufacturer a great deal of publicity and trustworthiness. Before Paddy Hopkirk won the rally in 1964, Mini was seen as being just a commuter car. After winning, the Mini Cooper was seen as a world-beater and a hot performance car — all thanks to the Rallye.
The Monte Carlo Rally is a racing event unlike any other. Where most speed contests are held on specially prepared and scrupulously maintained race tracks, the Monte Carlo is held on the roads to the north of the principality (which has a total area of just 0.76 square mile).
Unlike on a race track, where there are walls to keep the cars from flying off, and safety crews seemingly every 50 yards or so, the Monte Carlo Rally has distinguishing features like narrow mountain roads, cliffs with drop-offs measured in the hundreds of feet, snow and ice. About a quarter of its stages are run at night in pitch blackness.
Since 1973, the race has been held in January as the first race of the FIA World Rally Championship season. Running under the WRC calendar, the Monte Carlo Rally has highlighted wins from some of the greatest rally drivers of all time.
Sandro Munari won the Monte Carlo three times in a row. Walter Röhrl had four victories. The tragic Henri Toivonen blazed to victory in 1986. Finnish superstar Tommi Mäkinen won four times in a row. And all of them were eclipsed by the young French phenomenon Sébastien Loeb, who has won Monte Carlo a staggering five times.
And the cars these drivers piloted to victory also rank as some of the all-time greats: the svelte and diminutive Alpine-Renault A110 1800, the sci-fi–looking Lancia Stratos, the brutal Audi Quattro A2, the suicidally fast Lancia Delta S4, Mitsubishi’s evergreen Lancer Evo and most recently the Citroën Xsara WRC.
Although not well-known in the United States, the Monte Carlo Rally is where the rubber meets the road, literally.
Photo: The 2010 Monte Carlo Automobile Rally kicks off. Image Courtesy Monte Carlo Automobile Club.