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GP Week : Issue 152
23 GPWEEK.com // PARTNERS: This weekend sees the Tour de Corse, a special event in rallying. Corsica 1974 was the first foreign rally I attended as a journalist. It was love at first sight. Everything was how I imagined it would be in my dreams – warm Mediterranean air, dusty restaurant car parks with tatty recce cars waiting outside for their drivers to engage in high speed night time practice. I vowed not to come back to the island until there was a co-driver's seat in a rally car for me to occupy. It was three years before that happened, thanks eventually to Ford. I had been a works co-driver for many teams on and off, and very frequently in semi- official Ford cars. Now was my chance to compete in an official works blue and white Escort. I was to be alongside an old rallying partner, Russell Brookes (pictured lower right). Ford's two car entry was a last-minute hope that the 1977 world championship season might go their way. In those days the Tour de Corse lasted around 24 hours, virtually non-stop. Halfway through the night we had risen up to fourth place when the transmission broke, as did that of our teammate Jean_Pierre Nicolas. These days JPN is the manager of the IRC series which has recently resurrected the memories of this event. Our race was over after only six hours or so, but what an experience it had been. Fiat had arranged night- time mid-stage pit stops. Rushing down the hillside through the village of Ghisoni was what I imagined passing the floodlit pits at Le Mans must be like. Special stages went non-stop through villages. We had been driving flat out for well over an hour on the section where the car broke down. We had a glimpse into the world in which Bernard Darniche (who won the rally in a Fiat) was king. I haven't missed a world championship Tour de Corse since. You are never far away from motor sport history in the island. We had fun taking pictures of the dictatorial FIA boss Jean-Marie Balestre, with a monument of Napoleon in Ajaccio behind. The juxtaposition seemed appropriate. One of the my great regrets was missing the rally in 1972, the final time a major championship rally admitted prototype cars. It may have been won by a pretty normal looking Renault Alpine A110, but ranged against these cars were the Ford GT70, the Simca CG (both open-topped and coupe versions), Ligier JS1, works Porsches, the debut appearance of the Lancia Stratos, a 280bhp Ford Capri and so on. In earlier times the Tour de Corse attracted other dramatic cars, like the Ferrari 250GT, the AC Cobra, the Abarth 2-litre sports racing cars, Ford Falcons and so on. Since then the rally has seen specialities like the enormous BMW M1 and Ferrari 308GTBs. Listen quietly and you can still hear the sounds of yesterday in the forests on the island and in the natural springtime floral displays on the slopes. Maybe also you will hear the quiet but sincere blessings which the legendary pastor in the mountain village of Quenza bestowed on the rally drivers who stopped to see him. Among the lovely memories were bad ones. We were waiting on a hilltop in 1986 wondering why the cars were late, when we saw smoke rising in the distance. The accident in which Henri Toivonen and co-driver Sergio Cresta died was a terrible shock, even though it followed exactly a year after the crash which took the life of Attilio Bettega. When friends ask what to do in a spare day in the island, I urge them to see the plaques erected where these accidents happened, to share the memory. The event has changed its format in accordance with requirements of the sport. The nicest times were when the event started in Ajaccio, had rest halts in Bastia and then Calvi, finishing back in Ajaccio which is roughly how the IRC rally is again being held. Things have changed over the 30-odd years I have been to Corsica. Bypass roads have been built, rally roads are less bumpy. Trivial details. The coast road south of Calvi, the endlessly twisting lanes of the chestnut strewn hilly area south of Bastia, the mountain passes like the spectacular road up to the Col de Bavella. They are all there waiting for the rally cars to arrive, and the kindly French press officials will be there offering an aperitif before you start your evening work. A perfect place to enjoy the work we do. OPINION MARTIN HOLMES Rally Editor CORSICAN LOVE AFFAIR OPINION