This year’s Monte Carlo Rally is certainly making headlines, albeit for all the wrong reasons.
At the time of writing, the World Rally Championship finds itself in a bit of a mess, and the Monte’s WRC return looks to be in jeopardy following the termination of North One Sport’s contract as promoter for the series by the FIA.
The governing body terminated the agreement last week on the grounds NOS failed to assure them that they would be able to fulfil its contractual obligations after their parent company Convers Sports Initiatives went into administration.
So, the WRC is currently promoter-less and, just to make matters worse, the company that supply the essential timing and tracking devices, Stage One Technology, has been coerced into not using their equipment by NOS’s legal bods.
In slightly more upbeat news, an impressive 89-strong entry list for this year’s Monte was revealed shortly before the aforementioned hullabaloo kicked off, although, this wasn’t plain sailing either.
Mini’s historic return to Monte was in doubt after Prodrive missed the deadline to enter the event because they were waiting for the issues with the series ownership to be resolved, plus parent company BMW were – and presumably still are – unhappy with the sub-standard television coverage of the WRC in its key markets.
But still, they eventually put pen to paper and registered themselves as a manufacturer for this year’s championship, although they will only run one of its two factory drivers full-time in this year’s championship.
And you thought Formula 1 was the motorsport equivalent of a soap opera…
So, everything going to plan, Mini should be on the start line for the first race of the WRC 2012 season, and their first in the Monte since 1968. But even back then, the event wasn’t devoid of any issues.
In those days the rally ran from Marrakech to Monaco – opposite of the Paris-Dakar – and it was Mini who dominated the event, regularly beating cars with much larger engines than itself, and proving the theory that power is not everything.
Paddy Hopkirk gave the Mini Cooper its first win in 1964, with Timo Makinen making it two on the bounce in 1965, and so, in 1966, the works Mini armada were confident in securing a remarkable Monte hat-trick win.
Well sure enough, the pre-event favourites left everyone behind and secured a dream one-two-three finish, driven by Makinen, Rauno Aaltonen and Hopkirk.
That was until French officials began a thorough, eight hour, post-event inspection and eventually determined that the four additional headlights mounted on the radiator grilles did not comply with homologation rules.
The Minis were later excluded from the event due to their use of non-dipping bulbs in their headlamps, instead of the standard double filament dipping glass bulbs, which were used in the models that came off the production line at that time.
“None of us dreamed that the stewards would turn the results upside down,” said Makinen after the race, “and for such a stupid reason.”
As a result of this questionable violation, all three Minis were disqualified, along with Roger Clark’s fourth-placed Ford Cortina, thereby gifting Pauli Toivonen the win in his very French Citroen ID, who later vowed never to drive for the team ever again.
The controversy that followed such a dubious, nationalistically motivated, decision threatened to damage the credibility of the sport. “This will be the end of the Monte Carlo rally. Britain is certain to withdraw,” decreed one unnamed British official, whilst Motor Sport Magazine’s headline “The Monte Carlo Fiasco” said it all.
Alas, the event still continued and, just to prove a point, Finnish rally ace Aaltonen took Monte victory in 1967 in his now compliant Mini Cooper, 12 seconds ahead of Ove Andersson in the Lancia Fulvia. Hopkirk finished a respectable sixth, newboy Simo Lampien 15th and Makinen 41st.
A Monte win wasn’t forthcoming in 1968 and it was clear that the nimble Mini Cooper S had passed its pinnacle as a rally car. And so, come the end of the year, the works Mini team effort was put to bed.
But the legend lived on - outlasting the bitter taste left behind by the shenanigans of 1966, which had the effect of securing Mini a place in the heart of the car buying public than perhaps any other moment in motorsport.