A Turn Too Far

The Winter Challenge 2001


By Andrew R. Barron

After successfully completing the Millennium Monte in my 1969 Seven S3, my co-driver, Tim Westby, and I had decided that we had to attempt this amazing rally one more time. This time we were one of three Lotus entries (one more than the year before): two Cortinas and ourselves. One of the Cortinas was a last minute entry, because their original car had been unable to start.

The Winter Challenge (as the Classic Monte Carlo Rally has been renamed due to the finish being permanently switched to Cannes) is run by the Classic Rally Association (www.carnet.co.uk/rallyoffice). Unlike our previous entry in the Marathon Route (which has a hotel stop every night) we decided to go all out for the more difficult Sporting Route which required an all night session (almost 24 hours of driving) leading to the finish. Our entry number was 199 and as per last year we were in the Classic saloon and sports cars class. The two Cortina's ran the more genteel route.

The Seven was dutifully shipped to UK coated with a liberal supply of Pam cooking oil to inhibit corrosion during the voyage. A great idea, especially the exposed exhaust. However, note to self when doing this again: remember to wash it off before driving or a strong aroma of cooking wafts behind you along the M25 during rush hour. After a pre-run check at Redline Engineering in Caterham Surrey (011-44-1883-346515) and a new set of Michelins, the Seven was ready to be off.

As with previous years the Winter Challenge has four start points: Brooklands Race track, Noordwijk, Ypres, and St. Moritz. Cars starting at each of these points would eventually meet-up in Nancy and continue en-mass, We were starting from Brooklands. As with previous years there was a great selection of cars taking part, including the 1923 Hupmobile City Racer whose crew we had got to know the year before.

Sunday, 14th January: the starting order was based on car number, which being 199 meant we had relaxing start. On through the English countryside, the conditions were mild; this was not to last. Instead of the ferry, the rally organizers decided that the Chunnel would make an interesting crossing and provide us with more time. The first evening through France to Nancy was uneventful. The previous year's problems with the Lord of Darkness (a.k.a. Lucas electrics) had been solved by the installation of a real fuse box on the dash bulkhead, instead of the two fuse holder positioned so that rubber arms are required to change the fuses.

The second day's start was colder than we had experienced the previous year and so we decided to use the roof. This also had the advantage of keeping maps from blowing away. Our luck held and with good driving and navigation we were in first place in class and in the top twenty over all.

The Winter Challenge is made up of two types of sections. The first involves navigation from one checkpoint to another within a certain time. Lateness results in a penalty of 1 minute per minute late. The second type of section is regularity. In this section, you are stopped at the side of the road and given instructions of a required average speed (unknown at the start of the section) and then your start is counted to the second. You then have to maintain this speed over an unknown distance at which point there is another checkpoint to record your exact time (to the second). If you are late you get a penalty of 1 second per second late, but if you are early the penalty is 2 seconds per second early! We had found from last year that this was not hard - unless you get lost. Which we did.

The third day involved a cross country journey from Aix-les-Bains to Aix-les-Bains! Ten hours of almost constant driving in a rather large circle. We found rather quickly that unlike the Marathon Route where coffee breaks were routine, the Sporting Route left no time between stops. Leaving one checkpoint we came across a regularity start. After being given our target speed we set off. Within less than a mile we had taken a wrong turn. After retracing our steps and at least two more turns I spotted the car that had been in front of us on the regularity; a white Triumph Herald. Unfortunately, it was across the other side of the valley coming towards us! Obviously Tim's map reading was not quite right. "Don't worry about the map," I shouted, "I have an idea". Driving along single car roads at 70 mph, I closed in on the Triumph. As we approached it head on, I swerved in front of it and asked the driver if he had reached the end of the regularity. "No", came the rather curt reply. As the Triumph carried on I waited a minute (the timed gap between cars on the regularities) and followed him along the road. Sure enough about a mile down the road there was the checkpoint for the end of the regularity. It turned out we were within 30 seconds of the correct time!

Despite this rather unorthodox approach we actually did rather well in the rest of the regularities. In fact we posted only a handful of seconds penalty all day and as a consequence at the end of day three as we drove back into Aix-les-Bains we were still in third place in class.

It was during the fourth day that the weather went from bad to worse. Heavy snow started falling and ice was building up on the roads. Half way up the Col Luitel we came across several cars crashed at the side of the road, including a Rover whose bonnet was wrapped around a tree. Coming around a corner, we came across a red triangle warning of an accident, but no car. It was over the side about a dozen yards into the trees!

We had an intimate moment with a Porsche when I drove into the back of him. Then hit him a second time while reversing! Hey, it was a Porsche and he was in my way! After putting on snow chains we continued at an amazing pace. For this we have Tim's upbringing in North Dakota to thank.

Reaching the main road we were greeted by a traffic jam. Tim stayed in the car (having a much deserved smoke). I walked up the jam to chat with other cars on the rally. The cause of the jam was an accident involving a head-on collision between the leader of the rally (last year's winners Frank Fennell and Kevin Savage) and a local motorist. A measure of crash protection of modern cars was demonstrated by comparing the demolished Volvo PV 544 with a crumpled, but recognizable Japanese econo-box. The latter's driver was at the side of the road, dazed but undamaged, while the rally crew were life-flighted to hospital with broken legs and ribs.

Eventually, the accident was cleared and we continued. However, this delay was to cause us further problems as the day continued. The next event was an ice auto-cross on the summit of the Alpe d'Huez (1495 m). Looked like a pretty standard auto cross, but instead of cones there were banks of snow. While the Seven is great at auto crosses, one on ice is another matter. We almost ran over a rather enthusiastic photographer while trying to get round the last corner.

Descending from Alpe d'Huez we tried to continue on the correct path, but several cars were crashed up ahead including a Sunbeam on its roof, so we were instructed to go the long way around, resulting in further delays. Instead of attempting the last regularity in daylight, we were in pitch black, thick fog and sub zero temperatures. Using the map (a bit), and our sense of direction (more), we got through the right route.

Then just as we were on the last stretch a blind left hander came out of the fog. Tim's attempts to turn were thwarted by sheet ice. The resulting skid was brought to an abrupt halt by a jarring impact with the Armco. The blow ripped off the rear right fender and bent both right wheels. Pulling to the side of the road, I jumped out, red triangle in hand to warn the next car in line. Despite the damage we were actually lucky. If the impact had been a few feet sooner, the sloping end of the Armco would have launched us over the cliff. We were met by the sweepers in a Land Rover who helped change the wheels and check to make sure we could slowly continue to Gap. One of the mechanics cheerfully suggested that all that was wrong was a bent wheel and we should go on, however, Tim and I decided to cut our losses and end there. It turned out we were wise not to continue, the rear hub and front upright were cracked.

But what of the other Lotus entries? The Lotus Cortina of Mike Newman/Alec Newsham came in 16th overall in the Marathon Route (7th in class) with only 19 minutes and 43 seconds in penalties. A great run. Robert Harley and David Densham brought the other Cortina in eighth in the same class, but seventy ninth overall with 13 hours, 14 minutes and 1 second penalties!

The Seven was shipped back to the UK by Cambridge Motorsports (http://dspace.dial.pipex.com/cambridge.motorsport) with whom we had already arranged to bring the car back from Cannes. The major damage was repaired at Redline and the car arrived back to Texas in due course only slightly the worse for wear. As you read this it is being cleaned and rebuilt to put back on the street with a few more scars to boast its eventful life.

So are we doing it next year? No. Not because of the crash, but because this time a higher goal is in the offering. Starting September 2002 will be the London to Katmandu. Twenty five days to the top of the world. Yes, you've guessed it, there will be a yellow '69 Seven running it (unless anyone knows of a Cortina going cheap?). Given the magnitude of the undertaking we are looking for commercial sponsorship. So, anyone interested please let me know.


Return to the Main Auto Page