The "0" car had left quite a while ago, the people on the bridge were waiting eagerly. A small silhouette appeared beneath the ice-capped top of the mountain, followed by an angry grunt. It was a Citroen and it was approaching fast. "C'est Loeb!" shouted someone with a better eyesight. The King was coming through the Col de Turini.
"Bonsoir, monsieur!" It was 3am in the morning on Sunday and I was woken up by the cleaner who wanted to know why I was sleeping in front of the boarding terminal of Nice airport, France. I explained in my broken French that I had arrived from Paris just a few hours before and I was leaving for a train early in the morning, that's why I had put my head to rest right there where it was the warmest. I started to pack my things up, but he was cool about it. He said if I wanted to sleep, I should use the A3 terminal next time, so I could stay for the moment if I wanted to.
I walked out of the building and headed for the nearest train station to get the first train to the centre of Nice. It was cold under the palm trees, and I started to have second thoughts about the reasons of me being there but then I realized I would feel much better a few hours later when I was looking down at the Alpine wonder that is commonly known as Col de Turini.
The Col de Turini is arguably the most famous stage of rallying in general. Just a few kilometres off the Italian border, the tarmac road connecting the Villages La Bolléne-Vésubie, Moulinet and Sospel is a stuff of legends. The Monte Carlo Rally is the event that defines rallying, and the "Turini" is the one that defines the "Monte". Even more so, the top of Turini is the place to be with all the masses of people partying and breaking BBQ centres right next to the road, but I wasn't heading to that place as it was a bit sketchy to get even near by it by public transport and I wasn't planning potentially pushing a bus on the icy roads if it was the case - missing the action- , so I played safe and took the very first train to Sospel and from there I started climbing up the mountain on the very road that was about to be washed away by the terror of engine screaming and brake discs burning, tattooing the mark of the serpent with rubber on the surface.
Most of the stages of the Monte closer to Monaco are just roads that are carved into the nearly naked, vertical mountainsides and it shows why its a treacherous rally. It's not the massive drops, it's the weather. While the top of Turini was covered in snow and ice, the near-bottom was completely dry on this very occasion. Take that and combine it with the patches of black ice that tend pop up from nowhere on the shady parts of the road. It's dangerous even on foot, walking up, and it's not a 300bhp rally car rushing the opposite direction.
My goal was the Notre Dame de la Menour, a medieval chapel on a small cliff next to the range of mountain the road was following, connected by a bridge above the tarmac. If you watch Top Gear, you will recognize the place as the brief stopover for the 'men in denim' to discuss James May's crushed testicles in their search of driving heaven.
According to Google Maps, it was a 2h30min walk from the train station, but I managed to do it in 1h50min. That's for 10kms on the way up. And what a walk it was! The place is simply just stunning. You stop, look up, and can't see the top of the mountain. It's really that vertical. What you can see, though, are the massive rock catching fences stretched out almost horizontally, that are of a size of the ones seen in Jurassic Park keeping the Tyrannosaurus Rex in control with holes between the wires big enough the push a scooter through. That is the size of the rocks that are expected to fall on the road and in your face if you are standing there too much.
I kept passing people, but after a while I was left on my own. In the meantime I met at least 30 course car inspecting the road. At such a large event you need to look out for safety as much as you can, and it is an immense volume of logistics to temporarily turn a piece of public road into a World Championship "race track", executing the closure, the rally, and the reopening within a matter of hours with all marshals, signs, posts in place.
The first time I caught the chapel in the corner of my eye, I was still an hour's walk away, and I was just walking around and sometimes the opposite direction. Not a piece straight road. I had my hunting boots on (not that I ever hunted), three socks, but I felt the blisters forming. By the time I was on the top of the bridge next to the chapel, I realized I was in a bad shape, I was out of breath. An old lady asked where I came from. When I said I came all the way up from Sospel, she just went "On foot?!" "Oui." For that I got a bit of applause from the small crowd as everyone there walked down from Moulinet, where they had arrived by car.
The air temperature was somewhere around 13C and when it wasn't windy, it felt hot. But the wind was blowing like hell, some gusts felt like they were pushing me off the bridge.
By the time the rally started, everyone was pumped up. The king of rallying was the opener, followed by the rest of the WRC field. The cars came across a short straight, braked before the turn of the bridge, whooshed through under our feet and headed down the series of U-turns with some fanatic Italians on top, then headed around the ridge into the shadow and continued over the next one. The cars were visible for over a minute even at WRC pace, although they were tiny as ants by the end of the last visible turns.
Almost 100 cars entered the rally, most of them in the FWD field, consisting of local tarmac specialists. One of the main attractions aside from the WRC field were the Porsches of the newly founded R-GT Cup with the sound of the flat-sixes reverberating between the mountains from far away. Their performance on this stage was somewhat underwhelming as even R3 cars (especially the Citroen DS3s) seemed to be faster and more agile into and out from the corners. Some of them missed the apex as they were - by far - the largest cars of the whole rally, having to back up a bit to continue.
As the R3 category was looming, it was not unusual for cars getting tangled up on each others tail with some of the cars suffering from problems, the unusual and unnatural phenomenon of passing happened on more than one occasions, adding some more excitement.
Eventually the final cars came through and the marshals let everyone on their way after the closing car went past. I started walking down and tried to have a better view on the mountains, but I couldn't really stop as I had the train to catch to Monaco and the motorhomes headed their way down on the road. One scary moment included me sitting on these high curbs to let the trailer carrying Kubica's car past with my feet dangling over the chasm and the wheels behind my back by a few inches. Approaching Sospel, though I met this trailer once again with Kubica's car on the ground. Apparently - for some reason - it fell off the trailer and another one was on its way to pick it up.
I sat down at the station with 15 minutes to spare, completely exhausted and my feet burning. Went back to Nice and changed to Monaco.
The first experience of Monaco was the underground railway station's toilet, which was admittedly not as glamorous as I hoped it would be, but walking out from there next the Saint-Devoté, it was the first turn of the Formula 1 circuit, and instantly my first thought was "how the hell these cars race around here?". It's much tighter and has more elevation changes than it looks so on the TV screen. Especially the section from the Casino Square to the entrance of the tunnel is one massive drop. From the bottom it's a vertical cliff up, and the cars come down on those few turns. I'd have to judge my pace carefully with a regular car just driving casually, and these guys are racing here. Incredible.
The WRC parc fermé was situated right above the swimming pool, the cars were locked away before inspection, which was below the pool, in the harbour. Most of the teams were parked somewhere outside of town, so cars coming out of inspection joined the sunset Monaco traffic. By the way, there weren't as many supercars as one would hope, but expectations tend to grow high and it was winter anyway. I would be lying though if I said e.g. I didn't wave a Lamborghini Aventador past as it tried to came out of a terrace, or that I wasn't drooling over a Ferrari F430 Scuderia outside the Casino. But all those cars seemed puny and sissy compared to those VW, Citroen, Ford and Hyundai WRC cars trumpeting along their way.
Eventually I had to gave in and return to Nice as I felt the tiredness and pain in my feet, I checked into a hotel, blowing some extra money unplanned as I was trying to sleep at the airport once more and do some "clever" men's move on dealing with personal hygiene, but the hotel just felt to be to good of a choice.
Next morning as I was having my croissant in the lounge-canteen, looking at the palm trees, listening to smooth jazz from the speakers, I just felt I could just stay forever. Screw the cars, screw the rally, just having that once in a while and be able to enjoy the small things in life in the big beauty.
Because why do we have cars if we do not try to get anywhere in the first place?