How do you solve a problem like Monte Carlo? In other words: how do you keep a car dancing on the edge of grip, without slamming into the rock face frequently found on one side of the road, or plunging down the precipice on the other? With temperatures predicted to drop down to minus 15 degrees centigrade this year, finding the balance is more important than ever.
Grip is at a premium on roads that are usually a skating rink, thanks to frequent ice and snow. Most hazardous of all is verglas: in other words, black ice. This can suddenly appear even on roads that were completely dry up to that point, and it’s easy to imagine just how terrifying it feels to encounter at high speed. As a result, the tyres play an even more important role than usual.
This year, we’ve had a warm winter – but very cold temperatures are expected at high altitude during the Monte weekend. That might sound unusual, but a few years ago it was the norm.
Think back to 1995: characterised by an intense battle between Subaru team mates Carlos Sainz and Colin McRae for the world title. McRae was hunting his first championship; Sainz had already won the top prize in 1990 and 1992 with Toyota. By 1995 he had switched teams to Subaru, running Pirelli tyres. The previous year, the Spaniard had just missed out on the title in his debut season with the Anglo-Japanese team, after going off the road only a few corners from the end of the season-closing Rally Great Britain. So he was out for revenge.
Sainz arrived in Monaco in 1995 with just one clear objective: victory. Carlos was the perfect poster boy for Pirelli; he had made a decisive contribution to the development of the P Zero range for rallying, which had often made the difference compared to its rivals; especially in slippery conditions.
For the 1995 Rallye Monte-Carlo, Pirelli had a special tyre up its sleeve called the RT95; distinguished by a particular feature designed for the tricky mountain roads above the Principality. It had no studs.
Strange but true. The tread pattern on its own was enough to provide maximum grip on the snowy and icy surface, thanks to a special construction and specific winter compound designed to cut through every hazard, however marginal the conditions.
It was a true revolution. On Rallye Monte-Carlo, the famous stages on the final night of action consist of steep climbs towards the Col de Turini, followed by some rapid descents afterwards. These stages contain huge variety of conditions: from dry asphalt to wet asphalt to snow and ice. But once you get to the very top, snow and ice is virtually guaranteed. If you use studded tyres, it’s a tricky compromise: they’re great for the snow and ice at the top but not so great in the dry parts. There’s also a risk of losing the studs on the way up, which would render them useless in any case.
Sainz headed into the final night of the ‘Monte’ in the rally lead. Conditions on the Col de Turini made it a real quandary. The ascent was mostly wet asphalt, with four kilometres of full snow at the top of the Col, then 80% wet asphalt on the way down, with just the final three kilometres in fully dry conditions. What to do?
Luckily, Sainz could rely on his Pirelli rubber. Where there wasn’t snow he was flying, and when he got to the worst bit at the top, he limited the damage thanks to Pirelli’s winter compound that still provided good grip even without studs. By the end of the rally, he had a 17-second cushion over his key rival, France’s Francois Delecour in a Ford Escort Cosworth (the previous year’s winner).
This was the very first time that a driver had ever dared to tackle a partially snowy Turini using a tyre without studs: not far off a road car tyre in philosophy. Sainz pulled it off, winning a legendary Rallye Monte-Carlo with a champion’s drive.
Twenty-eight years later, the same concept has been developed even further. Pirelli uses the lessons learned in motorsport to produce the best tyres possible for the road, so the parallels between motorsport and road-going products are closer than ever.
Which tyres will the drivers use this year and what will the Monte stages look like? Pirelli for sure, but with or without studs? Snow or ice or dry asphalt? It’s the perennial question on the most famous rally of them all.
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