Remembering the rally legends

Remembering the rally legends - Toivonen

On 2 May 1986, Henri Toivonen, his co-driver Sergio Cresto and Group B rally cars died in a spot that holds a strange beauty: an innocuous left-hand corner just before a wooded valley in Corsica, whose peace these days is in stark contrast to the fiery violence of the accident that claimed two young men’s lives at the height of their powers.
The quietly shocking thing about this left-hander, just seven kilometres out of Corte, is that there’s nothing special about it. Markku Alen, who was Toivonen’s Lancia team mate at the time and arrived at the crash scene two minutes after his compatriot went off, confirms the initial impression: “The corner was nothing special; really nothing. There were hundreds of corners like that one and hundreds that were much worse. I still don’t know what happened: was he too fast, was it something technical; was it something else? I think it will always be a mystery…”

The actual profile of the corner has changed a lot though: these days it’s a mild sweep to the left, with a modern low stone wall on the outside. Hop behind the wall and you’ll see the profile of the road as it used to be: a much sharper and narrower corner that is almost 90 degrees, with a gradual drop to the valley bellow.

Look down into the valley now and there’s not much to see either. The drop is not particularly steep but at the bottom the area is heavily wooded. There is a patch of trees in the middle that seem to look younger and greener than their neighbours, but it’s hard to know to whether your imagination is playing tricks on you.

What's sure is that this is a special place: a corner of Corsica that is forever Finland.

Remembering the rally legends - Bettega

Incredibly, a similar tragedy had played out exactly one year earlier – May 2, 1985 – also in Corsica, also in a Lancia (this time an 037 Rally rather than the Delta S4). The tragedy happened much earlier in the rally: the fourth stage, Zerubia, and what happened was as violent as it was obvious: the car slammed sideways into a tree on the driver’s side and broke in two. Bettega was killed instantly, co-driver Maurizio Perissinot escaped uninjured. Like Toivonen, the car carried competition number 4.

Much has been made of these coincidences, but it’s likely that both accidents would have been survivable in the modern era: Jari-Matti Latvala, for example, rolled 17 times in Portugal once without injury, while World Rally Car interiors have focussed on occupant safety specifically to minimise the risks of side impacts. The deaths of Toivonen, Cresto and Bettega were purely down to the era that they were driving in. Maybe that of Senna too, given the advances in helmet and suspension design.

Like Ratzenberger, who presaged the death of Senna, Bettega lived and died in the shadow of Toivonen. They couldn’t have been more different. While Toivonen was very much the rock star, Bettega was quieter and much more self-effacing: a man who knew he had to work to achieve his results but was even more dedicated and loved because of that.

No wonder that the Memorial Bettega – a famous rallysprint at the Bologna Motor Show – exists to honour Attilio’s memory.

His son Alessandro still competes in Italy occasionally now, having impressed in the past on the Junior World Rally Championship. It says a lot about Alessandro that his strongest performance was when he won a Ford Focus World Rally Car prize drive in, of all places, Corsica. He drove past the place his father died – where he had stopped to place flowers during the recce – and said that he didn’t even lift. By the end of the rally, Alessandro had secured his best-ever result, against all expectations. As somebody said at the finish, there were three people in the car that weekend…

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