FEATURES: Five Great Rally Roads in Europe

July 21, 2009
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RALLYE SANREMO: MONTALCINO
Dodging wild boars under the Tuscan sun.
Location: 27 miles south of Siena, this section of the Montalcino stage runs from Castiglione del Bosco to Nacciarello.
Length: 3 miles
Driver: Miki Biasion, 1988 and 1989 world rally champion
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As he powers through the hills of southern Tuscany with dust billowing in his wake, Miki Biasion recalls the night that a wild boar charged from the undergrowth alongside the road to meet its end under his wheels. "It was on this bend," he says, as the cappuccino-colored crenulations of hilltop Sant'Angelo in Colle come into view in the distance, beyond slopes swept with vineyards. "The next day, the farmers who live in that house over there roasted the boar, and all the rally drivers and mechanics had a fantastic meal with a lot of wine. On what other rally stage would the local people turn an unfortunate accident into a fantastic festeggiamento?"
It was 1992, and Biasion was practicing for the Montalcino stage of the Rallye Sanremo. What he is too modest to point out is that these festivities undoubtedly came about because Biasion was a hero to the locals, having won the World Rally Championship title in 1988 and 1989, when he became the first driver to claim three consecutive Rallye Sanremo victories.
It is a curious truth that, although driving fast cars has a place in the Italian national psyche alongside fashion, food, and amorous adventure, the country has spawned fairly meager bragging rights when it comes to producing world-beating drivers.
"It is normal that my home rally should be extra special to me, but the Montalcino stage is way beyond that. You see, I chose to be a rally driver because the driving is on real roads through the most stunning landscapes in the world. But the Montalcino stage is where my heart and soul are."
The stage starts on a straight stretch of gravel lined with cypresses. Biasion opens the throttle and streams through the avenue of trees. The Tuscan sun glints through the windshield as he crests the brow of a hill that, in rallying days, he'd take at 125 mph as the springboard to a 100-foot jump.
There are one or two sweeps of asphalt, but most of the stage is gravel, allowing Biasion to demonstrate some rallying techniques. At one point, he slides sideways, facing slightly away from the upcoming turn in a maneuver known as a Manji drift. "For many years, I tested and developed rally cars on the roads around Montalcino with Tiziano Siviero, my co-driver. We became friends with the local farmers, and one of them sold us a small piece of vineyard, so you could say that we are small-time producers."
Perhaps it was that night - when Biasion, his fellow drivers, and the local farmers went whole hog with the wild boar roadkill - that consummated Biasion's passion for this region. Seventeen years later, his favorite rally stage still fills him with a fervor for the full Montalcino.
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Monte Carlo Rally: Col de Turini
Climbing the twists and turns of the Maritime Alps.
Location: 38 miles northeast of the Nice airport, the stage runs from Sospel to La Bollène-Vésubie.
Length: 22.4 miles
Driver: Ari Vatanen, 1981 world rally champion
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High in the Alps north of Monte Carlo lies the Col de Turini, a 5273-foot peak dotted with two small guest houses and a pair of ski lifts that serve the skiers who descend upon this tranquil spot as soon as the snow falls. For the remainder of the year, the place is a back-water, connected to the rest of the world by a trio of narrow, winding ribbons of tarmac that converge at the Col's summit.
One of the handful of local residents, a woman in a head scarf, is occupying the phone booth outside the empty café near the summit. The silence is deep, the only sounds carried on the gentle mountain breeze are the top notes of the conversation leaking from within the confines of the booth. This peace is at first shaken, then shattered, by the building roar of a car. It peaks in a crescendo of soaring revs and squealing tires as a Ford Focus ST catapults into view over the crest of a hill, slews violently right in an arc directly toward the phone booth, and then hurls itself hard left, scrabbling out of sight in a flurry of spinning wheels.
Amazingly, the woman, now grinning ear to ear, hasn't so much as missed a beat in her conversation. Had this been most other places in the world, she would have screamed bloody murder at the departing driver. But Col de Turini isn't most other places. The roads around here have long played host to the Monte Carlo Rally, and the stage held at Turini is the most legendary of all on the world rally calendar, with a dazzling number of hairpin turns, snow and ice across the summit, and dry roads at the base.
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Legendary is a tag that also fits the driver. Seated behind the wheel is Ari Vatanen, 1981 world champion and one of the world's great rally drivers. The tall, blond Finn may have retired from competition, but it's clear that he's lost none of the driving aggression that made him a favorite with fans and team managers alike.
"You cannot remain indifferent to this place," Vatanen explains. "Col de Turini has a magic, because it is so difficult. As a rally driver, it gives you a lesson in humility. You don't rule it, and you must remember that before every race."
Driving down from the summit, it's clear what Vatanen means. Flanked alternately by battle-scarred rock faces and sheer drops several hundred feet to the valley floor below for much of its length, the road twists and turns like nothing you've ever seen.
As a tourist, it's a pleasure to descend the route's sinuous path, taking in the heady views as the sun beats down and the trees are in full leaf. However, it's easy to see how Turini could become a terrifying beast in the winter, swift to wreak vengeance on the smallest mistake.
In Moulinet, where the stage finished in his day, Vatanen stops for some coffee. "This is what life is about," he says. "Time slows down. You stop for coffee and just watch the world pass by. As for this road, well, you are enjoying every meter, every corner."
Rally of Ireland: Lough Gill
A romantic ramble among the villages of northwest éire.
Location: 2 hours west of Belfast airport, along R286 on the northern shore of Lough Gill.
Length: 8.4 miles
Driver: Jimmy McRae, five-time British rally champion and father of 1995 world rally champion Colin McRae
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The sunlight spears down on the puddles that litter the wet road, creating mini-rainbows as the car snakes around each tight twist and turn. Jimmy McRae is in his element. This is true McRae territory: fast roads with just a hint of treachery lying in wait on the damp, slippery tarmac. This sweeping, snaking route around Lough Gill is perfect for rallying.
It would be hard to name a more romantic setting for a stage of the World Rally Championship - the cars roar down lanes between villages with evocative names, such as Moneyduff and Mullagh, before setting out on what is usually the sedate R286, a picturesque country highway along the northern shore of the picturesque Lough Gill to Sligo, high on the northwest coast of the Republic of Ireland.
When Sébastien Loeb, the current world rally champion, attacks this road to Sligo, his speedometer soars beyond the 100-mph mark. Today, though, McRae - himself a five-time British rally champion - is taking in the sights.
"It is so beautiful out here," he says. "I have been rallying in Ireland for forty years, and I never tire of the place. Of course, when you are rallying you don't have time to admire the sights. But an ordinary motorist can have the best of both worlds on a rally stage that is a public road, like this one. Easy on the throttle and enjoy the view - it is beautiful."
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The name McRae is synonymous with rallying, not just because of Jimmy's long career but because Colin, his son, was Britain's first world rally champion. His victory, in 1995, sent him on a trajectory to becoming the most popular driver in the sport, his thrilling and spectacular style revered around the world. It was ironic, then, that this most daring of rally drivers should perish not in a car but in a helicopter crash in September 2007, a tragedy multiplied by the fact that Colin's five-year-old son, Johnny, was on board along with two family friends.
McRae downshifts through the six-speed gearbox of the Ford Focus ST to flash past Parkes Castle, a curious seventeenth-century colonial manor house adorned with battlements and turrets. Continuing on, he encounters a fearsome, long right-hander that leads to a viewpoint over Lough Gill. On this day, the scene is benign enough, with just a couple of tourists taking photographs of the still water. Except that there is a roughly painted sign on the stone wall that reads: "WRC. Ha, ha." This is obviously somebody's idea of a joke, because this is the exact place where rally driver Marcus Grönholm slid off the course and out of the 2007 Rally of Ireland.
This road is not benign, not even for a two-time world champion such as Grönholm, and it is exciting. During the Rally of Ireland, the R286 is transformed from rural byway to grand theater, applauded by some of the most fervent racing fans anywhere in the world.
"The welcome in Ireland is always warm," McRae says. "But rallying here is something special. It is not just a road like this, with all its challenges among lovely scenery, but the fans absolutely love it. It becomes one of the most enchanting places in world rallying."
Rally Finland: Ouninpohja
Gravel, jumps, trees, turns - the perfect Finnish rally road.
Location: About two hours north of the Helsinki airport, the stage runs between the towns of Länkipohja and Hassi.
Length: 20.5 miles
Driver: Marcus Grönholm, 2000 and 2002 world rally champion
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Not many enthusiasts will ever get a chance to ride alongside rally champion Marcus Grönholm, but at least anyone can drive the world's fastest rally stage - the Ouninpohja. A victim of its own reputation as one of the world's most challenging rally routes, Ouninpohja is, in fact, no longer a stage of Rally Finland (previously known as the 1000 Lakes Rally) - it was axed by the WRC in 2008 because it was deemed too fast.
The Ouninpohja rally road is located in the middle of Finland, where the landscape is dotted with lakes that are hidden behind forests of birch and pine trees. Grönholm is clearly pleased to be home.
"You can come here in a road car and have the same feeling as a rally car, no problem," says Grönholm. "It just won't be at the same speed as we do it in the rally!"
Grönholm clearly relishes being able to catch the sights and sounds that he misses while rallying at breakneck speeds.
"Before the rally, we do a recce in a road car. But today is different. I can have a closer look around and see new places. Normally, I'm just looking in front of me and talking to my co-driver. In the rally you have to make a good time, but today is really relaxed."
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"This road is so difficult," adds Grönholm. "It can be dangerous sometimes as well. It took me many years to learn the stage. You need courage, but you have to be clever, too. You need to know the road is fast, and where it is fastest. The stage is a series of twists, corners, and jumps. At the beginning, it's a lot of jumps and turns. Then you have a really, really fast part in the middle. At the end of the stage, it's a narrow, small road."
When asked why Finland has produced so many world champions, Grönholm smiles. He's largely at a loss.
"I don't know, but maybe it is because Finnish rally stages are a little bit different from those in other countries. If you learn to drive fast on a road with jumps and a lot of turns and rapid changes in direction, then you can be fast everywhere."
Grönholm has some advice for any rally enthusiasts who may want to follow in his tire tracks.
"It's difficult to say how to drive this rally route ideally and give tips on the technique to use for this surface. But I'd say just drive like normal on a gravel road - and that's about it. It's quite slippery when there is gravel on the top, so I'd suggest driving a little slower than normal."
RAC Rally: Great Orme
Hugging the cliffs along the coast of North Wales.
Location: About an hour and a half from the airports in Liverpool and Manchester, England, this toll road follows the Great Orme Peninsula near the town of Llandudno.
Length: 4 miles
Driver: Mikko Hirvonen, winner of seven WRC rallies
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The headlands of Great Orme and Little Orme in North Wales create a protected swathe of coastline that's as breathtaking as any in Britain. A designated Heritage Coast road - complete with stunning geology and incredible landscapes - it's also home to the picture-perfect town of Llandudno. With its historic pier, fine Victorian architecture, castles, and classic manor houses, it's no surprise that Llandudno is a favorite holiday resort in Wales.
The road that follows the jutting Great Orme peninsula is sinuous and serpentine, punctuated with blind crests, tightening corners, and challenging cambers. Drive up this cliff-hugging route, and there's nothing but a small rock wall to separate you from the churning sea hundreds of feet below. It's a four-mile, white-knuckle ride on which the slightest misjudgment could end in disaster.
But the Great Orme road is more than just a superb byway with a jaw-dropping, scenic backdrop. As one of the roads used in the World Rally Championship, it was a challenge for hard-charging drivers as they switched from the slippery stages in the nearby Cambrian forests to this grippy and narrow surface. Its stunning setting, demanding route, and fine spectator viewing points made it one of the most revered stages in rallying.
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The last time Mikko Hirvonen - runner-up to Sébastien Loeb for the 2008 World Rally Championship title - drove this snaking strip of blacktop was in 2001. Although he's driven hundreds of other stages in dozens of countries since then, the road is instantly familiar to him. "I can remember certain parts of it with real clarity," says Hirvonen within a few hundred yards of setting off. "I remember roads like some people remember photographs or faces."
Relaxed and languid behind the wheel, Hirvonen gives a running commentary, his eyes picking up numerous points - a slight narrowing in the road, the pool of sitting water, a repair patch that might be more slippery than expected, an off-camber corner - that his brain instantly processes to keep his car flowing along the road with smooth and precise inputs. It's a master class in driving technique.
Hirvonen spends much of each year traveling the world on the grueling WRC circuit, so the last thing he wants to do when he has a break is get on another plane. But he might well make an exception for North Wales. "It's such a beautiful spot. It has wonderful scenery, a real sense of history, and the people here are very friendly. And with special rally roads like Great Orme thrown into the package, it's the ideal destination for keen drivers and their families."

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