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
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.
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."