JANUARY 28, 2011
Alex Caffi needed to find his spectacles in order to read the Monte Carlo Rally results sheet. Even then, the 46-year-old could hardly believe what he was seeing as he studied the positions after Special Stage 6, the fiercesome 15-mile climb over Col de Gaudissart.
The paperwork showed, quite clearly, that the former F1 driver was in 15th place thanks to setting very competitive times. You had to remind yourself that this was not only Caffi's first attempt at arguably one of the trickiest rallies in the world, but it was also his first-ever major rally. Period.
"Incredible," he grinned. "I'm very surprised by this. All I have done before is historic rally with Porsche 911. I thought I'd like to do a big rally, so I say: 'What is the best rally in the world? Monte Carlo, of course. So, okay, let's do it!' Why not?"
Why not, indeed. Caffi, a Monaco resident, had fixed himself up with a Skoda Fabia similar to the one with which Juho Hanninen had won the Intercontinental Rally Challenge (IRC) last year. It's true to say that the IRC is one notch down from the FIA's World Rally Championship in terms of prestige but that should not detract from the sheer competitiveness of the future stars in their works cars from Skoda and Peugeot.
But, more important, the precise definition of the entry is subjugated by the immense test provided by classic special stages in the French Alps. When you're tackling the likes of Burzet, Col de la Fayolle and the infamous Col de Turini, it's you against the elements just as much as the opposition.
Caffi's entry was a small independent operation with its own tyre-fitting equipment taking up space in their cramped service area in Valence. It was one thing to have the tyre facility, quite another to know what tyres to fit for the changeable conditions.
The crews were about to tackle the same two stages again and Caffi had noted the arrival of sleet towards the end of Stage 6. "The first part, it was like driving at Monza. But, towards the end, it was more difficult because of some snow and fog," was how he put it.
Conversation was interrupted more than once as Caffi broke away to stoop low and examine the tyres chosen by Hanninen and others as the leaders made their way out of the service park. In the case of Hanninen, his Skoda team mate Jan Kopecky and the experienced former World Champion Petter Solberg, the choice was cut intermediates. Significantly, Bryan Bouffier (a French champion and a local man) and former winner, Francois Delecour, opted for snow tyres. So, too, did Caffi. It would change the course of their respective rallies.
Halfway through Stage 7 and into Stage 8, serious snow arrived. Bouffier rocketed from seventh and into a lead he would manage to hang on to during the remaining day and a half of running. It was a classic story of how the Monte Carlo Rally is a law onto itself.
As for Caffi, the drive of his life continued. "This is so much fun," he said. "You can't make comparison with F1 because they are very different. It's like you have tennis and squash. Both are played with a racquet and ball on a court. But, after that, it's completely different. I really like this rallying. I am 46 now and I wish I had tried it earlier. But I couldn't because I was doing something else!"
That 'something else' was 56 Grands Prix spread across five seasons of mediocre cars ranging from Osella to Dallara, Arrows and Footwork. His best result was fourth at Monaco in 1989, the very place where, three years later, he was exceptionally lucky to step unharmed from a massive accident when he lost control at the Swimming Pool chicane, struck the barrier more or less head-on and had the Footwork-Porsche disintegrate around him, the rear wheels and transmission being completely ripped away.
He managed to compete in the final two races of that season (finishing 10th and 15th) and that was the last I saw of him until coming across the familiar diminutive figure as he studied the stage times in the Valence service park.
Caffi was not only classified 11th, an outstanding achievement, but he also admitted he had spun deliberately on the last stage on the Col de Turini, one of the most popular viewing places on the entire rally. "The road was clear so I thought it would be a nice thing to do for the fans, a present, but then there was no snow and it was a bit crazy," he grinned. "I'm happy and proud to be at the finish. I didn't have an official (works) car but this has been one of the most exciting experiences of my life."
Nice, too, that he should return with justifiable pride to the Monaco harbour front and revive a reputation that had been wrecked on the very same spot nearly 20 years earlier. Another small piece of Monte Magic.
Maurice Hamilton , a freelance motor sport writer and broadcaster since 1977, is the author of more than twenty books and contributes to websites and magazines worldwide.
His weekly column for Grandprix.com was Highly Commended in the 2011 Newspress New Media Awards.