Ouninpohja. Col de Turini. Dyfi. El Condor. Whaanga Coast. We could go on. Rallying has a list of all-time greatest stages; loosely defined, and of course highly influenced by individual opinion. There’s no official hall of fame defining this sort of stuff. But most fans can agree on specific stages that meet the criteria.
It’s time to consider adding a new one to the list: Pico.
Rally di Roma had the honor of getting international rallying back underway after an extended break caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. That naturally put a few more eyeballs than usual on the European Rally Championship last weekend, and a more prestigious entry list than ever sampling the best rally roads southern Lazio has to offer.
The rally’s itinerary has been fairly consistent since its elevation to European status in 2017, even with the COVID-induced streamlining of the schedule this year. But of all the stages that have appeared regularly in that time, Pico’s the one that’s garnered a reputation.
Pico might be set in the green hills of Italy but for Craig Breen it almost feels like he’s back on the Emerald Isle, tackling the narrow country lanes of his home country. Pico is “like rally should be”, according to the Team MRF driver. That’s a fairly strong compliment.
“It’s just the profile: it’s narrow and twisty, more the narrow part and the bumps,” Breen explains to DirtFish.
“There’s more places to make up time, there’s more margin to make a difference, because the road is so narrow, you don’t have all this big wide space to lean on the car and feel the grip. You just have to trust the grip that you have and just keep going.
“I really enjoyed it. It’s really blind in places as well, you can’t remember it so well. For me it’s more of a true adventure, like rally should be.
“Don’t get me wrong, there were lovely stages [on Sunday, when the roads in use were wider] but still, when you start on the main road you do the stage 15 kilometers and then finish on the same main road, it loses a bit of adventure I think. You need to go from one road to another road and back again. You need to mix it up.
“I’m not pointing the finger at this rally at all because I think they were incredibly limited in what they could do, and it was still an amazing rally, but definitely Pico is something special and I’d love to go back and do it again.”
Pico’s narrowness punishes small mistakes severely. And that narrowness also means there’s little space to avoid rocks and stones that get dragged onto the racing line as cars pass through. A full train of cars coming through Pico with no punctures is unheard of.
The leaderboard you were looking at before the cars came through Pico? Forget it. It won’t look anything like that once the cavalcade has ridden through.
One driver who knows this all too well is Andrea Crugnola. For the last two years he’s been the absolute benchmark for speed on Rally di Roma, winning all but one stage he completed last week and going fastest on 13 out of 16 stages the year before. But one thing has always stood in the way of him winning: Pico.
In 2018 and 2019 punctures thwarted his victory hopes. On his Rome debut in 2017 he crashed out with a broken left-rear wheel, and again this year his car was smashed to bits only a few miles onto the stage, taking too much speed on the wrong line and and spinning off on some loose gravel. Pico takes no prisoners.
This year the logistics of running a COVID-safe event meant Pico was shortened. But, surprisingly, this made it even harder. There was no build-up this time around; it was straight into the tricky stuff.
“In previous years it was a bit easier because you were coming from the easiest part of the stage, but this year the start of the stage was in the village. After only one or two kilometers, you start to drive in the most difficult part of the stage [now],” Crugnola tells DirtFish.
“It’s very difficult because it’s quite fast at the beginning, with blind corners and jumps. The stage is narrow as well and you start to cut, and then cut a little bit more, so there’s dirt on the road. It’s not easy to find the right rhythm. This is very difficult.
“It’s extremely technical: you don’t have any room for mistakes. It’s very narrow, so if you want to push, you need to be 100% on the line, because if you miss the line or miss the braking point just a little bit, you will have trouble.”
Crugnola’s main campaign this year is the Italian national championship, but during his junior career in WRC Academy and ERC Junior he took part in rallying’s biggest events. Between Finland, Rally GB, Portugal, Ypres, Circuit of Ireland and more, he’s sampled many of the best stages in the world. Does Pico deserve to be mentioned in the same breath?
“Of course yes,” he says. “I totally say yes, because it’s a unique stage.
“I also agree with Craig, because it looks like Ireland! But in Ireland you have a little bit more grip and the road is maybe just a little bit wider. But if you think about the jumps and the blind corners, it looks very similar.
“For sure it’s one of the most demanding stages I’ve ever done. And you can recognize it from the mistakes everyone is making.
“Even if you use the right line, the car in front of you might cut a little bit more and put some rocks in the middle of the road, so even if you are the best driver in the world, if you are unlucky, you can get a puncture.”
The ingredients are definitely there for Pico to become an all-time classic. It immediately won over Breen, who’s competed on almost every stage worth driving in modern rallying, and it’s got that ability to turn the complexion of a rally on its head at a moment’s notice. It is, without a doubt, the jewel in Rally di Roma’s crown. But will we ever get to see the world’s best drivers take it on on rallying’s biggest stage?
“I’m sure over the years there’s been other stages that they’ve used but definitely the roads we used [on Sunday] are capable of being world class; the ones yesterday [on Saturday] even more so,” Breen concludes.
“I’m sure Dani [Sordo] can say this better than me but I’m sure a World [Rally] Car down through those stages is something very special.
“It’s really nice. And the gap between us and the World cars wasn’t that big actually on Pico; it was fairly small. [So] I’d definitely be up for that.”
Ouninpohja. Col de Turini. Dyfi. El Condor. Whaanga Coast. Pico. That sounds reasonable to me. What do you reckon?