If I didn’t know any better, I was simply, and innocuously, being driven around by a 58-year-old Italian in an even more humble Fiat Panda 4×4.
But as if I needed any reminder as to who was behind the wheel, suddenly the revs picked up, turn-in was initiated, weight shifted from right to left and the little Fiat pitched through the chicane perfectly.
I felt the full Alex Fiorio effect. That was Saturday. On Sunday, absolutely everyone did.
Last weekend the Fiorio family threw open their doors and invited several rally legends and rising stars, as well as DirtFish, down for the third instalment of the Fiorio Cup.
For the unitiated, Cesare Fiorio is nothing short of a legend, running both Lancia’s World Rally Championship concern and even Ferrari in Formula 1. His son, Alex, drove for his father in the 1980s – peaking with second place in the 1989 world championship behind team-mate Miki Biasion.
Just to illustrate the point, when Cesare popped his head through the door while we were eating dinner on Saturday night, you could have heard a pin drop. Legends in their own right like Henning Solberg and Harri Toivonen completely downed tools as glasses were raised and the room collectively toasted ‘Team Fiorio!’ It was a majestic moment to behold.
But despite the obvious appreciation for a real Italian hero, the Fiorio Cup isn’t about the Fiorios – it’s about putting on a show, celebrating rallying and giving younger Italian drivers the chance to compete against some of their heroes.
Back to my Saturday afternoon chauffeur ride courtesy of Alex Fiorio. Having just arrived and met the key personnel behind the event, Alex wanted me to see the stage they have carved into their own land.
For what is effectively a lapped circuit, it was stunning. The surface was particularly loose which made for some cool slides come the rally, and the undulations were challenging to say the least. Some sections were fast and flowing, others a bit more technical and a jump was even thrown in for the spectators. In short it had a bit of everything.
Which is probably the best metaphor for the Fiorio Cup itself.
Let’s talk about the drivers. The rising generation was represented by Andrea Crugnola, Mattia Scandola, Tamara Molinaro and Christine Giampoli Zonca, while the legends were Henning Solberg, Harri Toivonen, Andrea Aghini and Pontus Tidemand.
It’s the kind of mix that gave me real Race of Champions vibes, where a bunch of drivers who would never normally be in the same sphere pitch themselves head-to-head. Scandola illustrated that perfectly when he let Solberg know how cool he found it being able to compete against him, having watched him on TV when he was a WRC driver.
The atmosphere was very relaxed and social – almost like a garden party but with rally cars and a race-winning Nigel Mansell Ferrari F1 car casually placed on the wall as you eat breakfast. (It’s the tub from his 1989 Brazilian Grand Prix victory for those interested, and it was very cool!) And even a simulator equipped with Richard Burns Rally and a scan of the Fiorio Cup stage the drivers were tackling for real.
But don’t mistake any of that for a contest nobody was invested in. The fact Tidemand had his phone out recording split times tells you everything you need to know about how seriously the competition was taken.
F.P.F. sport brought along a trio of Citroën C3 Rally2s to play with – today’s talent would drive one while the legends piloted another, before the two groups swapped cars halfway through the rally to ensure a completely fair competition. The third car was there as a spare and thankfully wasn’t required.
It was tight racing all day, but Crugnola emerged victorious by 11.08 seconds to maintain his unbeaten record at the Fiorio Cup, winning ahead of Tidemand and Solberg.
“The level of the competition this year was higher,” Crugnola told DirtFish. “I’m not saying it was not high before but this year there were so many fast guys and it was a good fight – very tight.
“It was most important not to get any penalty because in the last couple of editions I saw that the penalty were quite important, so I tried to drive fast and consistently and finally it paid off.
“For sure this is like a normal rally because we are driving on a normal special stage, but the atmosphere is a little bit different. Everybody is relaxed, talking, even during dinner and lunch – I think it’s one of the best ways to end the season.”
Solberg was second with Aghini third, pipping Molinaro to the podium by just 0.4s. Scandola was fifth ahead of Tidemand who would have been on the podium were it not for his two 10s penalties. Toivonen and Giampolo Zonca rounded out the finishers.
Of course that mattered, but it also really didn’t. As Molinaro remarked: “Come to the party tonight if you want to experience the real Fiorio Cup.”
With a 5am flight the next morning, that wasn’t DirtFish’s plan. Yet there we were enjoying the hospitality, warm welcome and Italian culture – for example Captain Paf (if you know, you know) – before heading back to the hotel.
Sitting in the airport as I write this at a time when I would much rather still be asleep, I am left with one overriding emotion. The Fiorio Cup is what rallying used to be – serious yet relaxed, but most importantly social. What the family put on is special, and long may it continue.
To pinch a phrase from Alex’s daughter Mariapaola Fiorio: “Not bad for your backyard, right?”