Of all the memorable moments from my time in rallying, my very first spectating experience on a rally is near the top. And as far as introductions to rallying go, they really don’t get much more special than this.
Just to put a little bit of context to this story, it was January 2002 and I was working as a promotions and sponsorship manager for a major tobacco firm. Just four weeks previously I’d been informed that we were to sponsor the Subaru World Rally Team and the first event was to be the Monte Carlo Rally.
Now, I have to confess that at this point I really wasn’t what you might call a rally fan. I’d heard of the Monte but I’ll admit to asking about who this Hollywood Solberg character was and “is that Tommy with one M or two?”. I’d heard of Kankkunen, Vatanen and Rörhl but only because as teenagers in my house we devoured any sporting TV and Grandstand, that wonderful staple of ’80s sporting TV, regularly ran cracking highlights features from the WRC. I do remember being slightly disappointed though that none of these characters were on the entry list for the Monte.
And so off I headed to the Monte Carlo Rally with a new-found serious professional interest in rallying and a curious and growing interest as a potential fan.
I remember my first full day of rallying was more or less spent going from meeting to meeting and learning as much about this complex new sport as I could. The service park was on the harborfront in Monte Carlo and it really wasn’t too difficult to be taken in by the gloriously intoxicating atmosphere of this strange new world I was to become part of.
As a short aside, that Friday was actually the first time I met, albeit remarkably briefly, my partner in crime on Rally Radio for so many years, Becs Williams. I was being shown around the mighty impressive Channel Four TV trucks and I distinctly remember a bright red shock of wavy hair, a beaming smile and a cheery welcome being offered up from behind a mixing desk and a mic. That was Becs.
OK, so I was undoubtedly impressed by the service park and TV compound and was just about beginning to understand the intricacies of stage times and itineraries – but what I really wanted to see was some action. And so, over dinner that Friday evening with Prodrive’s Nick Fry, Hugh Chambers, and I kid you not their head of marketing Colin Clark (yes, that caused a bit of confusion at times) I causally dropped into the conversation that day two should really be a spectating day for me.
No problems, came the reply from I can’t remember who, there’s a spare seat in the heli. “That would be great” was my somewhat high-pitched, screechy response, trying desperately but failing miserably to pretend that flying in helis was something I do every week. I’d actually never been in one before and it’s fair to say my excitement was more than matched by my trepidation. As a self-confessed coward with a terrible head for heights this was going to be some challenge.
Saturday morning came and I was driven to the Monaco helipad to meet my traveling companions for the day and our heli pilot. For some reason, I was given the front seat and we set off to somewhere called the Col de Turini. All I remember about that trip up was a constant sense of doom and loose bowels every time the chopper hit a bit of bumpy air and we were tossed around way more than I felt comfortable with. I was on the verge of panic, no one else in the heli seemed in the slightest bit perturbed. God, I felt awful. Trying to play the part of a successful high-flying marketeer was rapidly failing, my mask had well and truly slipped, and was now somewhere in the footwell with the contents of last night’s overpriced Cafe de Paris supper.
The relief as the pilot sighted the stage and rally cars was palpable – well, it was from the front passenger seat anyway. Now, this is where things went from the sublime to the ridiculous. Clearly, the benefit of having a heli is that you can land more or less wherever you want stage side; well, in those days you could anyway. But options on a mountain road for a heli are pretty limited and it seemed that a number of other helicopters had got in before us and bagged the best spots.
So what did we do? We followed cars up and down the Col for a while, an incredible experience in itself, until our eagle-eyed pilot spotted a postage-stamp-sized piece of ground that he reckoned he could land his chopper on. True to his word, we descended with a smoothness and a grace that Gene Kelly would have been proud of and threaded the eye of the needle amongst a grove of olive trees to reach a very welcome terra firma.
Rotors stopped, thumbs up from the pilot, door open and I’m out of that thing like, well, a wobbly newborn giraffe if I’m being honest. The old grey-haired boy in the back leaped out like a spring chicken and headed straight to the stage. But I was a little slower and because of this, I was the one that the enraged old farmer’s wife, broom brandished threateningly above her head, accosted with all her Gallic charm and a stream of what even I could tell were fairly choice profanities. If I’d not miraculously transformed myself from a baby giraffe into a spritely mountain gazelle in the flash of a broomstick, she’d have undoubtedly clobbered me with that bloody thing. She really wasn’t happy. We’d put down in her garden and this was going to cost us dearly.
Step forward the spring chicken-like grey-haired old man I mentioned earlier. A flash of the most disarming smile, a smattering of rudimental French, a slightly flirtatious little chuckle and the demonic farmer’s wife was putty in his hands. In two minutes they were best friends and we are welcome to stay as long as we wanted.
I liked the cut of this man’s cloth. How could you not be impressed by such talents? And besides, he was wearing pink trousers. You can always trust a man in pink trousers.
“Let me introduce myself, I’m Paddy,” said my savior in a beautifully soft and reassuring Northern Irish accent.
Over the next half hour or so I discovered that my new mate Paddy was not only great at rescuing me from murder-intent French women. He also made a fairly handy teacher when it came to learning the ins and outs of this new-to-me sport of rallying. There didn’t seem to be an awful lot he didn’t know.
It quickly dawned on me that Paddy was not just another enthusiastic fan or a corporate bigwig. He simply knew too much. So I asked him outright. “How come you seem to know so much about this rally?” and the remarkably modest reply came back, “oh I’ve done a bit of driving in my time”.
At this point a typically overenthusiastic Italian fan appeared in our olive grove and practically fell to his knees, prostrating himself in front of my new mate, and declaring himself not worthy. Well, I think that’s what he was saying, but he might have just fallen over after a little too much of the local grappa and was cursing his misfortune. Whatever was going on he eventually got up and retrieved a somewhat shabby autograph book, yes this was in the days before selfies, and asked Paddy for his signature. The pen was brandished with a flourish and my friend scribbled ‘Col de Turini 2002, all the best, Paddy Hopkirk’.
I was in the presence of Monte Carlo royalty and I still didn’t realize it, such was the modesty of the man.
And so, having realized that there might just be a story to tell with my new friend, I spent the rest of the day listening to tales from the good old days of the sport, of adventures that seemed almost too fantastic to be true and of exploits that truly defined a generation of motorsport achievements.
I’m sure I saw a few World Rally Cars that day but I can’t remember which ones or who was driving them. But I’ll never forget the privilege of hearing firsthand the story of the #37 Mini Cooper S and the giant-killing exploits of Hopkirk and Liddon on the 1964 Monte Carlo Rally.
A passion was born in that olive grove on the Col de Turini that day. And for that, I will be forever grateful to that softly spoken, unassuming and remarkably modest motorsport hero from Northern Ireland.