They were waiting. Just waiting. And they were waiting because they knew.
South of Puget-Théniers on the D6202 they sat and watched the clock tick towards seven o’clock on Sunday morning.
A minute or two before the policeman picked up the barrier to close the road, Bruno Saby drove into SS12. Immediately, he began talking to Denis Giraudet, adding colour to the black-and-white picture they’d been given to work with.
These two guys – two of France’s most illustrious rallying names – were working as Oliver Solberg’s ice-note crew on a rally they know better than most. Between them they have tackled 36 Montes in a 50-year period.
On Sunday morning, it was Saby’s 1985 Peugeot team-mate Ari Vatanen that came to mind.
Giraudet relays the story of why they waited.
“Do you remember in 1985 Ari passed Walter Röhrl?” he said. “That was on this road. Walter took the slick and Ari took the stud and he overtook him and went on to win. Bruno knew this road was always so difficult.”
Driving for 2C Competition last week, Solberg shared the French team with Pierre-Louis Loubet (son of Yves Loubet, Saby’s Lancia team-mate in the late 1980s). Loubet’s ice noters were going into the stages early to offer information for the tire choice while Saby and Giraudet waited until the last minute.
“We were going for the safety,” said Giraudet. “And Bruno was right to leave it so late – we went in two hours after [Loubet’s crew]. When they went through, they had frost on two corners for the whole stage. When we went in we had four corners in every kilometer.
“Bruno knew this was a nasty stage.
“It was incredible how many different conditions we saw on this event. Every time you finish a Monte, you go home and say: ‘Wow, that was the worst one…’
“It was the same this year, but this time it was so complicated. We had everything, every condition from dry Tarmac to heavy rain and fresh snow on Saturday morning and then the frost growing once the sun came on Sunday morning.”
Giraudet’s first Monte was 1981. Saby pre-dates him by eight years. There’s not much these two haven’t seen.
This year’s event might not have been able to challenge the through-the-night marathons they’d cut their teeth on, but the modern Monte brings challenges of its own.
“Tires is so difficult these days,” said Giraudet. “And it makes the job for the ice note crew even more demanding. With these regulations, it doesn’t matter if it’s Pirelli or Michelin, you can’t be on the right tire for the whole loop. You do three stages and it’s all about the compromise.
“When you are on the right tire, the information needs to be right, but when you’re on a tire which isn’t giving the optimal grip then the information has to be 100% right for every corner.”
One vital aspect of a good ice note crew is to be well acquainted with the notes themselves. Having co-driven Solberg Jr on three occasions (including a win on the DirtFish Olympus Rally) in 2019, Giraudet knows the notes well.
But when it comes to a driver, you could be forgiven for thinking Solberg Sr would be best placed to guide his son – in the same way Gwyndaf Evans does for Elfyn. Petter prefers not to. He’s in service where he can – should it be required – put an arm around Oliver and keep a closer eye on what’s going on.
And, let’s face it, the 1988 Monte winner’s not a bad option…
Turns out Oliver’s a chip off the old block when it comes to making notes.
“We bumped into Simon Jean-Joseph,” said Giraudet. “Simon used to do Petter’s gravel notes, but now he works with Sébastien Ogier. He was asking about Oliver’s notes and said they were really the same like Petter – so much detail, which is so important on a rally like this one.
“You know, drivers like Petter and Oliver and the rest, they are like the artists or the musicians. They can see things and feel things that we just don’t see. It’s like they have this extra sense. You and I, we would come to a corner and say it’s a left-hander. For them it’s a: ‘Long left, opens, tightens and opens…’
“When it comes to putting the ice or the damp patch or the extra detail into notes, this makes it more straightforward; you can really place the ice in the correct sequence in the notes – much easier than if you have one note saying: ‘Long left…'”
But what about Saby, what about his responsibility?
“It was fantastic,” the former Peugeot and Lancia factory man tells DirtFish. “To work with these guys [Oliver and co-driver Aaron Johnston] was incredible. For me, they are the future of our sport. I love this rally, it’s the best rally in the world and to work with Oliver and Aaron, I don’t mind to get up at three o’clock in the morning.
“But I have to say, this year it didn’t feel so much like the Monte Carlo. Without the fans, it was not so enjoyable. It was difficult to see the places empty where usually there are so many people. It was sad.”
What’s sadder is that Saby and Giraudet won’t get the chance to ride again – this time on the Monte Carlo Historic, where they were scheduled to be sharing a Ford Capri identical to the car Saby used on his first ever Monte in 1971.
“The COVID-19 is spoiling many things right now,” said Giraudet. “But the time will come again and we’ll be ready.”
And by then the fans will be firmly back in place to cheer on this pair of French legends.