The “love-hate” Monte Carlo relationship in its fifth decade

Denis Giraudet keeps coming back for more after five decades despite a rocky Monte history

Rally Montecarlo Monte Carlo (MC) 23-28 01 1992

Few events generate captivating stories quite like the Monte Carlo Rally. And there are plenty of Monte stories: rallying history can be traced back to the event’s first running in 1911, with drivers traversing icy stages in the mountains and, in the modern era, seeking glory on the World Rally Championship stage.

Legendary co-driver Denis Giraudet has more of those stories than almost anyone else.

The Frenchman made his first Monte start way back in 1981 and will make a return to the WRC’s crown jewel event this year, where he will call the notes for Raphaël Astier in his Alpine A110 Rally RGT.

Despite over four decades of competing in the event, Giraudet has never stood on the top step of the podium, having dealt with more than his fair share of bad luck over the years. But the fact he continues to come back for more is all part of Giraudet’s story; the story of a “love-hate” relationship with the Monte that dates back to his childhood. And the story certainly didn’t start with love.

ERC Tour de Corse 06 - 08 November 2014

Giraudet made his debut on the Monte back in 1981

“I was not a very big fan of rallies, and not a very big fan of Monte when I was a kid,” Giraudet tells DirtFish. “The first rally I attended was Monte, but it was not to watch cars. It was only because my older sister wanted to watch Johnny Hallyday (France’s biggest rockstar), who was competing in the rally in 1967. She said we had to go and see him, so we were on the side of the road not to see the rally cars, but to see a rockstar.

“In those days, the cars were not so sexy. They were standard cars, not so nice. And I was more a fan of F1 and Le Mans cars, they were much nicer for me.”

Despite his first trip to the Monte failing to capture his imagination, Giraudet would soon find himself in the passenger seat of a rally car; the role that would come to define much of his life and which would put him on a path heading straight back to those icy alpine roads.

“When I started rallying, it was an accident,” recalls the Frenchman. “I was not really keen on it, but a friend asked me to compete, so from the 1970s I had a little more interest. Then I came to my first Monte in 1981.”

By that season, Giraudet had formed a partnership with compatriot Paul Gardère. The pair won the French Talbot Sunbeam cup in 1980, an achievement which came with a prize of a Monte Carlo Rally entry.

“Talbot paid for the entry and for all the expenses, but we had to bring our own car.” says Giraudet. “[In 1981] we were doing really well. The team had four cars and we were the fastest, and we were running 13th from over 200 cars competing. For a pair of amateurs in their first attempt at Monte, we were quite pleased. Then, at the end of the second-to-last stage, the stewards took one of our studs from the tires.

“They were supplied by Pirelli, and unfortunately they were not legal. So when we arrived at the Monte Carlo harbor, they told us we had 30 minutes of penalties. You can imagine the disappointment. My wife was on her way to the prize giving, because back then everyone was welcome at the prize giving, and when she arrived I said ‘No, we got straight home’. I was so fed up.

Rally Monte Carlo 24-30 01 1981

Henri Toivonen guides a Sunbeam through a typically challenging Monte Carlo stage. Now that's a wall of snow

“So that was the beginning of my love-hate relationship with Monte. Of course, we all love the event, and it’s the most famous one throughout France. But I haven’t been so successful there over the years. A few good results, but a lot of disappointment too.”

Disappointments would be the theme of Giraudet’s first few Monte attempts, but his recollections of those early years are a reminder of how much the event has changed in the four decades since.

“As an amateur, the rally was fun,” he remembers. “We did the concentration run down from Paris, it was like the Tour de France. There were huge crowds in the middle of nowhere in the night, it was amazing.

“But as an amateur, it was a really physical test, because you were driving all night long from Paris. You were arriving in Aix-les-Bains (parc fermé for the event) often, you then got a few hours sleep. Then you start 24 hours of rallying from Aixes-les-Bainz to the Ardeche or wherever, it was non-stop, like 48 hours with two or three hours of sleep. So that was a completely different challenge. It was a different sport.

ERC Rally di Roma Capitale, Rome, Italy 15-17 september 2017
It's a tough, tough rally. It's special. It's a lot of stress. It’s a lot of fun as well in the end Denis Giraudet

“The most challenging thing was the servicing because as an amateur you can’t afford so many vans and trucks and so on. So if you wanted to have the right tire choice at the right place, it was very tricky. In 1982, we had to retire because one of our service cars blew a head gasket and was not able to climb to the Col de Turini to bring us our snow tires.

“To take on that stage in the snow on slick tires, there was not even a chance. So we had to retire. We were again in quite a good position, so it was a disappointment.”

Another retirement in 1983 followed before the pair finally caught some luck and notched up fourth place finish in the Group A class in 1984. But that would spell the end for Giraudet-Gardère partnership, and it would be five years before Giraudet would get another shot at the Monte. This time his partner was future WRC winner Philippe Bugalski, who would soon feel the full effects of Giraudet’s Monte jinx.

“We were with a Renault 21 Turbo [in 1989], a very unusual rally car,” says Giraudet. “And again, [it was] a big disappointment. We caught another car on the second stage, and we were so close to this car that it sent some stones to our car, and one of these stones made a hole in our radiator, and we blew the engine.

“Then we were back with the Lancia Martini team in ‘92, with the Delta. Of course, it was a big achievement [to drive for them] after a good result in the French championship, but it was a big step. Maybe we didn’t measure it properly. We crashed on the last hairpin of stage one, which was the Col de Turini. We lost 1 minute there, although we managed to get back to 5th in the end. But the team was not very pleased with our performance.”

Although his debut with a factory team didn’t go to plan, Giraudet would soon find himself working for Toyota, handling the gravel notes for Didier Auriol – a role he still performs in the WRC today, most recently for Oliver Solberg during his stint at Hyundai. On the Monte, a good set of gravel notes is a crucial weapon in a driver’s armory – something Giraduet can attest to.

“It’s a very tough job,” he says. “You have two philosophies in gravel crews. Either you go [into the stage] very early so you can give your tire recommendation to the drivers before the tire choice, or you wait for the last minute, to give the freshest information possible and you rely on Pirelli or the weather people to help with the tire choice.

Rally Montecarlo Monte Carlo (MC) 23-28 01 1992

Bugalski and Giraudet on the 1992 Monte. The pair finished fifth in their Martini Deltona

“My way of working is always to go at the last minute. It’s a bit risky but I always prefer it as there can be a big change in a short time. But I am used to this, because in the old days the spectators were even nastier than they are now. They were playing a lot with snowballs.

“I remember one year with Toyota on the Burzet stage in the Ardeche, which was one of the trickiest stages because of the snow. We knew it would be a critical stage, so we entered it at the last minute. We had a helicopter waiting for us at the finish. I gave the pacenotes, and they flew it back to the service at the start of the stage, and Didier did a very good time, unlike Colin [McRae] or Armin [Schwarz] who crashed on the snow that was put there by the spectators. But we had that in our pacenotes.”

Giraudet would return to the co-drivers seat on the Monte in 1997 alongside Armin Schwarz, before making a mid-season move to partner up full-time with Auriol at Toyota. By this time, the French co-driver had finally experienced the taste of WRC victory – first in Finland with Juha Kankkunen in 1993, then with Auriol in Corsica in 1995. But those successes wouldn’t change his relationship with the Monte.

“With Didier we weren’t so successful either in Monte. In 1999 for example, even though we managed third place in the end, we crashed on stage one. We managed to keep on going, but it was a big disaster at the start. Carlos [Sainz, team-mate] crashed on the same bend too.

Rally Monte Carlo (MC) 19-21 01 1998

A third place alongside Auriol remains Giraudet's best Monte finish

“You can imagine the post-event debrief, it was quite bad. I can still remember Ove Andersson, he was asking us how it was possible that after so many kilometers of testing that we both crashed after 500m of the first stage of the first event of the year! What can you answer?”

“But that’s Monte, you know?”

Third in 1999 with Auriol marks the high point of Giraudet’s Monte career, on paper at least. But in practice, he’s found a niche in his later career. After Auriol’s departure from a full-time WRC seat after the 2003 season, Giraudet has gained a reputation for nurturing young drivers, a talent that led to some of his favorite Monte moments.

“I enjoy working with young drivers a lot,” says Giraudet. “My best Monte memory, even if it was not a podium, was in 2012 with Evgeniy Novikov. We managed fifth, and we did some top three stage times. I think I am better at that; over the years the team has often asked me to go with a risk or crash-prone driver, asking me to try and slow them down a little bit, and it was the same with Novikov.

“I think I am better at that than to be with a steady guy, maybe I am not so exuberant so as to push them. I am better at calming them down than pushing them.”

Five years on from his last Monte start, Giraudet is back for another swing at the event in 2024. Again, he returns to the rally in a new car (an Alpine A110 Rally RGT) and with another new driver (Raphaël Astier) – both of which have the Frenchman excited, even after 43 years of competing on the Monte.

“I did four events in the French championship with Raphaël last year, and we had some wins in the RGT class. The car is surprisingly good. I did a lot of RGT with Romain Dumas in a Porsche 911, but the Alpine is a much easier car to drive and much more efficient.

Rallye Monte-Carlo 2012, 17-22 January 2012

Novikov and Giraudet enroute to their fifth-place finish in 2012

“If you have dry and very fast roads, you can compete with Rally2 cars, and it’s good fun. But as soon as it’s slippery, and you have some big cuts, we have to slow down. But still, yeah it’s a fun car.”

Astier took victory on the Monte in his Alpine RGT in 2022, while also finishing an impressive 15th overall. With a winning pedigree behind them, and with just five cars entered in the RGT class on this year’s event, Giraudet and Astier stand a good chance of competing for a victory this time out. So, does Giraudet think he can finally put his Monte demons to bed once and for all?

“Yes, that’s the goal!” he says. “We want to set some times that are not too far from the Rally2s, when the conditions are good. And to of course win if possible, like we did in the French championship in the two-wheel-drive class.”


Astier guides his Alpine RGT to a 2022 Monte Carlo class victory

A win on the Monte next week – 43 years in the making – would make for one hell of a story. But then again, when it comes to this event, Giraudet already has one. It may not be one of triumphs and trophies, but it’s unique to him.

“It’s a tough, tough rally. It’s special. It’s a lot of stress. It’s a lot of fun as well in the end.” he says, pausing for thought.

“But for me, it’s always been a story of love and hate.”