Legendary Roads

7 must-know European rally races

Rally racing came to life in Europe at the turn of the century, beginning with city-to-city road races in France. Unlike other forms of auto racing, rallying takes place on a point-to-point basis (not on a track) and often on public roads. Drivers must be able to handle any type of road—gravel, dirt, asphalt or mud—in any weather, including snow and ice, sometimes all in the same event. For years, low traction and treacherous conditions have regularly sent competitors flying off courses and into danger. Here are seven of the most legendary road rally circuits around the continent.

1. Coupe des Alpes

The Alpine Cup was one of the most popular races in its day. While the event had started and ended in Marseille since its inception in 1932, in 1948 the course was re-routed to include mountain passes in Germany, Switzerland, Italy and Austria. Considered one of the toughest races because of its deceptive mountain trails, it forced drivers to negotiate hairpin turns and winding gravel roads with few barriers between them and drop-offs of thousands of feet.

2. Monte Carlo Rally

In 1909, at the behest of Albert I, Prince of Monaco, the Monte Carlo Rally was planned. It was set to start at several points around Europe and finish at Monte Carlo. Bankrolled by a group of wealthy local Italians who formed the Automobile Club of Monaco, this circuit became the premier European rally for wealthy sporting motorists from around the world.

Monte Carlo features one of the most famous special stages in rallying: one filled with frozen mountain roads that passes Col de Turini, where hazards such as ice, falling rocks and hairpin turns are complicated by spectators who are all but encouraged to throw snow onto the track as part of a carnivalesque celebration of rallying.

3. Paris-Bordeaux-Paris

In 1895 this one-off rally—often referred to as the first motor race—tasked drivers with completing a 732-mile course from Paris to Bordeaux and back. Today, a car trip from Paris to Bordeaux might take around five to seven hours, but over a century ago, that was unimaginable. The winning racer clocked about 49 hours at a then-impressive speed of 15 mph. The widespread enthusiasm this feat inspired showed that the sport had a chance at commercial success.

4. Tour de Corse

Corsica, or the “Isle of Beauty,” is home to stunning pink cliffs, turquoise waters and the thrilling Tour de Corse. This Mediterranean rally circuit’s picturesque mountain passes are filled with high-octane twists and turns, which earn the island race its nickname, “Rally of 10,000 Corners.” These turns and switchbacks are so challenging that when it first ran in 1956, almost half of the 43 drivers failed to finish the race.

5. Liège-Brescia-Liège

As the first event specifically for cars with engines under 500cc, Liège-Brescia-Liège was a pioneering attempt at promoting economical (or “green”) transport. This eco-friendly mind-set was partly due to petrol shortages and rationing caused by the Suez Crisis of 1965. To test these smaller, fuel-optimized vehicles, rally organizers designed a route to take drivers nonstop for three nights through more than 20 of Europe’s most perilous mountain passes. The result? Only 13 of 29 cars finished the race. Though run only once, it was re-created as a historic road rally in 2008.

6. Targa Florio

One of the first and most harrowing rally courses in the world, the Targa Florio was conceived by the wealthy wine industrialist and motor-racing enthusiast Vincenzo Florio. This notoriously dangerous route runs through the Madonie Mountains, where its winding, landslide-prone roads challenged drivers for decades. The circuit ran from 1906 to 1977, when unsafe conditions forced the police to put a stop to the race.

7. Acropolis Rally

This is a circuit known to really beat drivers up. Held on dusty, snaking mountain roads under the heat of the Greek summer sun, it chokes drivers with dust and subjects them to near-unbearable cockpit temperatures. Cars have to be structurally reinforced to withstand the rough conditions, and drivers have to be in peak physical condition. Past events have held “super special stage” courses built into the Olympic Stadium in Athens.

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