Route Preview: Tour de Corse 2018

Tour de Corse, the rally of 10 000 corners. It’s known for its long stages over narrow and rough tarmac roads between rock walls and ravines with little forgiveness if the grip is lost, sometimes with dramatic or even tragic consequences. This year’s route has a lot of new material, although the amount of new is depending on the driver.

The special characteristics of Tour de Corse

In the past Tour de Corse used to be a long rally. Not just by kilometres, but also by the competitive time. The stages were not only long but also slow, meaning that the stages took a longer time than in faster rallies. It was common for a stage to last for over an hour, or one day of driving to consist of as much competitive time as a whole 1000 Lakes Rally.

As far as I know, Tour de Corse has never had a super special stage. The closest they got was a short opening stage in the 90’s, but it was driven on similar roads as the other stages. And this year is no exception either: no super specials whatsoever. But unlike the other non-super-special rally Monte Carlo, there’s no Thursday stages either so the competitive action doesn’t start until Friday morning.

The number of stages on this year’s rally, 12, is probably the lowest of the season (and the average length of a stage the longest), but higher than last year, with two stages added to Saturday. In a way, having a small number of long stages is the best they can do to be true to their heritage – in the opposite end is Rally Finland with a high number of stages, most of them quite short.

Apparently Tour de Corse is one of the rallies hoping for WRC to change into a two-day format, and I can see why. That would bring them closer to their essence – long stages and long days – even if it would be just two days.

The stages

If Juho Hänninen was still driving in WRC, he would be happy to see both of the stages where he crashed last year are now omitted, as all of Sunday and most of Friday from 2017 are gone.

Actually, about 58% of the stage kilometres are different from last year and also mostly different from the few recent years that Tour de Corse has been again included in WRC. Some of the stages have been driven years or decades ago, and some featured in the rally in the years it was only an IRC/ERC round. But still, there’s plenty of stages that are even-handedly new for everyone, giving a chance for newcomers.

Friday kicks off with a massive 49 km marathon run over La Porta – Valle di Rostino, driven identically as on last year’s Saturday. It featured even in a longer form in 2016 and partly in 2015 so it should be well familiar to the current works drivers. According to Ogier the stage has “a lot of narrow technical sections”, and it has been the slowest stage of the rally in the last two years. This stage also contains this infamous hairpin around the church in La Porta where you need to be careful not to end like this.

Last year Stephane Lefebvre wrecked the rear right suspension of his Citroen C3 into a wall early into this stage. Afterwards he had a spin on the limping car and stopped to inspect the situation and fix the damage.

The second stage of Friday is Piedigriggio – Pont de Castirla, a sprint by Tour de Corse measures at 13 kms. It has featured in the rally as Taverna – Pont de Castirla in the IRC/ERC years 2011-2013, being slightly longer from the beginning. Dani Sordo, Thierry Neuville, Andreas Mikkelsen and Bryan Bouffier should have an advantage having done the stage in those years. Craig Breen would as well, if he were to do the event.

Here’s an onboard from the 2016 Historic Tour de Corse. Note that the stage used then was a bit longer from the beginning, but it’s timed to start from the 2018 WRC stage startline.

Saturday starts with 35 kms of Cagnano – Pino – Canari, located high North on Cap Corse.  It has been rallied on in the past, but to the opposite direction, like in the 2012 Tour de Corse, the 1995 Tour de Corse (Canari – Luri being a partial version), or last year’s Cap Corse Historic Rally, where Bryan Bouffier drove a Porsche 911.

The next stage Désert des Agriates ends with a 240m descent during the last 5 kms. It is also a new stage, although the roads have been driven in the past as Casta – Pietra Moneta, but not after 1994.

To compensate for the new stage kilometres, the day concludes with Novella, driven similarly in 2017 and in a longer form the year before. This stage is remembered from last year for Elfyn Evans’s off and Kris Meeke’s engine troubles.

Kris Meeke wasn’t happy on this stage in in 2016 either, going off right at the beginning.

All the Friday and Saturday stages are done twice, but Sunday has, like last year, just two stages done once, but still plenty of kilometres. This year they are driven quite close to Ajaccio.

Vero – Sarrola-Carcopino is the longest stage of the rally at 55 kms, and also the longest stage in the rally since 1986. The last 7 kms were driven between 2015 and 2017 as the end of  Plage du Liamone – Sarrola-Carcopino and a bit longer chunk was included in the IRC/ERC years in to the other direction. The route from Vero northwards and westwards through Lopigna has also been a staple in the past decades, but it hasn’t been driven since 2002, so basically it’s 47 kms of new stage for everyone.

This stage has been notorious in the past. In 2000 both Mitsubishi drivers Freddy Loix and Tommi Mäkinen suffered bad accidents here. Freddy went out into a deep ravine in the first left corner of the stage. Tommi went out on the second run of the stage only a bit later than Freddy in a right hander after a left hairpin, with his car dropping into the ravine so far that it almost returned back to the start of the stage.

A more detailed description of these incidents in Finnish with pictures can be found from the Rallirinki blog. Meanwhile, this video is timed to start at Tommi’s crash, whereas Freddy’s is found at 5:48 on the same video.

In 2001 Marcus Grönholm spun and hit the rock wall on this stage, but Fabrice Morel’s horrifying roll down a ravine on the same stage in a Peugeot 206 S1600 became probably more infamous that year.

The power stage Pénitencier de Coti-Chiavari is also a familiar name from the previous decades, but a new study for the current drivers. It is sharing the ending with 2008’s Pietra Rossa – Verghia and 2012’s Pénitencier Coti – Agosta plage, but the latter in reverse. Of the current drivers Latvala, Mikkelsen, Loeb and Østberg did the part of the stage in 2008 with WRC cars, whereas Ogier was armed with a Citroen C2 S1600. 10 years is a long time, but a set of old pace notes checked in competitive speed is still valuable.

The road conditions and starting order

In contrast to gravel and snow rallies, it’s typically the best position to start tarmac rallies as the first car, as cutting the corners will bring dirt onto the road, making it more slippery. Typically the effect it’s not as bad in Tour de Corse as in Rally Deutschland, but with the new WRC2017 cars and their powerful aero packages, cornering speed has increased, and sudden loss of grip could be dangerous.

With the current points order, Ogier will have a some sort of advantage whereas the likes of Sordo and Loeb could even suffer a bit on the first day. But still, last year the top two drivers on the first day were Ogier and Meeke, starting first and sixth, so it won’t be as dramatic as we’ve seen in Mexico and Sweden this year.

Bonus

The roads of SS2/4 Piedigriggio – Pont de Castirla were driven decades ago often, in the opposite direction, as the end section of Corte – Taverna, which is notorious for being the stage that took Henri Toivonen’s life in an accident in 1986. As we know Henri never even reached Pont de Castirla, where most TV crews were waiting for him, but could only see the smoke on the horizon.

If you’re spectating on this stage, it’s only a 6 km drive on D18 – southwards from the stage finish at Pont de Castirla – to visit the accident corner with a memorial stone, supposedly maintained daily with fresh flowers and a full bottle of Martini.

Cover image by Antoine Valentini

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