The first proper tarmac rally of the season offers again countless corners and long stages. For this year, once again, much of the route is new to the drivers.
If Rally Sweden keeps its route stubbornly unchanged, Tour de Corse is the opposite, changing its route from year to year. There’s plenty to choose from on the road network on the island, but new stages are always a challenge for the drivers to get the pace notes correctly.
This is the purest tarmac rally of the season without the snow of Monte, the gravel stages of Catalunya or the concrete surfaces of Germany. It’s also infamously called the rally of 10 000 corners and there’s really not many straights over 100 m long in the rally. The bumpy roads are often stuck between a cliff and ravine, making it a high-risk event with a tragic past.
In the eighties Tour de Corse was often the longest special stage rally of the season. It has kept this part of its heritage within modern rules by making up its route of few but long stages. For example in 2016 there were ten stages, half of them around fifty kilometres in length. The stage count has increased yearly and now there’s 14 of them, resulting in smaller average length and less marathon stages.
The rally has also tried to keep true to its moniker by having different locations for the rally start, service park and finish – this year Porto-Vecchio, Bastia and Calvi, respectively. In the past this was business as usual for this rally as well as many others, but a rare configuration with the strict regulations of today’s rallying. However, the amount of liaisons feels excessive. Also the capital of the island, Ajaccio, is not visited at all.
In the past Tour de Corse has often named its stages by the start and finish locations with a hyphen in between, like Monte Carlo and Argentina still do. For this year this style is abandoned for more common stage titles representing the geographic area.
The shakedown is again run at Sorbo-Ocagnano. It’s a good representation of Corsican roads with lots of alternating from accelerating to braking and long corners. At the beginning of the stage some corners allow very wide cuts. About halfway through the stage the road becomes a lot narrower, but the nature remains similar.
Like always, Tour de Corse does not feature any super specials. As far as I know, it has never arranged one. As you may know I’m not the biggest fan of super specials, but leaving the Thursday evening blank still feels kind of empty.
This year the Friday stages are at the South end of the island near Porto-Vecchio. A 60 km loop of three stages is repeated with only a tyre fitting zone in between, so no other servicing can be done to the cars than what the drivers can perform by themselves. After completing the second loop, the drivers have a 100 km liaison to the service park at Bastia Airport.
The Bavella stage is new, and its route was last used in 1989 on the stage Kamiesch – Maison Forestiere d’Arsa. Bavella is run in a forest of big pine trees and the route ascends a whole kilometre during its 17 km length. The road seems quite wide and good-surfaced for the most part, allowing a racing line, but there is also a good amount of hairpins near the end.
Valinco is a shortened version of the Zerubia – Martini stage from 2015. The route has also been tackled into various directions in the mid 00’s and the late 90’s. In 2015 Kevin Abbring and Pontus Tidemand crashed here. It’s also worth mentioning that out of the current entries Esapekka Lappi completed the stage in 2014 when it was an ERC round.
The first 2.8 km are driven on a narrow and rough road with banks, stones, brick barriers and big rocks right next to the road. After that the road becomes more typically Corsican – smoother and wider – but the obstacles remain close to the road for a few more kilometres. It’s quite fast and flowing with no proper hairpins. Around 18 km there are some very sweet-looking sequences of cambered corners.
Finally a junction at 20.9 km breaks the flow and the road becomes a bit narrower and introduces some tighter bends. Judging by the 2015 onboard videos, the surface seems to get rougher and rougher here until a brand new tarmac arrives at 22.8 km. The final surface change also makes the road wider and adds concrete ditches, which prevent road pollution from cutting. Thus the end of the stage is quite fast and racing-track like, resembling of the tarmac stages of Catalunya.
The third stage of the loop is Alta-Rocca, again familiar from the 2014 and 2015 years. In 2014 parts of Sartene – Orone featured on this stage in the same and opposing directions and in 2015 all of Alta-Rocca was driven into the opposite direction as the ending of Sotta – Chialza.
The stage begins with a crossing of a big bridge. After that the road is typically Corsican for a while with fast sections interrupted by slower corners. A hairpin turn at 1.6 km takes the stage onto a road which alternates between old rough and fresh smooth tarmac (at least in 2015). It is fast-flowing for the most part but technical sections – including a couple of proper hairpins – appear suddenly along the surface changes, making it very mercurial. At 10.7 km a tight junction appears in a village, taking the stage onto fully fresh and smooth tarmac and a bit wider road. It’s quite fast and flowing until 15 km where more tighter bends appear until the stage-concluding hairpin turn.
Saturday contains 50% of the competitive length of the rally but is easier for the drivers in two ways. Firstly, all the stages are contested relatively close to the service park on the North end of the island, meaning shorter liaisons. Secondly, the day contains the only stages and roads familiar from last year.
Cap Corse was brought back to the rally last year for the first time since 1995. For this year the length is reduced by 10 km from the start, thus excluding a narrow and technical section which caused an off for Stephane Lefebvre last year.
Now the stage starts quite wide with a good surface, with a varying mix of fast sections and tight corners. At 8 km the road gets narrower at the village of Pino, with houses close to the road at first. The road remains narrow, not letting the drivers fall into a flow with constant abrupt accelerating and braking. A sudden 6th gear burst occurs at 21 km and the stage is finally concluded with a hairpin turn.
Sebastien Ogier commented “I think everyone feels this stage is a tricky one” and he wasn’t wrong. On the second pass Jari-Matti Latvala slid off the road on the wide section and hit some trees, damaging his rollcage, having to retire from the rally.
With this stage being new to the current drivers last year, making pace notes was crucial. Thierry Neuville said he had made too optimistic pace notes and Andreas Mikkelsen admitted having had too much information in his.
Désert des Agriates is another stage not driven since the 90’s until last year. It is also the only stage unchanged from last year, when it was the fastest stage of the rally with the winning average speeds at 108 km/h. It doesn’t even seem like outrageously fast as there’s a constant flow of faster and slower corners, but the lack of junction turns, hairpins or other first gear corners keeps the pace up constantly. Also, the road surface seems excellent and quite wide, described by Dani Sordo as “a more normal wider road”. It’s also remarkable that Sebastien Loeb won this stage both times last year.
The new Castagniccia stage is the longest of the rally at 47 km. It revolves in an area which has often featured in the rally, thanks to being situated close to Bastia. The previous three years the section from 12 to 25 km was driven as a part of the massive La Porta stage in the opposite direction. In 2015 all of the first 25 km would have made up the ending of Casamozza – Ponte Leccia (in the opposite direction) had it not been canceled.
Not much can be said about the whole stage without seeing onboard videos, but the middle section shared with La Porta – Valle di Rostino is rather narrow and rough, quite technical and very tricky, going through villages with buildings, trees and other obstacles right next the road.
The beginning seems to be on a wider road with an ascension, while the ending seems to continue on the narrow and rough road with the last kilometres deep in a forest under the trees where it could be slippery.
Based on this information, Castagniccia will be one of the trickiest and slowest stages of the rally.
Sunday ends again with a long stage and a shorter power stage, both driven only once. This time they are driven on the North-West corner of the island near the city of Calvi.
The Eaux de Zilia stage with its 31 km length gives still enough chances for making up positions at the final moment. It is yet another new stage, but a part of it near the end featured on the Corbara – Montemaggiore stage in the 80’s and early 90’s.
The beginning of the stage (as seen on this 2013 local rally onboard until 3:42) is quite rough and narrow but fast with some very angular tight corners. The rhythm feels different than on most Tour de Corse stages, reminiscing more of the narrower Monte Carlo stages.
The middle part of the stage contains a number of wider roads, some of them sealed together by hairpin turns. At 21.5 km another junction turn takes onto a smaller road which begins an ascent onto a mountain. This section can be seen on another onboard. It has again some Monte Carlo to it, but the rhythm becomes soon very Corsican, abrupt and constantly changing from fast to slow and back.
After the mountain climb the village of Montemaggiore is reached at 28.7 km and passed through a tricky but spectacular series of descending hairpins. The final kilometres of the stage are then again a bit wider and faster except for yet another hairpin just before the finish.
The power stage of Calvi hasn’t featured in the rally since the IRC years. Here’s an onboard from 2012. The 2019 section starts at 6:33 on the video.
Most of the stage is typically Corsican – a medium wide road with quite ragged surface and an abrupt flow. Some very fast sections occur in the middle of the stage where the cars could even hit their top speed for a while. The ending offers again some tighter corners on Col de Turini style banking, but the overall nature of the stage remains very fast for this rally.
All of the stage is run on a road which is mostly parallel to the seaside and if the drivers had time to look, they would see a stunning scenery with the sea looming far below. Although, it must remind them not to go off the road.
Road conditions and starting order
In tarmac rallies it’s generally best always to start first since cutting corners “pollutes” the road, making it more slippery for the cars starting behind. This effect could become more dramatic in wet conditions, but generally it’s not so strong in Corsica compared to other tarmac rallies of the season, since the grip is often varying anyway on the bumpy roads.
The cleanest road will be for the championship leader Ott Tänak with last year’s Tour de Corse winner Sebastien Ogier following behind. Thierry Neuville and Kris Meeke, known to be fast in Corsica, start next, whereas Sebastien Loeb will be seventh on the road, with Jari-Matti Latvala and Dani Sordo behind him.
Instead of an onboard, here’s some footage from 1994 from the stage Casta – Pietra Moneta, known today as Désert des Agriates. 1994 was the last time it was run before returning onto the route last year. The footage is probably shot on the downhill section 1.2 km before the finish.