WRC History: Tour de Corse Routes 1973-1995

Tour de Corse is the longest-living all-tarmac rally of the WRC history and one of the original WRC rallies from 1973. It’s called infamously the rally of 10 000 corners and in this blog post series we take a look at the roads which have contained them throughout the WRC years. In the first part we will face some outrageously long stages and routes, as well as some tragic accidents.

Cover photo by Renault Sport / Flickr

1973-1978

The 1973 Tour de Corse was run in early December. In addition to being the final round, it was also the only tarmac rally of the first ever WRC season. Rallye Monte Carlo was also driven on tarmac roads, but they were partly covered in snow and ice. In addition, the rallies of Portugal, Acropolis and San Remo had a mix of gravel and tarmac stages.

This wasn’t yet an outrageously long event. 511 km of rallying split between two days was quite normal in those days. The rally used basically a big clover leaf format by having the start, rest halt and finish in Ajaccio, the capital of Corsica.

The first leg on Saturday covered the Southern part of the island. Out of these stages Aullene – Zicavo would be used very often in the future. However, the last stage of the leg was cancelled because of a damaged bridge.

The second leg proceeded Northwards towards Bastia. Interestingly also SS12 Panelca – Ghisano was a partial repeat of SS5 Cozzano – Ghisano from the first day. It wasn’t to be driven though, as snowy conditions forced the organizers to cancel the stages SS9-SS15.

SS17 Luri – Canari was driven on Cap Corse, the Northmost part of the island. Subsequently the route headed West towards Calvi and returned to Ajaccio along the West Coast. 

TDC1973
Map of Tour de Corse 1973. Canceled stages marked in grey. (based on stage titles and known stages from other years, may be incorrect)

In 1974 all rallies were shortened and some cancelled because of the oil crisis. Tour de Corse was also cut to only 374 km of special stages. Now the rally started and ended in Bastia, with the night break in Ajaccio.

It’s been typical for French rallies to name the stages after the start and finish locations with a hyphen in between. It’s sufficient in Corsica, since there usually is only one possible route from town to another. Two 1974 stages used also a curious notation where the end of the stage was named through two road crossings and their codes. This notation has also been used in Rallye Monte Carlo.

The 1974 Bastelica – Cauro stage stands out with Jean-Claude Andruet’s stage win making up 113 km/h of average speed (although statistical error is always possible). That year most stages had average speeds of 70-80 km/h.

The 1975 season now ended with the RAC rally. Thus Tour de Corse was the penultimate round, run a month earlier than before.

The route was again a bit longer, but curiously had only ten stages. SS1 Panelca – Ponte Leccia was a whopping 158 km long. Zonza – Abaccia on day two was also 120 km long. We can see its start on this video at 9:02. These two long stages made up together half of the rally length.

SS3 Luri – Canari was blocked by a tree trunk on the road, resulting in cancellation of it and also the remaining two stages of the leg. Thus the whole rally finished with only seven special stages, which must be a some sort of record in the history of WRC.

The same route philosophy was used in 1976.  Only nine stages made up a total length of 630 km.

The rally started from Bastia at 13 in the afternoon. The first stage Casta – Pietra Moneta has been driven in the recent years as Desert des Agriates. Already the second long stage took the cars from Calvi to Ajaccio, with a couple of more stages in the South-East before a night break in Ajaccio. The second day started already at 6 in the morning, taking the crews finally back to the finish in Bastia in the afternoon.

Thus the rally lasted for only 25 hours from start to finish ramp. This means that the schedule must have been very busy. In fact, it’s been said that the drivers wrote pace notes also for the road sections!

Three of the 1976 stages were over 100 km in length. SS4 Porto-Vecchio – Prunelli was the longest of the rally at 166 km of length, and also the longest stage ever driven in Tour de Corse. In fact it’s the longest WRC stage ever driven outside Morocco. The stage winner Bernard Darniche spent 2 hours and 11 minutes on the stage!

It’s also worth mentioning that from 1976 to 1978 Rally San Remo in Italy was an all-tarmac round, taking away Tour de Corse’s WRC tarmac monopoly for a while.

In 1977 the number of stages in Tour de Corse increased to 13 with many shorter tests and only two stages over 100 km in length. Now the route resembled 1973 by having its operations solely in Ajaccio. Similarly, only Southern stages were driven on Saturday and the counter-clockwise tour through Bastia and Calvi was completed on Sunday.

Here we can see the patchy rough tarmac and a slippery tight hairpin junction at the beginning of SS1 Tavera – Bastelica at 2:01 (notice the YouTube video title has the wrong year).

The 1978 rally was again shorter with no stages exceeding 100 km and the total length at only 543 km. If the 1977 route resembled 1973, this time it was similar to 1974 with the start and finish in Bastia and the night break in Ajaccio, driven in counter-clockwise direction as usual.

1979-1986

In 1979 Tour de Corse was extended to last for three days. The length of the route as well as the number of stages was practically doubled with 22 stages making up 1128 competitive kilometres. The structure of the route was also changed to be similar to 1000 Lakes Rally with two overnight legs and the only proper rest halt in the middle of Saturday.

The first leg started from Ajaccio and was again mainly driven in the Southern parts of the island. It included two stages around 100 km of length and totalled at 524 km, almost the whole length of the previous year rally. The leg ended with a new stage Corte – Taverna, whose name would become tragically unforgettable seven years later.

The second leg proceeded with the usual route from Bastia to Ajaccio via Calvi. The final section then included three stages repeated from the first leg.

This same route structure remained for the years 1980 and 1981. However, in 1981 there were no more stages above 100 km in length and the rally was moved to be arranged already at the end of April.

The 1982 edition of Tour de Corse with 1176 stage kilometres is the longest version of the event. When we don’t count the African rallies, it’s the eighth-longest WRC round ever contested.

The route was now set in three separate legs, starting already on Thursday and ending on Saturday. The first leg started from Ajaccio and took the crews to Bastia through stages in the South-East. On Friday the route headed instantly towards Calvi. The first stage was the 59 km Vescocato – Ponte Nuovo. We can see its ending going under the railroad bridge on this video at 11:09

The second leg proceeded on the familiar mountainous seaside route from Calvi to Ajaccio. Subsequently, the third leg was mainly a repeat of the first leg in the Southern part of the island.

In 1983 the same structure retained, but a total of four stages were cancelled. This infamous tight hairpin junction at 1:26 can be found near the end of SS1 Verghia – Albitreccia. You can already see how the 4WD cars are struggling with a crude center diff and no ability to use the handbrake.

A notable novelty is the 8.3 km Baracci – Olmeto stage. It is one of the shortest stages ever driven in Tour de Corse. However, altogether four stages around the rally were canceled.

The 1984 the route had another major update. The second night break was now held in Calvi, meaning that the rally went to different cities every night. However, the final leg still involved stages on the Southern part of the island after reaching Ajaccio.

The two following editions of the event have remained in history through the tragic accidents taking the lives of Attilio Bettega in 1985 as well as Henri Toivonen and Sergio Cresto in 1986.

Attilio Bettega’s crash happened early in the rally (on SS4 Zerubia – Santa Giulia), so that year no blame was put on the gruelling route. Thus the routes of 1985 and 1986 are virtually identical, and very similar to 1984.

Many top drivers had criticized the long route of the rally on the eve of the 1986 event. In addition, Toivonen gave this immortal quote on an interview the night break before his accident:

This is a really insane rally. We have now driven over four hours of special stages, basically 1000 Lakes Rally today. On a modern car like this, a rally like this cannot be driven. It’s physically tough and too much for the brain!

Toivonen’s pace on the new Lancia Delta S4 was blistering. Once he solved his problems early in the rally, he was posting stage times which were a second per kilometre faster than Vatanen had clocked the year before on the Peugeot 205 T16!

TDC1985
The long but efficient route of Tour de Corse 1985 (and 1986). Leg 1 (red arrows), Leg 2 (orange arrows) and Leg 3 (purple arrows).

It has been said that “if you find a straight longer than 100m in Tour de Corse, you’re on the wrong island”. There seems to be some exceptions though, like this 850 m straight on the Campe Militaire Corte stage in 1986, the last stage which Henri Toivonen completed, shown at 17:34 here.

Toivonen’s accident happened on SS18 Corte – Taverna. The three remaining stages of the second leg were cancelled, but the final day was run as planned, although all remaining Lancias withdrew from the event.

The rally ended with its longest stage, the 83 kilometres of Liamone – Suaricchio. This would mark the end of Corsican double marathon stages for good, and even single marathon stages were put to rest for a while.

1987-1995

In 1987 the new FISA regulations didn’t allow stages to be anymore over 30 km long. This affected Tour de Corse probably more than any other rally, as its competitive length almost decreased in half to 618 km, but the stage count increased to 25. However, only one of the stages was under 20 km long.

The overall structure of the rally remained unchanged, with many long special stages cut shorter. The locations where Bettega and Toivonen crashed fatally were not even removed from the route!

One statistical oddity of 1987 is Claude Balesi’s SS5 stage win on a Group N Renault 5. This is explained by a snow and hail storm which slowed down the top cars. Balesi was seeded #61 so the road must have dried up.

However, even shortening the route or banning the Group B cars couldn’t help the fact that the mountain roads are dangerous. Jean Marchini’s co-driver Jean-Michel Argenti was killed when their Group N Peugeot 205 left the road on the final stage of the first leg, Canavaggia – Borgo.

In 1988 the event was expanded to four days, starting on Tuesday. The opening day consisted of only one stage, a 2 km super special. It was something unseen before in the rally, most likely demanded by FISA. However, this Vignola – Capo di Feno stage was only literally a super special. In fact, it was just like any other stage in the rally, just shorter in length and situated close to the city of Ajaccio. It can be seen here at 2:30

The three following days were quite similar to the year before. The 30 km rule was still in effect, although a few stages exceeded the length within 10% tolerance. The stage count was now pumped up to 30 with stages being shorter on average.

This video shows the staple Tour de Corse stage Aullene – Zicavo.  The Corsican tarmac mountain roads can be very narrow and rough.

The average speeds had gotten up rapidly in the Group B era. However, already in 1988 the pace of the winner, Didier Auriol, was higher than in 1986 with the Group B monsters (although the last day in 1986 wasn’t driven at 100% anymore) at 88 km/h.

The 1989 event was now run from Sunday to Wednesday with no big changes on the route. The opening day however was stretched to have three proper stages near Ajaccio after the “super special”.

It’s again notable that two stages of the rally were under 10 km in length. In fact, the route was spread into shorter bits than ever, with 33 stages, higher amount than the rally has ever seen.

Here at 7:06 we can see some stunning seaside mountain road scenery from another Tour de Corse classic, the Porto – Piana stage, from the final leg.

The 1990 route was quite similar to its predecessor. For example the four first and the eleven last stages were the same as the year before. The average speeds kept getting higher gradually.

Another pair of almost similar routes are those of 1991 and 1992. Although, the biggest difference with them and 1990 is that the stage count decreased back to 27 while the total length remained around 620 km. In addition, the 30 km stage length limit was lifted again, with each of the three long days having one stage over 40 km in length.

TDC1992
Tour de Corse 1992 route (based on stage titles and known stages from other years, may be incorrect)

Here we can see the 1992 SS2 Carbuccia – Tavera, although the video jumps forwards a few minutes at the point where external footage is shown.

In 1992 the winner’s average speed exceeded 90 km/h for the first time with Didier Auriol’s Lancia reaching 91 km/h. It was 3 km/h faster than the year before or any other year before that.

However, Tour de Corse ended once again with tragedy, although outside the rally this itme. A football stadium spectator stand collapsed, killing 18 people. The four last stages of the rally were subsequently cancelled.

In 1993 both Rally San Remo and Rally Catalunya became all-tarmac events, increasing the amount of sealed surface driving considerably. However, compared to these events, Corsica was driven on rougher tarmac surfaces, making the grip level very varying.

That year Tour de Corse was shortened back to three days. Now the overall length was again only 556 km, run over 24 stages. The structure of the route was modified to have the opening day revolve around Ajaccio, the second day go to Bastia for a remote rest halt, and the last day take the route back to Ajaccio via Calvi.

At 13:10 on this video we can see briefly the mountain scenery of the Notre Dame de la Serra stage, which always started the journey from Calvi towards Ajaccio.

In 1994 the rotating system took Catalunya for a year off, while San Remo returned to mixed surface format, making Tour de Corse again the only all-tarmac rally of the year. The old three-day-three-city structure was again revived, although in ever shorter form. This video shows an often-filmed uphill hairpin from the Suarella – Col de Marcuccio stage at 45:02

The 1995 route was similar to 1994. A notable curiosity is the return of a stage on Cap Corse. In addition, the Notre Dame De La Serra stage was shortened, becoming effectively faster, with Bruno Thiry’s stage win equaling average speed of 111 km/h.

The overall length of the route was as short as 485 km. However, it would be still be the last literal Tour de Corse.

More to come in the next part!

EDIT 16.5. Added information about the 1987 fatal crash

 

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