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Today in history… Monte Carlo fiasco caught in headlights

12:00am | & Lifestyle

THE Monte Carlo Rally, perhaps the most famous motorsport rally in the world, was thrown into uproar and controversy on this day in 1966 when the first four cars across the finishing line were disqualified on a minor technicality.

The first four drivers to cross the line were (in order) Finland’s Timo Makinen and Rauno Aaltonen followed by Brits Paddy Hopkirk and Roger Clark. All four were in British-made cars, the first three in BMC Mini-Coopers and Clark in a Ford Cortina, but race stewards claimed the cars breached new rules introduced since the previous rally, and disqualified them.

The rules said any car entering the rally must come off a standard production line, with at least 5,000 cars being built to a similar specification and made available for sale to the public. But there was additional confusion because rally organisers initially said the 1966 race would be run under the old rules and only announced the switch to the new rules after entries had been accepted.

The problem for the British cars was to do with the way their headlights dipped. The race cars used non-dipping single filament bulbs in their headlights, as there was no conceivable need to dip headlights during the rally. However, standard production versions of the cars, sold to the public, used double filament headlights which meant they could be dipped, so as not to dazzle oncoming traffic.

In total, 10 British-made cars were disqualified from the final results on this minor technical point, even though it delivered no discernible improvement in performance. Among them was the sixth place Hillman Imp driven by Ireland’s Rosemary Smith, winner of the ‘Coup des Dames’ (ladies’ class).

There was instant anger and disbelief at the disqualifications, not just from the teams involved but from other teams, drivers, commentators and spectators. The uproar was not just because it was such a minor, meaningless and unintended infringement, but because it had happened largely due to the organisers’ own indecisiveness over when to implement the new rules. “Motor Sport”, the leading magazine for the rallying scene, ran a damning article under the headline “The Monte Carlo Fiasco”.

BMC and Ford lodged official protests at the disqualifications, but they were rejected by the French race organisers, who were widely accused of using the technicality out of bias against the British cars. Their decision meant the trophy went to a Citroen driven by Pauli Toivonene, a Finn who lived in Paris and had crossed the finishing line in fifth place.

Incredibly, his Citroen also had single filament headlights like those on the British cars, but they were allowed because enough production models had been sold to the public with similar non-dipping headlights – even though most buyers immediately asked their local Citroen dealer to change the headlights to the double-filament dippable variety.

Among those who could barely believe the disqualifications was Richard Shepherd of BMC (British Motor Corporation), manufacturer of the Mini-Coopers which had come to dominate the rallying world in recent years. He told reporters: “There is nothing new about the lights at all. They have been used in our rallies, on rally cars, including the Monte for two years now and we’ve had no trouble at all in the past.”

Appalled at the decision, the disqualified teams boycotted the official farewell dinner traditionally marking the end of the Monte Carlo Rally. There was widespread speculation they would also boycott the entire rally in future years, one British official commenting: “This will be the end of the Monte Carlo Rally. Britain is certain to withdraw.”

They had a strong ally in the rally’s most high-profile supporter, Prince Rainier of Monaco. He showed his anger at the disqualifications by leaving the rally without attending its prize-giving ceremony, in which he usually played an important role.

Controversy rumbled on for most of the following year, reignited in October when rallying’s highest governing body, the Paris-based ‘Federation Internationale de l’Automobile’, upheld the disqualifications. Even the ‘winning’ driver, Toivonen, was reported to be unhappy at the situation and he never drove again for Citroen.

It wasn’t the end of the Monte Carlo Rally, which returned the following year, but was boycotted by several teams and drivers who instead focussed on other events. Ironically, the 1967 Monte Carlo Rally was won by one of the previous year’s disqualified drivers, Rauno Aaltonen, at the wheel of a British-made Mini Cooper S.

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