When you listen to it, time stands still. As if Ulysses were telling us about his conquest of glorious Troy and the tumultuous return to his native land that followed. The Iliad and the Odyssey flat out, snorkeling… From January 19 to 26, 1973, Jean-Claude Andruet was the hero of a real epic on the roads of the 42nd Monte-Carlo Rally. In the company of Michèle Petit-Espinos, alias “Biche”, the “panache pilot”, as our unforgettable colleague Marc Canonne nicknamed him in the columns of Nice Matin, had written a mind-blowing scenario at the wheel of his Alpine A110 1800 stamped with the number 18. Enough to victoriously open the winners of the constructors’ world championship by marking the legend of the “Monté” with an XXL imprint. Hang on!
Jean-Claude, this January 26, 1973, your one and only day of glory in the Principality, does it seem light years away or was it yesterday?
Frankly, it doesn’t seem that far away. In any case, I am not aware that fifty years have passed. Half a century, I find that enormous! When I was young, I heard the elders say that time speeds up with age. Today, I can confirm it: we do not see the years pass. They sped off at full speed. But I remember my whole career well.
Precisely, where is the 1973 Monte-Carlo Rally on your scale of values?
Without a doubt, this is my greatest victory. Because I pick it up after overcoming a whole bunch of abnormal ordeals. Because it puts an end to a lot of injustice suffered in this rally. Here, a year earlier, in 72, with the A110 1600S, I must win it easily. Jacques Cheinisse (head of Alpine’s competition department, editor’s note) categorically refuses that I mount studded tires at the start of Moulinon. I knew it was going to snow. I absolutely wanted nails. Cheinisse sends me to graze.
And then he allows the other Alpine riders behind us to put on studded tyres. Incredible but true! Result, I lose more than a minute in this special. I am furious, disgusted. And it ends badly (elimination road exit in the Col de la Couillole on the last night).
Let’s go back to 73. The Monte-Carlo is your last race with the official Alpine team. At the start, is your decision to switch to Lancia already taken?
No, because I haven’t yet met Cesare Fiorio to discuss this transfer. During reconnaissance, I came across Sandro Munari in the Turini, above Moulinet. While chatting, it is he who offers me to join him at Lancia where they are about to baptize the Stratos. Sandro’s words touch me. I appreciate his fair play. Nothing is decided but the idea of a change of scenery appeals to me. At Alpine, you know, for me, it had become unbearable.
The first highlight is in Ardèche, on the famous plateau of Burzet where only 60 competitors manage to pass, the others being disqualified. Really extreme conditions?
Oh yes! Two months ago, at the Epoqu’Auto show in Lyon, imagine that I met two spectators present up there, near Lachamp-Raphaël. They said to me: “Jean-Claude, there was so much fog that we couldn’t see our shoes. The snow was falling, the burle was blowing, it was dantesque. We just caught a glimpse of the number 18 on the door of your Alpine that cut through the night at breakneck speed”. We evolved between white walls of two meters. Very impressive hallways. We braved the snowdrifts. What Burzet! Infernal. Before, after, it was never worse than in 1973…
At the end of the effort, you sign the best time without knowing it. How is it possible?
I stick 1’13” to Hannu Mikkola’s Ford Escort. What to take the lead of the race. But I ignore it because of an error in the transmission of the results. On the road to Saint-Bonnet-le-Froid, a journalist deceived by this erroneous result told me that I got hit. I don’t understand. When in doubt, I approach the next special with the knife between my teeth.
To try to make up for this imaginary delay, I push back all the limits in Saint-Bonnet. Max attack! I remember a right turn noted at 130km / h that I negotiate without lifting my foot. Thoroughly! We could have crashed. It passes ric-rac, at right angles, brushing against an electric pole. An anthology stopwatch reaches out to us, but by always wanting to brake later, I end up stalling in a ditch three miles from the finish.
If a few spectators are present at about 150m, they have snow up to their waists. So they take forever to come and help us out of the hole. Unable to restart the car. In this moment of panic, we made a bad manipulation on the dashboard. They push us. Once, twice, three times… The road was climbing, I thought our Saint Bernards were going to die! But our engine eventually came back to life. In Saint-Bonnet, we lost big when we could have slapped everyone.
Despite everything, you start the last night 1’44” ahead of Swedish team-mate Ove Andersson…
Yes, because the Burzet times have been corrected. Going back down to Monaco, we set the scratch time in Saint-Jean-en-Royans. This gap, some consider it important. Almost final. I know the road is still long. That the final stage can still hold a few twists.
And not least… While the situation seems under control, you take a blow during the second pass at the Turini. Half a century later, the origin of this puncture still remains unexplained?
To me, this is a malicious act. Sure and certain. At La Bollène, on the starting line, less than 30 seconds from the ”top”, we take a blow to the left back. I feel it, I’m sure of it. What happened behind our backs? Mystery… From the first meters, I notice that the tire is deflating. My mistake was not stopping immediately at the bend to the left of the chapel. Afterwards, there are no more spectators to help us change the wheel. At the top of the pass, the addition is already salty. Too late to stop! The descent to Moulinet turns to Calvary. The shredded tire tears off the fender. I think we’re going to blow the transmission. But no! Downstairs, support fixes everything. We find ourselves 3rd at 1’05” from Andersson.
Do you think the carrots are done?
There are three stages left. I have the morale in the socks. But no question of giving up. We go back to the fight. The goal now is to give the maximum, just to have no regrets. On the slopes of the Couillole, I am unleashed and we recover 45 seconds at once. Bis repeated in the last Turini where I go back to the lead for 14 seconds. Our fate therefore depends on the verdict of the Madonna.
A Col de la Madone which acts as a justice of the peace. You set a new record there. Do you remember the exact time?
15’11”! Starting in front of us, Andersson had improved his record: 15’23”. How to imagine that we were going to dethrone him in this way on this narrow, tortuous route, strewn with stones, which usually paralyzed me? On the first pass, in the other direction, I had taken a suitcase! There, I roll to the cleat, without restraint. On the gravel. On the ice. Extreme focus. Absolute determination. We avoid disaster many times over. It was supernatural. I could have moved mountains!
Crossing the finish line, do you feel that it’s won?
No, no hunch. I realize at the stop point, when we are given our time and that of Andersson. That’s when I grabbed “Biche” by the back of the neck to say: “Fantastic!” (tears come to her eyes) Look, fifty years later, emotion overwhelms me in the same way. Winning on the wire, with 26 seconds of margin, after losing more than 5 minutes, it still seems crazy to me!
Do you know what has become of your Alpine?
She flows a peaceful retreat in Corsica. After this victory, I waited a bit before announcing my decision to go to Lancia, naively hoping that Jean Rédélé (the creator of the brand) was going to give it to me. Wasted effort. And two or three years later, our paths crossed again. I almost bought it from a friend who sold it for three bricks (30,000 francs). But it was no longer in its original configuration. She had bulging wings, I didn’t like that.
And the modern Alpine A110, the RGT version racing today, do you like it?
Yes, it’s a fabulous car with which I had the opportunity to do two rallies as an opener four years ago. At the wheel, you have the impression that nothing can happen to you, it is so efficient, comfortable, so it grips the pavement. I really enjoyed myself. Competing in the Monte-Carlo WRC Rally with an A110 RGT must be a great experience. Besides, if someone had offered it to me this year, I would have been tempted…