2001 Liege - Corse Endurance Rally.
After the success of the 1999 Liege-Targa-Liege Endurance Trial, it seemed like a good idea to do the next one and pit man and machine against the organiser Peter Davies, who claimed that the Liege Corse event would be different and very challenging, using the Tour de Corse rally stages on the Corsican mountains.  

Thus the Team Marlin was formed with the Sportster of Mike Plowman/Tony Richards and the Cabrios of Martin Wood/Fen Boudry and Ian White partnered this time by Sarah Rich. Also competing was the Roadster of Dave Smith and Cath Woodman.

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Ian White's car No1 at the Place de Royale start Spa. (Photo - Co-Driver Sarah Rich).

As before, the event was to start from the Place de Royale in Spa on Saturday April 21st. Scrutineering took place during the afternoon, many of the cars having arrived the previous evening determined to get a good nights sleep before the event. During the driver's briefing prior to the off at 8.00pm, Peter tried to explain the difference between the French section and the Corsican stage, this was proving difficult as many people seemed more concerned about setting their stopwatches and wristwatches to the central control timekeeper. It was decided that another driver's briefing would be held on the ferry to explain further the subtle intricacies of the regularities and the 'to-the-second' timing, in the meantime, his words were 'Check into the controls, get to the ferry and check your clocks...this is the easy bit!' 

Leg 1. Sarah and I had drawn Car 1 and so at 8.01pm., with storm clouds gathering, we left Spa for what was to be a very long night. Running at number one we never really knew what was happening behind us but on the other hand, if there was going to be a problem, we'd hit it first! Following us were 49 other cars, ahead of us eight controls before the Le Markstein breakfast halt high in the Alps at around 5.30am, then a further five controls to our overnight hotel in Aix-les-Bains at around 4.00pm on the Sunday. About 20 hours of driving and approx. 1000kms. Easy!  

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Martin Wood's Cabrio with Co-Driver Fen Boudry enjoying Day2 (Photo - Mike Plowman).

 Within 1/2km. of the start we encountered our first route deviation but eagle eyes had spotted a tiny hand written sign and with a quick right and right again past the church entrance we were heading for the Spa Francourchamp circuit and onwards towards the black clouds and dark of the night. We settled into a relaxed pace and arrived at the first control with clock and average speed meter spot on - only to be informed 'You're early' and 'Our clocks are never wrong, they've been tested'.  Mental note here for later and hastily pencilled into the road book margin. Onwards into the night and all was uneventful until control 6 at 3.30am at an Autoroute /Peage Fuel Halt.

Could we find the control? Three other cars joined us in a fruitless search in the pitch black darkness. A group of very bemused French firemen or Pompier walked towards us from a neighbouring station, so with the minutes ticking away, Sarah decided that we had to get proof of our arrival. What was the French for 'Please could you sign our road book?' - no need, the leading fireman was an Englishman serving in the French Fire Service, small world! Then it was off to catch up on time and head into the mountains and the legendary Turckheim Hillclimb course.    

Here we encountered our first snow, patchy at first but steadily getting thicker at every turn as we propelled ourselves up the mountain to a height of 1280 metres (4100ft). With the car sliding from one side to the other and never going in a straight line, we just kept going, scrabbling for grip, not daring to stop for fear of not getting going again but knowing, that thankfully, the breakfast stop must be getting pretty near. Then suddenly we were into virgin snow (this is madness, nobody has been up here!) but we must keep going and maintain full control so as not to fall off the road. 

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Mike Plowmans Sportster with Co-Driver Tony Richards  encounter the first snow. (Photo - SR).

Lights appear behind us and we let the little Liege of Gari and Do Jones go by as we struggle for grip, our wide tyres, in this instance, a distinct disadvantage. The Liege zips round the bend above us - the control should only be some 2kms ahead. We slide around desperate for traction and momentum before gliding gently into a culvert and into deep snow. It is now 5.30 in the morning, we are on a steep mountainside, stuck in knee deep snow and there's not a sound anywhere. A total blanket of eerie silence surrounds us. Our sanity is in question. 

Eventually the Liege reappears with the news that the breakfast halt and Markstein Control are uninhabited, so with their help we attempt to extricate ourselves. Several other cars attempt our road including Mike Plowman who also slides off into the same culvert. We help them out thankful that we both slid off into the culvert as opposed to the steep drop on the other side.  It would have very definitely been 'Au Revoir'.

We congregate back at the junction and as dawn breaks we are joined by a snowplough leading a small group of some eight cars, including the two other Marlins, a couple of Caterhams, and  Mark Fisher's Fury . The snow plough drives off along another road with the comment 'You English are mad, all the roads are closed'. We are left to find our own way off the mountain and get back on route. Depending on how much time each individual crew had lost was a deciding factor about which controls could be made. We at number 1 had lost the most, so decided to miss one control and Sarah navigated us to Franco Sbarro's Museum at Pontarlier for a welcome break (albeit only 15 minutes) at this incredible automotive extravaganza. We hit the road again to reel off more miles on spectacular mountain roads before eventually arriving at our overnight hotel at Aix-les-Bains, for a well-earned rest after more than twenty hours non-stop motoring.

Leg 2. Monday morning greeted us with torrential rain and at 8.01am as we drove out of the start control, a marshal's car was returning to inform the crews that the famous Mont Revard rally stage was snowbound and we should find our own way to the next control. A hasty map reading session while negotiating the delights of the city rush hour, soon saw us heading south towards better weather, across the Mont Vercors plateau to Mont Ventoux and up onto the oldest hill climb in Europe. Opened in 1902 but only re-opened last year after a 25 year break, it is 21kms long, way, way up in the mountain. As we ascended this magnificent road we first hit snow and then dense fog.

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Ian White with waving Co-Driver Sarah Rich speeding along in the Cabrio. (Photo - MP)

Earlier we had been caught by the flying Steve Blair in his TVR Cerbera but he didn't like the fog, particularly with two-way traffic and we caught up with him again just before the control at which we were told that the road down the other side was ice-bound and too dangerous to use. We therefore returned part-way down the mountain, against our own rally traffic and eventually we found ourselves in brilliant spring sunshine, driving on straight roads to Marseille.  

As all the cars gathered on the dockside ready to board the luxurious overnight ferry to Bastia, we were able to take stock. A few cars had been caught speeding and on-the-spot fines had been paid. There had been two overnight accidents in the fog and snow but thankfully although the cars had been severely damaged, the crews were with us to tell the tale. All the Marlins had performed brilliantly  despite the fact that Mike Plowman had to hot-wire the ignition of his Sportster after the switch had caught fire. Further repairs were carried out in the boarding channel to ensure that there would be no further dramas in Corsica.

Leg 3. Corsica welcomed us with dazzling sunshine and after the cars had lined up on the quay, another drivers briefing was held to outline the Corsican Challenge, particularly the regularity sections, which would be timed to the second at an average speed of 50kph plus timed passage controls, so there would be no blasting off and pulling over for the odd nap! We were handed a sheet of paper detailing the penalty points but it was only later that we fully understood how these were going to be incorporated into the overall result.

At 9.01am, with clock checked (again!), calculator ready and trip at zero, Sarah and I were off out of Bastia heading for the start of the first regularity test only to be confronted by a petrol tanker and a tour bus doing their best to delay us on the twisting narrow road. From then on we realised that to keep on schedule would require a real team effort, some fast motoring, constant time monitoring and nerves of steel.

Corsica is basically a great big mountain range with incredible gorges and spectacular rock formations. Around and through all this wonderful scenery, are these narrow, twisting roads which are often hewn out of the sheer cliff face. They make for a multitude of hairpin turns and frightening drops - just perfect for some exciting motoring  and pushing a driver's skill to the limit. Most Corsicans gave way on seeing us, but not all and some enthusiasts even tried to join in as we journeyed through their villages. The hazards of snow and fog were replaced by livestock. They grazed on the roadside and observed our progress with the disdain we surely deserved. Dogs did not even raise their heads from their slumbers as we passed and cattle would meander in front of us, goats and sheep would jump off the hillside into our path - all totally unaware of our time constraints.   

The first day's route took us around the northern finger of the Island and across the centre to Ajaccio and to our hotel at Porticcio. The hotel complex, designed more for the 'complete-package holidaymaker' would now be our base for the next three days. It's main attribute being the very welcome enclosed carpark where crews could work on their cars if need be.   

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Ian and Sarah on a sunny mountain pass.
(Photo - MP)

The next three days were more of the same as we traversed Corsica and scaled every mountain possible. The calculator and stopwatch were working overtime as we mastered the regularity sections and expletives appeared in the road book when marshals were non-existent and off-plot. Particularly on one occasion when a marshal was found on the wrong road and facing the wrong way, which cost us dear as we put him right and got ourselves back on course and on time - this is, once again, the price of being Car 1. 

Day two saw the demise of Team Marlin with the Sportster (Mike Plowman/Tony Richards) breaking its gearbox and retiring at the lunch halt, (Mike later reported that the food and wine was excellent!). The remaining three Marlins were still performing gallantly, proving the touring capabilities of the chassis with the pounding they were taking on the mountain roads.

During our four days in Corsica, we covered eleven regularity sections and six special tests which consisted of timed laps on two go-kart circuits, driving through control gates and round hazards, plus driver/co-driver matching times up and down the mountain passes. On one of these Sarah was delayed by a mixer pouring concrete for a wall. As seconds and then minutes ticked by, the chances of matching my up-time were looking more and more remote. It just shows that chance plays a big part on the open road. We just hoped that the penalty points we were notching -up along with several other cars stuck behind us - would be looked at favourably by the scrutineers at the end of each day.

On the final day, shortened, because of the return ferry trip, disaster nearly overtook us, when having progressed some 12kms. into the Col de Verde regularity, the road disappeared under a recent landslide. We had no option but 'about-turn' and retrace our steps, trying to warn others on their way up. On returning to the last control, Steve Blair, who had followed us down, pulls up and says he thinks our O/S/R tyre is going down. It's a critical time - as number one, we do not have the luxury of any spare time for such things as tyre changes. With cars going in all directions trying to find the best possible routes to get them to the next control and to meet their designated times, we change the wheel and head off once more. There is no alternative way over the mountain so it was a case of committing ourselves to a round detour of at least 100kms. Although we only missed one time control, that was enough for us to register a 'miss' and we amassed more vital penalty points. 

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Martin and Fen cross the finish line at Porticcio. 
(Photo - SR)

However, we managed to reach the next with literally seconds to spare. Many of the other cars - knowing that time was against them that afternoon - decided to be content with a 'Finish' and enjoyed a (very rare) leisurely lunch before setting off for the hotel. Our failure cost us dear, as it turned out, but at least we were back on route and on our way to the finish where some very weary crews assembled before forming a cavalcade through Ajaccio to the ferry. 

The prize giving took place on the ferry back to Marseille, where Cath and Dave in their Roadster received a Gold Award and a prize for 2nd overall. Martin and Fen, Sarah and I got Silver Awards (the puncture just dropping us out of Gold). Still, an improvement on the 1999 Liege-Targa-Liege. Next time, perhaps??

Overall the event was a huge success, some broken machinery, naturally, but despite one or two accidents there were no really serious injuries and yes, there were some organisational hiccups, but the challenge and competition was everything Peter Davies said it would be. We met lots of new people, rekindled old friendships and had one hell of a lot of laughs. We marvelled at the guts and determination of both drivers and cars. We came across stunning scenery, incredible ever-changing weather, and some spectacular roads.

What more could one ask for?

Report - Ian White.
Photos - Sarah Rich (SR) and Mike Plowman (MP).