It's snow joke at Rallye Monte-Carlo, the opening round of the World Rally Championship
Let it snow
The average World Rally Championship season provides a thorough test of a tyre manufacturer's product range. Each one is fought out on a wide spectrum of different gravel roads – from sun-baked, rocky tracks around the Mediterranean to the sort of slippery, muddy surfaces found in the late British autumn. The asphalt rallies vary a lot too: from the super smooth in Spain to bumpy and broken military proving grounds in Germany.
Perhaps the biggest test though comes right at the start of every season, on the legendary Rallye Monte-Carlo. The conditions found on the roads of the French Alps in January can range from bone-dry asphalt to full snow and ice. Quite often, drivers can encounter such variation within a single stage as they climb up one side of a mountain and then descend down another. The highest point can often (but not always) be the most treacherous – that's why hordes of rally fans venture to the iconic Col de Turini each year to watch their heroes slide across the top of the pass.
It's on Rallye Monte-Carlo where the drivers have the biggest selection of tyre options to choose from. These days, Pirelli provides a regular P Zero asphalt tyre in soft and supersoft compounds, as well as a specially-designed Sottozero snow tyre that can be run either with or without studs.
To be on the right tyre at the right time is critical – entire minutes can be lost by having the wrong rubber for the conditions. Or, even worse, you could be sliding off an icy patch of road and out of the rally. But when there is such variation within a single stage, it is impossible to always be on the right tyre all of the time.
From the special stages to everyday roads
For this reason, the goal for tyre manufacturers on the Monte has always been to provide products that have a wide operating range. The aim is to minimise the time loss through each stage by having a tyre that provides the necessary level of grip on snow and ice but which can also perform well through drier sections.
Over the years, a lot of time and effort has been put into developing such winter tyres – which are usually used on only one round of the world championship every season. But that work has also had benefits for the everyday driver who wants to fit a winter tyre to their road car.
The range of conditions experienced on the Monte can be very similar to that seen on the roads over the average winter – quite often dry, but sometimes with significant ice or snow. On the road, drivers are not searching for every last second and should drive with extra care, but they still want to have maximum grip and safety whatever the conditions. And the development of winter rally tyres designed to get over the Col de Turini as quickly as possible has helped to ensure that. It's no co-incidence that you'll see the name Sottozero both on Pirelli's tyres for the special stages and for the road, when conditions become extreme. And those studded tyres that you see on the road are born as a direct result of the lessons learn from rallying. Because whether in competition or in everyday driving, you always need the right tyres for the right occasion.
When rallying had pit stops
There are plenty of tyres to choose from in Pirelli's rally range, which will soon do battle against the elements in the mountains above Monaco. But in the past, the problem of being on the right tyre that the right time on the Monte was one that the legendary Lancia Martini team got round in the 1980s by introducing a novel Formula 1-style “pit stop” in the stage, going from asphalt tyres to studded tyres.
Lancia first unleashed this tactic on a snowy 1983 Monte Carlo Rally, as a way of getting the two-wheel drive 037 to compete with the four-wheel drive Audi Quattro. After just four kilometres the factory Lancias stopped to change soft rear tarmac tyres for studded ice tyres: all of which had been specially developed for the 037 by Pirelli.
The stop cost around one minute but was reckoned to be just about worth doing, although it was a marginal call. Lancia team supremo Cesare Fiorio was very fond of the tactic though: it created headlines and was completely outside of the box, highlighting the creative approach that Lancia took to its rally campaign.
In the end, the Lancias of Walter Rohrl and Markku Alen finished first and second on the 1983 Monte, defeating the Audi Quattro of Stig Blomqvist (which was third) by nearly five minutes.
The moral of the story? Switching to the right winter tyres when conditions get worse is nothing new. Rally drivers have been doing it for years.