AutoClassics on the Rallye des Princesses – in a very quick 911!

It’s the world’s best-known women-only classic car rally – and as we found out en route to Biarritz via the Pyrenees, it’s highly competitive and seriously good fun

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‘Bloody hell, we can’t drive through that!’ I panicked, slowing the 1979 911 to a standstill as the rain-drenched road disappeared under water in front of us. ‘That flood must be a foot deep, and I can’t even see where the tarmac reappears. Oh, and this car isn’t ours, either…’

‘We don’t have much choice,’ bellowed my navigator Gillian over the cacophony of howling wind, beating rain and frantic wipers. ‘That’s the direction the road book is sending us. Besides, this storm is so bad, any alternative route will be equally flooded. Look, that Triumph TR3 ahead seems to be getting through – and it’s about half our size... Go for it!’

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Feeling like I was piloting the world’s first-ever amphi-Porsche, I gripped the steering wheel, pressed the accelerator pedal, slipped the clutch like a madwoman to keep up the revs, and cautiously entered the torrent.

As the 911 steadily powered through the muddy, turbulent water for 100 metres or more, creating a formidable bow wave that surged into the surrounding fields, I held my breath with concentration. I was waiting for the engine’s falter of doom, yet the trusty Porsche barely missed a beat.

After what seemed like an eternity we emerged safely on the other side, sighing with relief and vowing to head straight to the hotel bar for a stiff drink should we ever reach Toulouse at the end of our long first day on the Rallye des Princesses Richard Mille. After all, being entrusted to drive someone else’s rally-prepped 911 SC 1100km through France and Spain is quite a responsibility, and the last thing we wanted was to return it with a waterlogged motor.

Wet, wet, wet

Fighting biblical storms that were wreaking havoc across the region, Gillian and I were in the midst of the wettest-ever Rallye des Princesses. As guests of the motor sport event’s chief sponsor, the high-end watch brand Richard Mille, we’d joined the 19th annual running of the six-day, all-female epic only that morning.

By then our fellow competitors had already been on the road for two days, having started out in Paris with more than 1700km of hard driving, navigation and regularity zones in front of them. En route, the 90-car Rallye would stop off overnight in the Loire Valley, Vichy – where we joined in – Toulouse, and Formigal high in the Spanish Pyrenees, before finishing in Biarritz on France’s Basque coast.

It was in the parc ferme, located in Vichy’s 18th century Parc des Sources, that Gillian and I had been introduced to ‘our’ Porsche – a professionally prepped 911, with 230bhp and extensively uprated components all round. The blue beauty promised – and delivered – some serious behind-the-wheel thrills.

The Rallye’s other participants were fielding equally impressive classics, dating from immediately post-war to 1989. From Ferraris, Jaguars and Alfa Romeos, to Austin-Healeys, Mustangs and Mini Coopers, the extensive line-up featured machinery for all tastes and purposes.

My personal favourite was a huge 1957 Pontiac Star Chief, whose crew received a special award in the final reckoning for having the sheer balls to pilot the enormous barge through some of the steepest, sharpest hairpins the Pyrenees could throw at it (and negotiate the odd MASSIVE cow!).

Serious competition

Inspired by the legendary Paris-Saint Raphaël Women’s Race, which took place from 1929 to 1974, Rallye des Princesses is organised by Zaniroli Classic Events, the same internationally renowned family-run specialist that managed the Paris-Dakar for many years. It is consequently run to highly professional standards.

Complete with detailed daily road books, hi-tech navigation kit plus experienced marshals and crew, and incorporating challenging legs on everything from tolled autoroutes to demanding mountain passes, this glamorous regularity rally is anything but a leisurely jaunt through the countryside. The goal of this style of event is to stay as close as possible to a quoted average speed while covering a set distance along a scheduled itinerary.

Gillian and I were one of only two Brit teams this year – the other patriotically driving a 1951 Bristol 401 – with the majority of the ‘Princesses’ coming from across Europe as well as America, Burma and Japan. Among the sisters, friends, mothers, daughters and partners were a lot of highly experienced and seriously competitive ladies, many of whom return to the Rallye year after year.

Despite Gillian and I both being long-time classic car owners and fairly familiar with road rallies, neither of us are experts at such activities nor unduly hungry for victory – as was proven when we got lost in Vichy town centre immediately after leaving the start line. We’d had only 10 minutes before our allotted departure time to familiarise ourselves with the 911’s driving controls, trip meter and nav gear, so this didn’t bode well – but we soon found our bearings and got stuck into the day’s 482km, 11-hour route.

Tales from the road

We knew from the beginning that we’d never be in the running for prizes. Frequent stops for photographic purposes negated any accuracy in the regularity zones (we were ‘editorial professionals’ on a work assignment, after all!), while my penchant for planting my right foot on the floor just to hear the 911’s glorious howl meant the concept of average speeds went out the window. It’s fair to say we were utterly outclassed – but boy, did we have a ball!

Driving hundreds of kilometres through unfamiliar territory takes a lot of focus and concentration, especially when you’re following complicated tulip diagrams in detailed road books, distributed daily only half an hour before kick-off.

On an event such as this, each day’s driving involves early rises, that brief window to familiarise yourself with the route, and precise start times dictated by the previous day’s results. On the road, the numerous timed sections kept us on our toes – but of course the main aim was to have fun, and we did!

The route took in spectacular roads through quaint towns and remote villages, as well as a staggering breadth of terrain and awe-inspiring backdrops – especially as we climbed into the Pyrenees, at heights of 2100 metres or more. There had clearly been plenty of event pre-publicity, if the smiling, waving reception we all received in even the smallest hamlet was anything to go by. In England, people would have been reaching for the phone to complain to the local council…

As we passed through gorges, forests and glaciers, contending with yet more deluges, floods, landslides and branch-strewn roads, the challenging conditions underlined once again that the Rallye was anything but a metaphorical walk in the park. We rounded one particularly damp hairpin to be confronted by the shocking sight of a 1970 911 Targa hanging over a precipice, prevented from dropping into the void below only by a fortuitously placed tree trunk around which the Porsche was now wrapped.

The understandably stunned crew, who had managed to clamber out and were standing in safety several metres further on, were thankfully unharmed – but this, along with two further accidents that day, highlighted the potential risk to both (wo)man and machine.

Once we were ensconced in our hotel each evening, proceedings kicked off with a bilingual debrief. Here, the organisers revealed the latest standings, taking into consideration all points (and penalties) awarded that day. Cheers and laughter further buoyed the friendly atmosphere, true camaraderie overshadowing the day’s competitiveness as the Princesses showed genuine delight in and encouragement for their fellow crews.

Then there are the other things that make the Rallye des Princesses so special: the luxury hotels, glorious cuisine, delightful lunch stops, chic cocktail soirees, extravagant gala dinners, thoughtful gifts, extraordinary organisation and sheer attention to detail. There’s a reason why ‘The Princesses’ is so-called, because every one of its participants is made to feel like royalty.

In contrast to our soggy previous few days on the road, the final route from the Formigal ski resort high in the mountains down to Biarritz on the Atlantic coast was accompanied by simply spectacular weather. The blinding sunlight and blue skies showed off the majestic Pyrenean peaks in all their jaw-dropping splendour.

The competitors’ grand arrival in La Cité de l’Océan was accompanied by all the trappings of a major motor sport event: cheering crowds, podium-style finish line, celebratory glasses of bubbly, participants’ trophies, hugs, kisses and triumphant smiles all round. Gillian and I were exhausted, and while we couldn’t quite believe that both we and our unfailing 911 were still in one piece, the sense of accomplishment was overwhelming.

I’m sure that was nothing compared with how the drivers of the winning 1965 AC Cobra must have felt – but regardless of final placings, we all had ample opportunity to celebrate at the fabulous gala dinner and awards ceremony held later that evening at the resort’s sumptuous Château d’Arcangues.

Whether it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience or an annual treat, the Rallye des Princesses is a very special event. Ladies, clear your diaries for the 2019 edition – and start saving your pennies now…

Things to remember, more about the Porsche and why do we need a female-only rally? Read on below...

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Things to remember for future rallies

  • Regularity events are pretty technical. Must gen up on the rules for next time…
  • Take a pee at every opportunity; even if it’s in a hedge. The Rallye’s press-on nature and precise timings sometimes necessitate swift visits to temporary pit-stops with a distinct lack of facilities. No airs and graces for the Princesses!
  • A good night’s sleep is imperative; hectic schedules and sheer distances driven leave little time for relaxation or contemplation during the day.
  • If you’re gonna get a navigator, choose a good one; Gillian was superb. Organised, unflappable and big on initiative, she steered us around countless diversions, roadworks, route blockages, floods and herds of sheep – and never once commented on my ‘enthusiastic’ driving around Pyrenean hairpin bends with sheer drops to one side (usually hers!).

  • Five-point harnesses, rally seats and roll cage are not convenient when it comes to effective rearward vision or negotiating Péage tollbooths. Nor are they conducive to making a graceful cabin exit.
  • Dressing for the occasion is very much de rigueur. Many of the Rallye des Princesses crews were sporting superbly chic matching regalia – much of it involving the colour pink, the overriding theme of the brand itself.
  • Some people are VERY serious about winning. Honking, tailgating and other surprisingly pushy antics appear to be par for the course if one competitor considers another to be getting in their way.
  • The world of collecting watches makes my classic-car buying habits look positively restrained. The sponsor kindly (and rather trustingly) gave me a Richard Mille watch to wear for the duration of the Rallye.

The Porsche

Fellow competitor and Rallye regular Stéphanie Frasson-Botton told me she was very familiar with our 1979 911 SC. The car was originally built and prepped by Porsche specialist David Sevieri for their own company Le Garage in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, and she had driven it on a previous running of the Rallye des Princesses.

The SC, which was kindly on loan from its private owner, featured a 230bhp 3.0-litre engine, hi-po injection set-up, sports exhaust, 915 five-speed gearbox and limited-slip differential, plus uprated suspension and braking systems. Inside, it had sports seats, harnesses, a six-point roll cage, integral fire-extinguisher system plus professional rally nav and regularity kit.

David and his colleagues were on hand during the Rallye to take care of the 911, and both they and the car did us proud. It was a simply stunning machine. As a (admittedly small-time) collector of classic American iron, I'm used to driving a very different kind of automobile altogether – but suffice to say, I now also want a 911. In my dreams...

So, why a female-only event?

Well, why not? Women love, own and drive historic cars too, y’know!

Classics and historic motor sport are undeniably masculine hobbies; you only need to study the target demographic of AutoClassics to see that (more than 90 percent male, since you ask). Consequently, while the countless classic car events staged around the world may not be explicitly men only, most have an overwhelmingly ‘boys’ club’ slant.

I speak from experience. I can talk final-drive ratios, sprockets and carburettors with the best of them, but of all the events I’ve ever attended with my own classic cars or motorcycles, I’ve generally been one of very few women drivers or riders. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve been asked ‘Is this your dad’s/boyfriend’s/husband’s/milkman’s motor?’ (delete where applicable), or looked on with incredulity while my (male) significant other in the passenger seat is quizzed about the year or engine size of said vehicle.

It’s all rather predictable, and somewhat wearing – which is why it was rare and refreshing to immerse myself in an event with fellow petrolheads entirely of my own gender.

The irony that I should take part in my first-ever all-female rally in a borrowed car hasn’t escaped me, but I reckon I’ve earned my stripes over three decades of classic ownership – and I like to think I’ll be tackling my next Rallye des Princesses Richard Mille in one of my own vehicles, like many of the ladies in this 'best of 2018' video:

In the meantime, rest assured that the event’s uniquely female style, camaraderie and, yes, competitiveness are further proof that women are just as serious about their passion for motor sport and driving classics as are their male counterparts – and they should be taken every bit as seriously.

Find out more about the Rallye des Princesses Richard Mille here.

Photography: Gillian Carmoodie, Sarah Bradley, Alex Tharreau, R Bord and Jules Langeard

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