A view from the driving seat in the Rallye des Princesses
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I am in the front seat of a high-performance 1965 Porsche 356 – a car valued at over €100,000 – circling a lonely roundabout in a small medieval town near Quiry-le-Sec in northern France. We are on day one of the Rallye des Princesses, an all-female, five-day classic car rally that this year is being run along the Côte d’Opale, from Paris to La Baule through Normandy and Brittany. And we are a little bit lost.
Now in its 21st edition, the Rallye des Princesses takes its cue from the groundbreaking Paris-Saint Raphaël Féminin that ran from 1929 to 1974. It conjures the spirit of some of the sport’s most trailblazing female drivers, such as Baroness Hélène van Zuylen, wife of the president of the Automobile Club de France, who participated in the 1901 Paris-Berlin road race; Pat Moss, sister of the Formula One legend Sir Stirling Moss; and Caroline Bugatti, granddaughter of the founder of Bugatti automobiles, who won the Rallye in a 1937 Type 35B.
Today the Rallye de Princesses is less aristocratic and clubby: my other fellows include a lawyer and psychologist who are racing for charity, an air steward, the owner of a supercar dealership and an entrepreneur who is selling her commercial pest control business for an impressive sum. Participants range in age from the 77-year-old Jacqueline, on her 15th Rallye des Princesses and driving a 1982 Porsche 911 Targa, to the 23-year-old first-timer Evgenia in a Mercedes-Benz 190 SL 1959.
Cars entering the rally must date from between 1946 to 1985: all 78 vehicles convened last month at Paris’s Place Vendôme for a “scrutineering”. Spectators admired the bullet-like shapes and low-slung rockets, gathering around car #1, a 1958 BMW 507 that’s valued at around $2.5mn, a 1985 Ferrari 308 GTB Quattrovalvole and a 1955 Porsche 550 Spyder. But just like the mix of participants, it’s not only about the crème de la crème: there was also a 1957 Pontiac Super Chief, a boat-like honker in electric blue, the ultra-sweet and miniature 1969 Fiat 500 and 1974 Innocenti Mini Cooper, and no less than four Triumph TR models from the 1960s and 1970s.
Staged on the open roads for some 300km per day, the Rallye des Princesses is not a speed rally but a regularity one, where average speeds and times must be respected (in this case speeds between 40-50km/h, depending on your vehicle’s age). There are double penalty points for driving too fast versus too slow. “You go quick, you lose,” Amanda Mille, brand and partnerships director at Richard Mille, the rally’s title sponsor, says during our training session.
Heike Blümner, a writer from Berlin, and I are driving a Porsche 356 supplied by Richard Mille. We set off from Place Vendôme, Heike the driver and I the navigator – or pilot and co-pilot in rally speak – and roles that we keep up throughout. In a classic car rally, Google Maps and Waze are banned, replaced by the 191-page road book – plus a stopwatch and GPS Tripmaster – where specific kilometres and road markers become navigation points. The co-pilot plays a crucial role – some say even more than the driver – and it’s vital to remain in sync with each other to succeed.
Two hours into the race, on a dirt road tucked away in a lush forest somewhere between the majestic Château de Chantilly and the half-timber houses of Carville, Heike and I realise something is amiss with our fuel gauge – at once showing half full, a bump later jumping to empty. Leaving that morning, caught up in the buzz of the start, classic cars revving their engines, fuelling up was the last thing on our minds.
You don’t have to be au fait with automobile mechanics to participate in the rally – indeed some 10 per cent of the cars are rented. The rally’s €8,300 entrance fee covers breakdown assistance (as well as daily luggage transport, by the way). That offers some peace of mind as we make a pact to remember to religiously top up the tank twice a day.
The first day – a 302km drive from Paris to the resort town of Le Touquet – should mean a total of six hours and 38 minutes of driving time. The day is spent traversing endless wheat fields and zipping through medieval towns and farming hamlets. As the signs for speed limits and zigzags give way to those for pony and golf clubs, we know Le Touquet is close. By the time we join the rest of the cars at the Marché Couvert, 10 hours later, Heike and I are in a right state: dishevelled and sweaty (there is no air conditioning in a 1965 Porsche), petrol-fume dizzy, Heike’s back aching and me zonked from clocking 223 (yes, really) navigation checkpoints. It was a look that defined our arrivals for the coming days: exhausted but exhilarated, shattered but having a blast.
Each race day culminates in a dinner and debrief, where the rankings are posted (we were in 71st place) and the day’s winner given a prize. But mainly the evenings are a time to gather, the rally’s convivial spirit palpable: on the second night, for example, all 156 women belt out “Happy Birthday” for a participant’s 40th, while on the first evening, a team is praised for helping another when their car caught fire at the petrol station (“That could have been us,” I say to Heike).
The next morning we are determined to improve our ranking. If day one was about getting to grips with driving a vintage Porsche and navigation-by-road book, the second day is about strategy.
“The rally is not a promenade,” says Amanda Mille – and cars are subject to two kinds of tests during the race. Liaison is an overall time check at departures and arrivals, while the more rigorous ZR (zone regularity) measures time to the minute, sometimes seconds, and arrivals are kept secret and clocked by GPS. We travel super-narrow country lanes where wildflowers whip into our windows, me yelling directions at Heike while watching the clock and telling her whether she is late or ahead. As a watch journalist, after years writing about the art of timekeeping, navigation, precision and speed, only now – as a rally co-pilot – am I truly living it.
At around 5.30pm we arrive in Deauville, beloved by Paris’s beau monde for its casino, polo matches and 2km of beach; and where, in 1913, Coco Chanel opened her first fashion boutique on rue Gontaut-Biron.
The third day is Heike’s last, and we’re somewhat emotional after spending some 25 hours together in such close (and often hot) quarters. There’s no time to chat on a car rally – it’s eyes on the road at all times. But the shared experience of competition and teamwork forge a bond. We complete the day’s stages with precision (ish) while relishing the rally’s special moments: grumbling when stuck behind a tractor, honking hello at picture-snapping retirees in foldable picnic chairs, a little girl sitting in her miniature toy car, perplexed by the vehicles from a bygone era bombing past.
On our last day, with Heike off to Naples on her next assignment, I feel rather lost without my wingwoman, and use the day to take the Porsche for a spin. Driving it is physically exerting, with all the stomping on the clutch and gearshift yanking (I can see why the handle snapped off a few times with Heike), and the need for extra muscle to make up for the lack of power steering – all of which really underscores that this is proper motorsport. “New cars are no fun to drive by comparison,” Viviane Zaniroli, founder of the Rallye des Princesses, tells me in La Baule. I ask her if the title of the rally now seems outmoded. “Princess is about choyer,” or pampering, she explains. “It’s about escape from daily life – without the job, husband, children. Sport and elegance is the rally’s spirit. It’s difficult to drive a classic car and I want every woman to leave here and say, ‘I’m proud of me.’”
That certainly resonated. And the rally is seriously fun. Immersed in nature, high on adventure and sport and surrounded by like-minded women, I felt as if I were on a glamorous getaway with my besties. Friendships really are forged here; case in point: Carole Gratzmuller and Elisa Laurent were longtime veterans of the rally, previously winning with other co-pilots, before joining forces to take the trophy in 2019 and again this year – in a 1967 Chevrolet Corvette C2. Or take Heike: we started as complete strangers and left with plans for a Berlin-London house swap.
“There are enough rallies for men,” says Patrick Peter – whose company has now taken over the rally from Zaniroli, and who has been in the business for decades – adding that he prefers a female-only rally. “There are no problems, no egos,” he says. Peter has big plans for the future, hinting at a Rallye des Princesses on other continents. Sign me up, please…
The next Rallye des Princesses will take place from 2 to 8 June 2023; peterauto.fr/en