Opinion: Does the Azores boast rallying’s most spectacular view?
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but there’s a lot to see when the European Rally Championship visits a small rock in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, as Charles Bradley discovered.
This brings a new meaning to the phrase ‘margin for error’: 10 paces from the turn-in point to sheer oblivion – somewhere you don’t want to get it wrong.
A downhill left-hander following a crest on the fabled Sete Cidades stage of the Azores Rally, and below – way, way below – is the water-filled crater of a dormant volcano.
Take a look for yourself at the drop…
The steep sides of this basin were formed millions of years ago, part of the process of the Azores’s nine islands rising from the mid-Atlantic – then a sea of fury.
We’re on Sao Miguel, the biggest of the archipelago, and that greeny-blue body of water is the Lake of the Seven Cities.
Not that you’ll find much metropolis here.
A long rally history
The Azores has hosted rallying for the past 51 years, and while its humble beginnings produced a local winner Luis Toste in his Fiat 1500, the event has since been won by the likes of WRC stars Juha Kankkunen, Markko Martin, Bruno Thiry and Kris Meeke.
It’s a firm favourite of drivers in the FIA’s European Rally Championship, which was relaunched a couple of years ago out of the ashes of the Intercontinental Rally Challenge.
My chauffeur for last weekend was series sporting manager Jean-Pierre Nicolas, a former WRC ace and Monte Carlo Rally winner.
Although his driving career ended over 20 years ago (he’s 71 now), he’s lost none of his skills as we ‘make progress’ through the stages in a Nissan 4x4 hire car.
We begin on Sete Cidades, and what catches your attention – as well as the sheer drops that are sometimes on each side of you – is how narrow these gravel roads are.
Today, they’re used by sightseers and cow-herders alike (there are more cows than people on Sao Miguel, and the farmers travel in horse-drawn carts to milk them remotely), so we pick our way carefully.
After a section that local drivers recently took court action to have banned from the rally on safety grounds, we enter the stage proper.
As you can see from the photos, the elevation is incredible, as the road meanders from the very edge of the volcano, down to the valley, and back to the top on several occasions.
But it’s the run across the rim of the crater that truly has the wow factor.
“For me, nothing is so beautiful than this view,” says Nicolas as we take in the vista. “It is so surprising when you first see it. It’s a special landscape, and for the helicopter shots on Eurosport, it’s amazing.”
Until you’re enveloped in fog and can’t see it, that is – another ‘feature’ of this event. The Azores might sound exotic, but it’s location two-hours flying time due West of Lisbon, Portugal, means it’s prone to Atlantic weather systems.
“For me, it was a big surprise when I first came here,” adds Nicolas. “I was expecting sun and sand – completely the opposite! It’s a very natural place, very green and beautiful. Very far from the idea you’d have if you’d never visited here.”
A pattern quickly emerges: In the valley, it’s sunny, up the mountain, the clouds roll in – like going from spring to winter within seconds.
“Exhilarating!” beams Jean-Pierre, as we press on through some wide-open sweepers between the clouds. Telemetry shows the ERC contenders are sometimes north of 80mph along these gravel trackways… What was I saying about ‘margin for error?’
I recall Kris Meeke’s co-driver Paul Nagle returning from a recce run on a particularly miserable day with some great logic: “We couldn’t see a thing in front for the fog, it was useless, but at least we couldn’t see how big the drops were at the sides!”
The island might be small, but its longer stages are a decent length at over 20kms each.
Variety of topography
And it’s not just ‘the volcano stage’ that proves a stern test. We tackle the opening day’s stages just ahead of the ‘zero’ car – with the roads closed and the spectators (all immaculately behaved, I’m pleased to report) getting into position.
After a couple of quickfire farmland stages, the one that really grabs the attention is Vila Franca Sao Bras, which includes a blast through a forest lined by pink flora. It’s a truly stunning piece of real estate this island, even without rally cars roaring through it.
The locals turn out in droves, right from the ‘city stage’ on the evening before the rally proper starts – and the purpose-built superspecial at the bottom of a quarry.
“They know very well how to organise this event, it’s one of the best-organised places we visit,” says Nicolas. “They know what they are doing, and it makes it a very special place.
“The roads are narrow, but sometimes quite fast but the surface is very good, quite grippy despite all the rain they have.”
Add to that the fine local cuisine – those cows produce plenty of cheese and steaks, and there’s an ocean full of fish (there’s also great whale- and dolphin-watching opportunities here).
It even boasts the only tea plantation in Europe, and you can also eat a local stew that’s cooked by the geothermal energy under the surface.
It’s no wonder the ERC’s Jean-Baptiste Ley inked another three years on its deal with Francisco Coelho, the Chairman of the Organising Committee, over the weekend.
The volcano might be dormant, but there’s still tons of energy going here.
Just don’t stand too close to any edges…
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