Just imagine: The eight-cylinder Ford Falcon Sprint, six-cylinder Mercedes 300 SE, Lancia Flavia, MG B, Alpine A108, Citroën DS or Saab 96 Sport stood at the start of the Monte at the time… And against them was a tiny Mini with half the size and one third the power. It was almost as if you arrived among the WRC specials today with a production Fiesta. And they won. Inconceivable!
But the Mini modified by John Cooper had a number of advantages on its side – its pocket-sized dimensions gave it an advantage over the large limousines of its rivals on narrow mountain roads, the 70-horsepower eleven-wheeler managed to move the 70-horsepower eleven easily, its chassis defined for the first time the connection “drives like a go-kart” and the drive of the front wheel brought more confidence on snow and ice during the January race. And also a fearless driver with a friendly passenger…
The crew of Patrick “Paddy” Hopkirk and Henry Liddon started from Minsk (at that time, Monte Carlo was still run as a long-distance rally with a star layout, where the crews started from different cities in Europe and had to reach the finish line in Monte Carlo, where there were still joint special stages waiting for them ) and she built the foundation of her victory in alpine passes. “The Mini wasn’t very good uphill, but absolutely amazing downhill,” recalled Paddy, who also didn’t underestimate the preparation and spent three months training in the Alps to get the schedule right.
The race finally broke down in the penultimate special stage on the fabled (and at the time quite snowy) Col de Turini with its summit at 1,607 meters above sea level, with Hopkirk’s red, white-topped Mini crossing the finish line 17 seconds ahead of Bo Ljunfeldt in a Ford Falcon. In the last stage leading through the streets of Monte Carlo, Paddy kept his lead and at the finish he could celebrate one of the least expected victories in the history of motorsport. A victory that made him, John Cooper and the entire Mini brand famous forever.
His teammates also finished behind him – overall fourth was Timo Mäkinen, seventh was Rauno Aaltonen. Together they then formed a gang that successfully terrorized rivals in every year of the Monte – in 1965 Mäkinen dominated the race (against the second Porsche 904 GTS, which he faced with a boosted 1,275cc engine3) to occupy the first three places in 1966 in the order of Mäkinen, Aaltonen, Hopkirk.
But the French commissioners issued a scandalous decision disqualifying ten (British) cars because of unapproved additional lights. However, the winning (French) Citroën DS of Pauli Toivonen (a Finn living in Paris) also had them – he even refused the victory and did not even come for the cup. The British were upset and did not attend the gala dinner, even Prince Rainier III of Monaco. he left the rally before the awards ceremony, which he usually presented himself. It was just a great shame and everyone knew it very well.
The British threatened to boycott the Monte Carlo Rally, but a year later they came back (probably out of malice) and won again – this time Rauno Aaltonen took the top spot for a change. But the Mini era was inevitably coming to an end, by that time real sports cars (Porsche 911, Renault 8 Gordini, Fulvia HF, Lotus Cortina) started at Monte instead of big, powerful limousines, against which the Mini cars had no such chance.
Nevertheless, their famous victories are remembered even after more than half a century. Alec Issigonis certainly didn’t have race use in mind when developing a small city car with a revolutionary “everything in the front” design. But it is the Mini’s success in rallying and on the track against far stronger, but also bigger and heavier rivals that clearly shows that less is sometimes more and that Colin Chapman’s recipe with “added lightness” is (not only) a far better way for racing than endlessly screwing up performance . After all, this rule still applies today…