Rauno Aaltonen (FI) was driving the 1960s version when he was greeted at the end of the Rallye Monte Carlo Historique in the early hours of the 2nd February by Kris Meeke (GB) and Dani Sordo (ES), the drivers who will revive the brand's rallying tradition this year.
For Meeke and Sordo this was a stop on what is a busy schedule leading up to the first appearance of the Mini WRC on selected FIA World Rally Championship events in 2011, prior to a full assault on the championship in 2012.
Before the first event they will head to Spain to put their new test car through its paces.
Also in Monte Carlo to greet Aaltonen was another famous Mini driver, Paddy Hopkirk from Northern Ireland. He won the Monte Carlo Rally in 1964. Remembering that time he said: "It is very interesting to be here and I was delighted to see Rauno looking so well and the car looking so good. It is great to see it all being revived. When we won it was front page news and I even got a telegram from the Beatles and the Prime Minister. I was given the keys to Belfast! I do admire the talents of these guys. Kris (Meeke) took me around the Prodrive test track in the Mini WRC and it was absolutely fantastic."
Meanwhile, Aaltonen, who won the 1967 Monte Carlo Rally in a works Mini, covered 4101km on the historic rally that took him and his co-driver, Helmut Artacker, from the start in Marrakech on the 26th January to Monaco's harbor for the finish in the early hours of the 2nd February.
"It took us a long time to get here but it was a good trip. In the old days, a Mini in rallying was rather uncomfortable, but in this Mini we had modern shock absorbers so it was comfortable after 4000km and I am not tired at all. There was snow in places and we did not have the appropriate tires, so lost over a hundred places. It was really busy on this last leg because we were really fighting hard but it was a great atmosphere," Aaltonen said.
As is customary for the Monte Carlo Rally, the historic cars traveled to Monte Carlo for the special stages from five different cities. The Mini team started from Marrakech, giving them more than 2600km to cover simply to reach the start line in Monte Carlo.
"The atmosphere was very cordial and friendly, both with the locals in Morocco, the organizers and among the competitors," said Aaltonen.
From Morocco, they were given a police escort through some of the towns as the route took the team to Algeciras in Spain and on to Alicante. That marked the beginning of a 30-hour stage via Barcelona and the Pyrenees to the Maritime Alps, and on to Monte Carlo. A warm reception greeted the cars in front of Barcelona cathedral, before they continued up into the mountains. "We had no idea that a minor version of hell was lying in wait," recalled Aaltonen. The Pyrenees welcomed the competitors with heavy snow and the first runners had to wave the white flag in the face of steep climbs and the slippery road surface. The Mini also required some serious persuasion to stay on route. "It didn't really matter which pedal I pressed," sighed Aaltonen, describing driving in the snow. However, the wintry weather was mercifully shortlived and the drivers were clear for the night run to Monte Carlo.
All was quiet at Quai Albert I when the Mini team arrived, but it was a rather different scene the following day. The classic cars stood door-to-door along the Monaco waterfront, the first time they had lined up together during the event. Teams had travelled from Reims, Warsaw, Barcelona and Glasgow to join the Marrakech starters, making a field of 328 cars in total.
On the itinerary the next day was the opening loop around Valence. Approaching the first special stage, the participants were interested to see snow draped over oncoming cars. Indeed, more than 10cm of the white stuff had settled on the tight and twisty roads. As the team had yet to fit any spikes on the car, they were unable to reach the target average speed for the stage. "We had zero traction and a drop of several hundred meters to the side of us," explained Aaltonen. "So we decided to make sure both we and the car made it through in one piece and didn't push too hard."
The next day the weather was fine and dry, which came as some relief, since the loop around Valence is famous - infamous, even - for its constant succession of corners. "It's just bend after bend, and no straight sections; there's no need to get the steering wheel dead-centre at all," said Aaltonen of the 350km route over the hills around Valence.
And there was more of the same for the drivers and co-drivers on the final day over the return leg to Monte Carlo. By that time, many minds had already turned to the night start in Monaco, and the climb up to the Col de Turini. Here, there's always a chance the rules might hold a few surprises, as Mini drivers have discovered in the past. And it's easy to see why this final section of the rally has also become known as the "Night of the Long Knives".
"A lot of things look much the same as in the 1960s," reflected the 1967 Monte winner. But this event does do some things rather differently: "Then it was all about top speed. In the Monte Historique regularity is the key, although the required 50km/h is very difficult to achieve on some sections." There have also been one or two changes when it comes to the materials used by the teams - in terms of both quality and quantity. "Up to the mid-1960s there was no limit on spikes, and I had as many as 600 spikes on a tire," explained Aaltonen. "Plus, we had 1200 tires ready and waiting on rims for our three competition cars."
So what inspires somebody who has already won the Monte to return again over 30 years on? "It's an honor for me to congratulate the Monte Carlo Rally on its centenary. And there's always a special excitement around the place when it's rally time. That comes not only from the cars, but also from the contrast of glamorous Monte Carlo and the natural beauty of its surroundings."