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Published: June 19th 2016
Nothing nice about this drive. It’s about driving dangerous roads near the city of Nice – in the south-east of France, near the Italian border and abutting the Mediterranean Sea– an area known as Cote d’Azur
Over the last few days, warming up for today’s rally, we covered part of the Grand Corniche between Nice to Menton. That road constructed under Napoleon featured in at least two great movies; firstly in 1956 when Grace Kelly zoomed around in ‘To catch a Thief’, and later in 1995 in ‘Golden Eye’ when James Bond in some clapped out old Arthur Daley clanger chased a sexy looking Russian fighter pilot who drives a Ferrari. The Grand Corniche road is not for the feint hearted as it continued its notoriety claiming the life of Grace Kelly when her car went over the cliff edge in 1982. Yes, the word Corniche translates as ‘cliff top road”. The road looks down on spectacular Mediterranean seaside towns where the rich, famous and infamous live and play, while their minions work for appearance money.
Today we headed for the hills, to the little town of Sospel to the north of Menton. The road, like
others in this part of the world, is narrow enough to be classed as one lane road, but wide enough in some sections, for the local municipality to authorise a dotted white line down the middle, leaving less than one and a half centimetres either side of the white line. It’s steep. There are houses along this road and restaurants planted on bits of overhanging cliff where the vista is at its best. Most houses in this part of the world were built before the motor car was invented and so many houses do not have what we call a garage or carport. Therefore, resident’s cars are parked on the roadway. Mostly there is no footpath, or if there is one, it’s skinny enough to restrict pedestrian traffic to a single file, or part occupied by a parked car.
Every driver knows of the Monaco Grand Prix. In this part of the world, whenever a car’s ignition is started, the driver treats the exercise as a Grand Prix training drill. Thus by venturing on the street, I have accepted race conditions. Will my six speed, German built turbocharged diesel powered Ford be ready for this?
Off we go.
Straight up a steep hill. I work up through the gears. I am slow. As we climb I glance at the scenery. Cars start following me; motorbikes too. I feel a bit of pressure with them behind me. I find a place where the road widens and pull over to let others pass. In a matter of minutes, we rise 200 meters. Looking up as we round a corner, we sight a viaduct jutting out over the valley; part of a tram line that was built in 1913, now abandoned. My wife is terrified ‘Are we going way up there?’
‘Just wait. Let’s see where this road goes. We can’t turn around until we get to the end.’ I want to get back to concentrating on the drive.
The scenery keeps us gasping. I get a chance to admire even though my eyes are patrolling a circuit from right lower mirror to right upper mirror, across the windscreen at the road surface and observing next hazard, to GPS sketch of the road around the corner, then to video from rear cameras and to left upper mirror and left lower mirror. There is plenty look at; no need for
speed. Yes, the vehicle has two rear cameras and a nice big screen so I can press a V1/V2 button to alternate views. For this drive, I have the screen split to show a wide panorama from Camera 1 and a near vertical view from Camera 2 on whatever is immediately behind me.
Each steep section of road runs for somewhere between 50 and 150 meters, before switching back and forming a zig-zag route up the hill. On those straighter sections between the sharp switchbacks, I can work up from first to maybe third gear, before pulling right back to take the hairpin bend. Of the road’s eighteen kilometres, fifteen are taken up with serpentine formations. Generally, the road is wider at the point where it switches back. As we ascend, the pavement is rougher and narrower.
When cars approach from the other direction, there is often not enough room for both. So both drivers look for a bit of fat road and pull to one side waiting for the other to pass. Little cars can glide by. But bigger vehicles like other motorhomes stop and creep by with barely a gap for a cigarette paper between converging
A traffic sign warns of ‘Lacets’ ahead. A lacet is a switchback. Lacets ahead. What were those other twenty zigs and zags I have been twirling around since the start?
Twisting, turning, climbing. The hairpin bends curl right around. Sometimes more than 180 degrees, maybe 210 degrees as the upper section of road hangs directly above the bit below. The road widens on a curve. I have to take it wide. At one point I was watching a motorcyclist behind me. I saw him close by my side as he passes my left shoulder. Then out of my right eye, another motor scooter zips past on the other side. Let them go. I took three deep breaths. A Peugeot is sitting behind and when the road widens and straightens slightly I slow to ensure he can pass. The Peugeot has plenty of torque and handles it with ease. A well-mannered French driver in a French car waves in acknowledgement.
There are other vehicles behind me as I gain on a Mercedes E-Class in front of me. I relax as someone else now sets the pace. The Mercedes slows to a crawl, then stops suddenly in front of
a house, its door opens and a bag of rubbish is thrown at the base of a garbage bin waiting for collection. The Benz accelerates and disappears around the next bend.
My Ford is now the pace car. A hot looking low-slung Lamborghini Aventador is hovering behind. I have two rear cameras. So I switch the screen to view one broad angle and one pointing down on the back of my vehicle The Lamborghini keeps trying to pass. He has been tailgating so close that I can’t be bothered slowing to let him pass. I can see in camera 2 that his registration is ‘I’ for Italian. That explains the exceedingly bad road behaviour. And my camera view looks right down his near horizontal windscreen, through to his glistening black hair. His oily black hair probably keeps an Arabian oil Sheikh in spare cash. He has Lamborghini with a V12, capable of speeds of over 200 kph and even going uphill here might get from zero to 100kph in less than eight seconds. My vehicle is not a sports SUV, nor is it a sedan. It is, in fact, a 3.5-tonne truck. On its back is a motorhome body.
An ordinary sedan is no wider than 1.8 meters. Our motorhome demands 2.55 meters of the roadway, and a further half meter to accommodate tail swing on corners. It lumbers along. Any street car would easily outpace my Ford Transit Truck in a 100-meter drag race. My truck might reach 60 kph in about 30 seconds on flat ground. But I have an advantage in this race. It’s my size – my width. I take all the road, and on the curves, my tail swing means I have to hog both lanes. This hot headed wog behind me can’t pass, no matter how hard he blows his horn.
Amazingly the Lamborghini drops out of the contest. I see him stopping and then turning into a skinny park in front of a house. I can imagine the reception when he got home. Lamborghini driver’s femme would say, ‘Hey Casanova, I saw you could not beat that French truck up the hill. What’s wrong with you? Maybe you don’t have any balls anymore. I not gonna let you fuck me anymore. Get out the door!’
Now the car immediately behind me is a little Piaggio thing. It’s like a three
wheel, one seat ute. It is pushing hard. This is more like a contest. We are approaching the top. I wind up the engine along a straight and push the gear shift up from second to third and then go for fourth. Not enough revs so I drop back to third. Somehow I missed third. Losing momentum, I try second. It nearly stalls to a stop. I push the lever into first and push the diesel pedal hard. It’s just in time to take on an extra steep gradient on the next bend. I drop beck to second and then part way through the bend have to whack it back to first. The engine roars. I want maximum from the lower gears as I push the pedal until the engine redlines at 5,000 revs. The little Piaggio keeps up.
He tries to pass. I try to move to the side and give him a sporting chance. But his little heart can’t muster enough torque. A few years back, I had a 600 cc Piaggio motor scooter. Maybe this guy has the same motor.
We reach the summit, and he still has not been able to overtake. On the
short descent into the town, I have very tight turns as now I am on the inside of these hairpin bends. I have to swing wide taking the whole road to avoid having to stop and make three point turns. Mostly I let the engine do most of the braking. Poor little Piaggio can’t find a place where the road is wide enough to pass. I gawk briefly at the scenery out the windscreen as we approach a 1900 meter altitude and with less foliage the panoramic mountain vista can easily distract from driving. On several sharp turns, I had to drop back to second gear to slow the vehicle. On one, in particular, the engine roared when I chucked the gearshift into first, and the vehicle shuddered to less than walking pace.
At last, there was a long straight leading into Sospel. The mighty Piaggio was able to utilise all the power of his 600 cc motorbike engine to overtake. His satisfied glance toward me told how he would celebrate tonight.
There were no opportunities to stop to take pictures on the way up.
Some of these pictures are from
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