Motorsport has been around for as long as there have been more than one car on the road; it didn’t take long for Edwardian ‘chaps’ to figure out that pitting one jalopy against another could produce entertaining results, and the rest, as they say, is history. Not all motorsport undertakings are created equal however, and though the passing of the decades has served to neuter and sanitize a number of the motor racing’s most daunting undertakings, a number of classic throwbacks remain.
Dangerous, grueling and with their roots at the dawn of the 20th century (in most cases), the following ten races, rallies and hillclimbs have lost none of the magic which made them such jaw-dropping undertakings in the first places.
1 – Nurburgring 24 Hours, Germany
The likes of Top Gear have helped make the original Nurburgring, the fearsome Nordschleife, a household name amongst petrolheads of all kinds, and while this upswing in popularity has made turning up for a ‘Touristfahrten’ a busier proposition, it has done nothing to alter the circuit’s fearsome reputation. ‘Have a go heroes’ dominate the Nordschleife most of the time, but once a year the track goes back to its motorsport roots with its most galling fixture, the Nurburgring 24 Hours: a full grid of GT racers, each driven by a squad of professional racers, battling around the clock, through the night and in all weathers. It’s extreme in all senses of the word, and a delightful throwback to a more innocent time
2 – Manx Rally, Isle of Man
The best way of demonstrating the uniqueness of the Manx Rally is to show a bit of onboard footage to someone who couldn’t care otherwise about motorsport of any form. Almost without exception, they will be blow away; the sheer sense of speed, the closeness of the walls, the looming trees and the pace the co-driver must work to, all are utterly mind-blowing. The Manx occupies a very special place within UK rallying and always has done, so much so that it’s probably the one rally every driver wants to win – and long may it continue.
3 – The TT Tourist Trophy, Isle of Man
Well we couldn’t have a list like this without also including the Isle of Man’s most famous contribution to the world of motorsport now, could we? The TT, or the International Isle of Man Tourist Trophy Race to give it its full name, has been going since 1907, a span of time that’s seen both the island and the world change beyond all recognition. Yet despite the power of the bikes taking part and the increasing global hostility towards potentially lethally motorsport undertakings, the TT remains largely unchanged; it’s still an all-our blast around all 37.7miles of the Mountain Course, taking in public roads and all manner of street furniture in the process. Only the truly unhinged may apply.
4 – Paris Dakar Rally, South America
A relative youngster compared to many of the entries here, the Paris Dakar Rally was first held back in 1978, yet has been held in South America for the last decade thanks to security concerns in North and West Africa. An off-road endurance epic of the toughest kind, the Paris Dakar sees competitors tackling as much as 10,000km of desert, scrubland and much else besides, normally in dust-ridden, intolerably hot conditions. Factor in the high chance of getting lost, breaking down or being thrown from the bike/car/lorry, and it’s no wonder that the Paris Dakar boasts one of the most uncompromising reputations in motorsport.
5 – Monaco Grand Prix, Monte Carlo
Nelson Piquet once compared the Monaco Grand Prix as ‘a bit like trying to drive a motorbike around your living room,’ and the triple drivers’ champion was right on the money with the statement. A relic of a by-gone, golden era of Formula One, the Monaco Grand Prix has resisted all attempt to make it better suited to modern cars, crowds and teams (it’s largely the same as it was back in 1929, the date of the first ever race), something which would be all but impossible for any other F1 circuit to achieve. Overtaking is next to impossible and the racing, unless it hammers it down of course, can be processional to the point of dull, but there’s no denying the skill required to thread an F1 car through the barriers at 150mph.
6 – Indy 500
‘The Brickyard’ celebrated its centenary in 2011, a milestone that confirms it as among the most longest lives races in the world. The only remaining piece of infrastructure from the dawn of the 20th century is the thin strip of bricks denoting the start-finish straight, but the ethos (and the challenge) remain the same – controlling a single seater on a steeply banked over at over 200mph! It isn’t for the fainthearted and the challenge the Indy 500 represents has attracted some of the most talented F1 races of them all, including double World Champion Fernando Alonso just last year.
7 – Le Mans 24 Hours, France
It’s telling that many of the finest drivers to have ever graced the Formula One grid, a championship generally regarded as being near the very pinnacle of motorsport, have utterly failed in their quest to win ‘The Greatest Race,’ the Le Mans 24 Hours. See, winning at La Sarthe requires more than mere talent and speed, it requires maturity, patience and mechanical sympathy, the latter not something held in abundance by all ex-F1 drivers. Together with the Monaco Grand Prix and the Indy 500 mentioned above, the Le Mans 24 Hours forms motor racing’s ‘Triple Crown.’
8 – Bathurst 1000, Mount Panorama
Perhaps not as well known as some of the entries on this list but no less demanding, the Bathurst 1000 might well be the most spectacular touring car race on the planet! This is partly down to the nature of the Aussie touring cars themselves (big, unruly and powered by thunderous V8s), partly down to the layout of the circuit. In fact, Mount Panorama pretty much has it all; a series of flat-out straights for slipstreaming, huge variations in altitude thanks to its topography (a full 174m!), and a tight, technical section at the top which sees cars running bumper-to-bumper.
9 – Rally Finland, Finland
Rally Finland, or as it is better known by those with a keen interest in the sport, ‘The Rally of the Thousand Lakes’ is a spectacle quite unlike any other in modern motorsport. Located on the roads criss-crossing the countryside around Jyväskylä, Rally Finland is characterised by flat-out stages liberally dotted with ‘yumps’ and blind crests, which combine to send WRC cars flying through the air at frankly insane speeds. Ouninpohja’s ‘Yellow House’ is a classic case, with Estonia’s Markko Martin having flown his Focus WRC for 187 feet at 106mph back in 2003.
10 – Pikes Peak Hillclimb, Colorado
The world’s biggest and most demanding hillclimb could only be found in the United States, specifically in Colorado – Pikes Peak. Now a fully tarmac’d affair, Pikes Peak reached its apex in the late ’80s, when an influx of recently outlawed Group B refugees turned up on mass! The locals were far from impressed at the prospect and voiced their concerns, but to no avail. The full weight of manufacture ambition was soon brought to bear on Pikes Peak and the records began to tumble, first to Walter Röhrl in the most extreme variant of the Audi S1E2 (10:47.850 in 1987), then to Ari Vatanen in the mighty Peugeot 405 T16 (10:47.220), a run captured in an award winning short film called ‘Climb Dance.’ The record has since fallen further (much, much further since the addition of tarmac since 2011), but none have quite managed to match the magic of those heady Group B days.