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FEATURE - PUBLISHED ON FEBRUARY 14TH 2009
WRC: Five of the best stages - #3 Montalcino
Autosport magazine took five rallying aces to their favourite stages in the world that you can drive yourself. Now, autosport.com brings you the video footage from their spellbinding rides, and each driver's account of his exploits. Today, Miki Biasion takes us through Rally Sanremo's Montalcino stage

  By David Evans
 
 

As we power through the pillowed hills of southern Tuscany with dust billowing in our wake, Miki Biasion suddenly recalls the night when a wild boar charged out of the undergrowth to meet its end under his wheels.

"It was right on this bend" he says, as the cappuccino-coloured crenulations of hilltop Sant Angelo in Colle come into view, beyond slopes swept with vineyards.

"Next day, the farmers who live in that house over there roasted the boar and all the rally drivers and mechanics had a fantastic meal with a lot of wine. On what other rally stage would the local people turn an unfortunate accident into a fantastic festeggiamento?"

The year was 1992 and Biasion, driving a Ford Cosworth, was practicing for the Montalcino stage of Rally Sanremo. What he is too modest to point out, is that these festivities undoubtedly came about because Miki was a super-hero to the locals – a mega-star of motorsport, having taken the World Rally Championship in 1988 and again in 1989, the year he became the first driver in history to claim three consecutive Rally Sanremo titles.

It is a curious truth that although driving fast cars has a place in the Italian national psyche alongside fashion, food and amorous adventure, the country has spawned pretty meager bragging rights when it comes to world-beating drivers. In fact, Miki Biasion is the country's only world champion of motorsport in the last half century. It is with this in mind, that I have arranged to meet him on home turf, to find out why he has selected Montalcino as, quite simply, his favourite rally stage anywhere in the world.

"It is normal that my home rally should be extra special to me, but the Montalcino stage is something way beyond that. You see, I chose to be a rally driver, rather than a racer on circuits, because the driving is on real roads through the most stunning landscapes in the world.

"Some of the most spectacular stages are, for example, on the Safari Rally through the African bush in Kenya, or across the pampas in Rally Argentina," Miki explains, referring to just two of the 17 rallies where he was victorious in his career. "But the Montalcino stage is where my heart and soul are to be found".

The stage starts at the Castiglione del Bosco estate (currently being landscaped as a golf course) on a straight stretch of gravel lined with cypresses. Miki opens the throttle of our Focus ST road car, putting it to the test are we stream through the avenue of trees.

The Tuscan sun glints through the windscreen as he enthuses: "This is almost as fast as the Escort Cosworth I used to drive in competition." We crest the brow of a hill which, in rallying days, he used to take at 200kph as the springboard to a 35-metre jump. "…and it handles like a dream."

There are one or two sweeps of asphalt but most of the stage is still unsealed, allowing Miki to demonstrate some of the techniques that propelled him to the top of his sport. For example, at one point we slide sideways, facing slightly away from the turn we are about to take, in a subtle manoeuvre known as a 'Manji drift'.

However, for the most part our drive is smooth and rhythmic as we churn up powdery clouds over loops of well-remembered track. I am struck with a compelling sense of a mysterious chemistry existing between driver and road, which has more to do with raw emotion than adrenaline.

"Ah, this is incredible!…You see, Italians are lovers of cars and lovers of rally driving, and I was competing in the golden age of rally. So maybe you can imagine what it was like when I came round a bend and there were thousands of people in bright clothes lining that stage, waving flags and cheering me on?"

In truth, it is a picture I do find hard to imagine. This corner of Tuscany, an hour's drive south of Siena, feels far flung and forgotten. When my eyes are not on the track or on Miki's hands as they expertly thread the steering wheel, they rove over scenery painted from a bewitchingly beautiful palette. The rolling hills are planted to sunflowers, glossy citrus groves, silvery olive trees and neat rows of vines streaming like tresses of green hair.

Ah the vines, whose fruit – the bold, deep-red Sangiovese grapes – produce Brunello di Montalcino, the exclusive and expensive darling of Italian wines. "If Montalcino is the best rally in the world, Brunello is also the finest wine," claims Miki in such an authoritative tone that it would be hard to contradict him. However, he does declare an interest: "For many years I tested and developed rally cars on the roads around Montalcino with Tiziano Siviero, my co-driver. We became good friends with all the local farmers and one of them sold us a small piece of vineyard, so you could say that we are small-time producers."

At the end of the stage, Miki introduces me to some of his farmer friends when we park in an oak glade alongside the vineyards of Corte Pavone, one of most prestigious estates. We all picnic on crusty bread, locally cured ham, tangy pecorino ewes' milk cheese and glasses of silky, mellow 2001 vintage Brunello. The flavours mirror the enchantment of this spot, where the afternoon sun shimmers through dappled leaves and scents of wild thyme and rosemary waft on the breeze.

"Now you understand why the Montalcino stage has such a special place in my heart," affirms Miki, as we gaze across to the slopes of the region's dominant mountain where golden-hued Montalcino perches on the summit.

In medieval times, the fortified village was a staging point on the pilgrim route to Rome. Nowadays, it is devotees of wine who come here to taste the Brunello in numerous enotecas around the main square and steep cobbled alleys.

Perhaps it was that night when he, fellow drivers and locals went the whole hog with the wild boar road kill that consummated Miki Biasion's passion for this region. Fifteen years later, his favourite rally stage still fills him with a fervour for the full Montalcino.

Look out for Ari Vatanen's favourite stage tomorrow

  FEATURES FROM FEB 12, 2009 - FEB 18, 2009
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Williams: On the comeback trail
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Petter Solberg: Mud, sweat and tears
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WRC: Five of the best stages - #2 Lough Gill
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WRC: Five of the best stages - #3 Montalcino
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WRC: Five of the best stages - #4 Col de Turini
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Dodgy Business: Answers in the offing
By Tony Dodgins
Technical analysis: Testing round up
By Craig Scarborough
The Weekly Grapevine
By Dieter Rencken
Sebastien Buemi: Rookie resolve
By Edd Straw
Time to deliver for Nelson Piquet
By Mark Hughes
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  ABOUT DAVID EVANS
David Evans is the rallies editor of AUTOSPORT. A successful rally driving father ensured an early introduction to motorsport and, fascinated as he was by rallying, the fourth estate was of equal interest. Having read (or at least looked at the pictures) from the age of two, he joined Motoring News in 1996 and later moved to AUTOSPORT in 2002.
Contact David Evans
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