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Best thing since Napoleon

Birthplace of the French emperor, the Mediterranean isle of Corsica now boasts a slightly inhuman rally that can break the best of drivers

To the breed of motorist that takes part in international rallies, the most rugged in all Europe is the Tour of Corsica. Others are more famous, longer or slightly more dangerous in catastrophic weather, but for car-breaking torture in a concentrated patch nothing else equals the "rally of 10,000 curves." The tour lasts 23 hours, covers close to 820 miles and contains not 10,000 but 17,000 separate and distinct curves. Included among them is the blind, rock-bordered bend coming up in the picture at left.

The art of programming a bang-up (phrase used advisedly) rally consists of setting an average speed that is slightly higher than it is humanly possible to maintain. In Corsica the magic number is about 35 mph, which seems low but is in fact a very enterprising rate of speed that few drivers ever approach. (On Argentina's easier course this week rally cars averaged 80 mph, much slower than the 150 mph attained by racing cars. Yet three drivers were killed on the first day.) This means that when the 1963 Tour of Corsica begins this weekend there will be few tenderfeet among the entrants. In 1961 two comely Sarah Lawrence graduates showed up with a friend's Ferrari and gained a certain distinction by scouting the route by taxi. This was not wholly quixotic; professionals commonly use "donkey" cars for preliminary tests. The Sarah Lawrence girls chickened before the start, however, possibly because wrecked Ferraris are expensive items to explain away.

Customarily, fewer than one-third of the 90 or so tour cars manage to finish. A glance at the picture indicates why: a narrow, ill-defined, twisting road with a treacherous, gravelly surface, bordered on one side by unresilient rocks and trees and on the other by a chasm. Actually, this is not a bad road by Corsican standards. From here the route goes up into sketchy mountain trails better suited to the mouflon, those elusive, wild local sheep that sometimes forget to look before they cross the road.

Still, no one has been killed or even badly injured in a Corsica rally, although last year Olivier Gendebien, the Belgian Grand Prix driver, and two Corsicans neglected to swerve when the road did and all three toppled down a ravine, miraculously without serious injury. Some 600 of the island's gendarmes keep the public—if not the sheep—off the rally roads, and doctors, nurses, ambulances, wreckers and fire trucks are dispersed along the route, ready for immediate rescue work.

Native Corsicans are extravagantly proud of fellow islanders who compete. They leave their lemon and olive groves on rally day and select viewing spots in the maquis—the lowland brush of myrtle, honeysuckle and rosemary—or in the upland chestnut and oak forests. "Here comes a Corsican," one will say. "That one is a Continental," another will call. How do they distinguish? "When you hear the brakes screeching you can be sure it is a Continental. Corsicans don't use the brakes." And they frequently win the tour because of their damn-the-obstacles brio.

To the uninstructed, such events as the tour may seem to be mere demolition derbies put on to satisfy the appetites of madcap drivers. On the contrary, they are serious tests of cars and drivers in which Europe's foremost automakers strive vigorously to excel. The public believes, and rightly so, that the car winning a tour possesses strength and stamina. Organizers just as rightly believe that a rally can put a place on the map. "This rally," said one competitor, "is the best thing that has happened to Corsica since Napoleon." Reported another: "You mean it is the only thing."