Richard Mille, the eponymous founder of the Swiss watch brand, has a deep and strong bond with the automotive world, partly because of his vintage race car collection, and partly because of his sponsorship of motor-sports events. One such event is the annual Rallye des Princesses Richard Mille, a five-day, women-only classic-car rally.
“I am a fan of classic cars, and I immediately liked the idea of a rally for women. I met the Rallye’s founder, Viviane Zaniroli, at Rétromobile in Paris in 2015. Three months later, the event was renamed the ‘Rallye des Princesses Richard Mille;’” – Richard Mille.
Women participating in motor-sports is a rarity these days, but prior to World War II, among the pioneers of the sport, women were numerous and accomplished. The first Rallye des Princesses was held in the year 2000 and by the following year had begun to attract sponsorships. It is modelled on the women-only Paris-to-St. Raphaël rally, which ran between 1929 to 1974. The rally is no Sunday drive. Reading the rally Road book, familiarity with the regularity zones, yielding to compulsory checkpoints, and maintaining constant average speeds are just some of the skills the drivers must be familiar with.
This year’s rally began on Sunday, June 3, at Place Vendôme in Paris, and set off in a south-west direction to the finish line at Biarritz, on France’s Basque coast. The grid this year fielded 90 classic cars featuring 180 elegant women, drivers and co-drivers. This year marks the fourth year in a row that Richard Mille has sponsored the event and his commitment to the event was not just financial. He provided four 1963 Porsche 356s, one 911 from 1973, and one 1969 Mercedes Pagode 250sl; making up a total of six cars on the grid.
The rally began before sunrise, and straight on to Route Nationale 20. The course was bathed in summer sunshine which allowed the participants, particularly the debutants, to orient themselves to the various skill sets needed to conquer the rally. These included the first of the regularity zones where participants have to maintain a set average speed. It requires the driver to keep an eye on the timer, on the speedometer, and on the road, while following the precise instructions of the co-driver.
On the second day, the participants found themselves in the Berry, France, known as the home of the acclaimed female French novelist George Sand. The topography of the region is a mix of flatlands and undulating hills. Add to this mix torrential downpour, and you have a recipe proved quite hazardous for the classic sports cars. Most had slow-moving windscreen wipers of dubious effectiveness, the convertibles struggled with flooding, and some vehicles broke down altogether. But thanks to some speedy assistance and the diligent organisers, most were able to reach Vichy, the endpoint for the day.
On the third day, the cars set off on a 482 km journey towards Toulouse. The weather went from bad to worse on the approach to the “Pink City.” The downpour caused landslides forcing the organisers to cancel some regularity challenges as a safety measure. For some teams, these torrents of water transformed their cars into swimming pools and overwhelmed their mechanics.
On the fourth day, the cars made their way to the Pyrenees mountains. Like a cliche, the sun came out to play as the cars crossed onto Spanish soil. The ladies were free to roll down their hoods and put on some sun cream. The drive was as challenging as it was breath-taking through the twists and turns of the high mountain roads. The cars’ mechanics were pushed to their maximum. The teams retired for the night at ski resort town of Formigal.
The final day was a 1,500 km drive to the outskirts of Biarritz, where the princesses and their priceless cars crossed the finish line at the Cité de l’Océan. In front of a crowd numbering in the hundreds, Adeline Paquiers and Héléna Euvrard in their AC Cobra were declared the winners, followed by Marie Périn and Edith Ragot in their MINI Cooper.
“This 19th edition was truly exciting, and the 90 teams that took part certainly weren’t disappointed. The quantity and quality of this year’s participants were impressive and confirms the increasing popularity of the Rallye des Princesses Richard Mille, with 50% of this year’s entrants taking part for the very first time.” – Viviane Zaniroli, the race organizer.
Next year marks the 20th anniversary of the rally and promises to be an emotional one for the founders, the Zaniroli family. It also marks the fifth anniversary of Richard Mille’s unwavering support for this exceptional event.