Entertainment: Women on the allure of the Rallye des Princesses

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Women on the allure of the Rallye des Princesses

The concept reads like a dream: five days spent driving classic cars from Paris to Southern France, stopping off along the way for leisurely lunches and nights in four- and five-star hotels.

As motorsport experiences go, the Rallye des Princesses Richard Mille is a world apart — an all-female motorsport event aimed at providing entrants with a luxury experience in addition to an automotive adventure with breathtaking views.

Some 90 women will take part in the six-day race starting Saturday in Paris and will travel some 1,000 miles of meandering roads in France and northern Spain, before crossing the finish line in Biarritz on the Atlantic coast of France.

The first Rallye des Princesses in 2000 even included actual royalty: It counted among its entrants Princess Helene of Yugoslavia. She competed again in 2002 and 2006.

The rally’s appeal extends beyond European royalty, and many of the 180 entrants this year are simply women who are passionate about cars and racing. Anne Sampeur of France, who first took part in 2014, came across the event by accident, when she stumbled across the start of the race in Paris.

“I discovered the Rallye des Princesses while strolling Place Vendôme with friends about 10 years ago,” Sampeur recalled. “At the time, we had an HMC — an Austin-Healey replica — but my husband didn’t want to lend me his car. When I was ready to register, we bought a silver gray 1979 convertible Beetle.”

Since 2014, Sampeur has entered the rally with friends and family, and in 2017 competed alongside her 14-year-old daughter, Matisse, who served as navigator. The pair entered a navy blue 1979 Alfa Romeo Spider 1600. “It was great,” Sampeur said.

While the vintage cars add to the glamour, open-top vehicles running at an average of 25 to 30 mph along glorious country roads, the drive is often not smooth because of the age of the vehicles.

“We place a particular premium on comfort, as the performance involved in driving a vintage car for 350 kilometers per day on country roads is one that ought to be paired with a well-earned rest,” said Viviane Zaniroli, the founder of the event.

That well-earned rest includes spa treatments, luxury hotels, Champagne receptions and fine dining every evening, with a party at the finish line to round off the adventure.

One regular participant is Coralie Chehab of Switzerland, entering her fifth Rallye des Princesses this year. Chehab is passionate about the event. “So many anecdotes, so many crazy laughs, so many memories to tell. Rallye des Princesses is not just a rally, it’s a vacation with 200 friends and cars.”

The Rallye des Princesses is open only to vintage cars — those registered before 1989 — split into groups roughly by decade. Some entrants own the cars, while others borrow from friends or drive cars furnished by sponsors.

Chehab shares “an amazing 1967 gray convertible Mercedes-Benz 250SL Pagoda” with her co-driver and friend Gaëlle Wacziarg. The car is provided by a sponsor.

“This beauty is definitely part of our team; she even has a name now — we call her Titine,” Chehab said. “Driving this car is a real pleasure, even though she is 50 years old. She is very comfortable and super easy to drive. A dream for this kind of rally.”

Chehab entered the rally at the urging of Wacziarg, who returned from her first event full of enthusiasm.

“I always had an interest in cars and always loved driving, but never thought I could participate in something so exceptional as the Rallye des Princesses,” Chehab said. “In the end, it didn’t take much to convince me to take part in this great adventure.”

One of the advantages of driving a loaner vehicle at a rally is that maintenance is taken care of by the car’s owner.

“We are pretty lucky with Titine; we never had serious mechanical problems,” Chebab said. “She is very well maintained by our sponsor — he always makes a check before and after every rally.

“The car suffers a lot during the week, with the changes of temperature — Paris during the spring is not always sunny, while in the South of France the weather is already warm — and I think the worst for the Pagoda is when the road book takes us into the mountains,” she said about the route map. “She is a heavy car and not really made for climbing.”

Sampeur struggled in 2015, breaking the clutch on her 1968 MGC at the end of the first day.

“With the help of the MG club, I managed to find a garage to repair it with a clutch disc for an old car — 47 years old! So we didn’t run one day and took 7,000 penalty points,” she said.

“On Tuesday, the hose was drilled. We saw the problem before departing for a regularity trial. We parked the car, and with rags and Scotch tape we fixed it to keep it going until lunch, where the great team of mechanics repaired it with real tools.

“On Wednesday, the reverse gear decided to collapse, so we couldn’t make U-turns — to park the car we needed the help of mechanics to push us. And to finish the rally, before arriving in Saint-Tropez, our rearview mirror fell off. We laughed for a long time.”

Making her Rallye des Princesses debut this year is Susan Fesmire of Texas, who will be driving a 1970 Triumph convertible.

“This is my first RDP, but I suspect not my last, and this may all sound over the top, but I have had more fun getting ready for this event than anything I have ever done,” she said.

“I first learned about the rally from a friend of mine in 2014. Her adventure sounded so glamorous and challenging,” she said.

“Over the next two years I thought of the race often. I frequently checked the race website and Googled images from past races. I was fascinated by the idea of a race for nonracers, the gorgeous French countryside, sleek historic cars and chateaus all with your best girlfriend. When I pored over Rallye pictures, they showed beautiful women of all ages, from all countries, who seemed not unlike me. They looked amazing, but also real.

“The idea of participating stayed in the back of my mind,” Fesmire said. “Then one Sunday morning in August 2016, I was looking at the Rallye website and decided that I was going to do it,” she said. “All I had to do was convince my best friend to go with me.”

“That Sunday morning was over a year and a half ago, and the allure of the race has not waned for Suzanne or me,” she said of her friend and co-driver Suzanne Swaner, also of Texas. “The 19th Rallye des Princesses has given us almost two years of planning, strategizing and daydreaming about six amazing days spent behind the wheel of a gorgeous red convertible, laughing with my best friend while participating in the most glamorous all-women car rally in the world. It just doesn’t get any better.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

KATE WALKER © 2018 The New York Times

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