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Nearly 20 years since it was last used in the World Rally Championships, the stages in the hills of Arganil return to Rally Portugal this year. Martin Holmes remembers the Arganil of yesteryear, and tales of fire stations, head-on accidents, world famous rissoles, lost children, on-event child births, and a 'light headed' Michele Mouton. * * * * * The little town of Arganil (population just over 12,000) in the central east of Portugal became known internationally in the late ‘90s because of the rally activities in the nearby sierras, but for centuries it had been a centre of special natural heritage for tourists. The hills lying behind the town were a wonderful playground for rally drivers and the roads were as exciting as much for the drivers as for the spectators. Now, towards 20 years since the exhausts of rally cars last reverberated over the hills, the area has come back to life again. Few of the legends of the Rally of Portugal do not centre around the Arganil Hills. Some of the biggest spectator traffic jams in rally history have been recorded there, and some of the sport’s greatest mysteries. Long ago the circumstances behind the apparent jeux des mains behind closed doors in the town, which led ultimately to the exclusion of Tony Fall from the 1969 TAP Rally, were never known. Walter Rohrl’s incredible speed in 1980 when he won the long Arganil stage by nearly four minutes and went on to become World Champion. For years the mystery of the hills was compounded by the organisers, who resolutely refused to issue maps of the roads. This made Arganil an irresistible mystery for foreigners. Before the national geographic authorities issued maps showing the roads in detail, there was only one thing to do - to make your own maps. By working from road books it was surprisingly easy to make diagrammatical plans of the roads, but always the details to access roads were never revealed. No foreigners knew anything about those roads. One day I was able to find out from Luis Sales Grade, then the Clerk of the Course of the event, in an airport lounge the other side of the world. After a long wait for our delayed flight he finally told me where the information was stored. It was the Fire Station. The firemen in Portugal serve as the emergency services in general, they are people who know more about the country than anyone else. Later, Sales Grade realised with horror that he had told a foreigner the secret of Portuguese life. He made me promise one thing. Never, ever, would I approach the fire service in Arganil for help in my work. I must never go near them ... The first time I really came to know Jose Carlos Macedo was one morning in the hills behind Arganil. His Renault Clio Williams came round a bend, in the opposite direction to the rally route, on the wrong side of the road, and hit the Daihatsu four-wheel drive head-on that we were using to make out photo location recce. He was in a hurry to check his pacenotes in the limited time available in the days before the rally. I was impatient because I needed to finish checking my maps of the region. My reaction was to leave him and his co-driver, Miguel Borges, to the wildness of the sierras with their smashed recce car, but eventually we took the crew down to Arganil to find their support crews. We drove the quickest route through the maze of mountain roads back to the town. Macedo then directed me to the place where his crew were waiting. We drove into the imposing courtyard. "It's the fire station. I thought even you would know that," was all he said. Not only had he cost me a lot of time that morning, he had tricked me into breaking my solemn promise to Sales Grade. The fire station has always been the centre of mystery. Things seemed to happen there all the time. Francois Delecour forced the Ford mechanics to work very late one night after an accident in pre-rally testing. At 11 in the evening the mechanics were starting to get tired and asked for food. Everything shuts in Arganil at nine. Eventually an old widow, whose delight in life was to make rissoles, agreed to help. She readily brought the rissoles through the night to the fire station at regular intervals, where the desperate men from Britain were trying to repair the wreckage the French driver had caused! In 1999 I had the chance to meet the man who made Arganil tick. Eduardo Ventura was the ‘Mr Fix-It’ of the town, owner of the hotels and shops, and most importantly, chief of the local Fire Brigade facilities. He was known as 'Commandante'. "In fact, I guess I control most things in the region, not just Arganil itself! I never, however, used to control the convent, but I knew a lot about what went on there," he told me. "One evening Michele Mouton was in town and I guess had too much to drink. She thought it would be good to pray to the town’s patron, Saint Goldrofe, for luck on the rally. She went on to win ..." The convent is now serving as a hotel annexe. One evening I rang Didier Auriol, and he could not wait to tell me he was sleeping in a convent ... We met Ventura at a moment of crisis. An Écureuil (Squirrel) helicopter had just crashed in the hills and he waited to hear, thankfully, that there were no injuries. We asked him if it was true that Lancia had once swapped cars in his fire station courtyard. "I honestly can't say, but it was possible." Wasn't it frightening for the security services to have cars racing over the hills, especially at night? "One day we found a rally car literally impaled, fortunately the right way up, on sharp rocks which had pierced the floor and penetrated up between the crew and was resting with all four wheels off the ground. "The spectators, however, were the biggest worry. Once we found a child which had been left in a spectator's car overnight, because the desperate parents had forgotten where it was parked. "Another lady gave birth when watching the rally. A spectator fell down a 10 metre well, and we could not carry the rescue ropes and ladder there until morning." And the happy memories? "I always like to arrange a football match for the drivers, and Carlos Sainz is always the first to volunteer." Happily Arganil will now be run in daylight. Ventura is not the only celebrity from Arganil. Far wider known than Ventura was the local roads manager, Antonio Pinto dos Santos, who co-ordinated the testing plans for all the WRC teams in the area. In his spare time he was a rally driver, competing on selected WRC events till 2000 at the wheel of a Renault R4. He brought the sense of fun to rally fans round the world, sharing with them the adventurous spirit of Arganil. It won’t be quite the same when the WRC returns to Arganil this year, not the least that many of the roads which helped make such momentous stages in the hills possible have now been asphalted, but the fans have long prayed for the chance to return. For them, Arganil was always a pilgrimage.
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