Richard Mille’s 2016 Princess Rally: The Ultimate Road Trip
Seventeen years ago the Rallye des Princesses (which we are going to affectionately refer to as the Princess Rally from here on out) was staged for the first time. Combining elegance, glamour, and performance all in one, it was called to life by Viviane Zaniroli, who continues to run it to this day.
In 2015 Richard Mille joined as the principle sponsor thanks to a chance meeting with Zaniroli at another vintage automobile event earlier in the same year. When the watch company joined, the event was renamed “Rallye des Princesses Richard Mille.”
“[Richard] was immediately fascinated by the notion of a rally that was strictly for women,” Zaniroli said. “The women of today are showing a genuine interest in mechanics, and this is true both of automobiles and watches.”
This incredible road rally from Paris to Saint-Tropez is exclusively for women driving classic and historic cars dating from 1950 to 1991. The drivers and their co-drivers (navigators) compete in a five-day road challenge with regularity tests along the way. The winner isn’t the “fastest,” but the most regular in terms of staying true to the pre-set schedule.
Richard Mille invited both me (ED) and Quill & Pad contributor Nola Martin (NM) on this year’s road trip, which took place May 28 through June 2, 2016. We were given a shiny new BMW press car with which to follow the rally, though we were afforded the occasional experience with a vintage car as Mr. Mille had four of his own vintage beauties running the rally.
Instead of just providing a rundown of the happenings between Paris and St. Tropez – the rally runs 1,600 kilometers through the most scenic parts of France – we’ve decided to chat about it out loud round table style.
NM: The Princess Rally was the road trip of a lifetime! I was a first-timer at a staged rally, and even though I was familiar with rallies and regularity tests, to experience it myself provided complete understanding.
ED: Same here, Nola! And I do really appreciate having had the experience of the regularity tests first-hand as I wasn’t certain about what they were or how they worked before.
NM: The purpose of a regularity test is to challenge the ability to navigate the route while maintaining the requested average speeds per category and road conditions. Having driven several regularity tests now, I know it is not about full-on speed; the regularity tests require focus, communication between the driver and co-pilot, timing, and precision.
ED: And do you remember how confusing some of those regularity routes were to us as inexperienced participants? At times, I thought we were driving right into someone’s backyard!
NM: And the other thing we learned is definitely not to underestimate your co-pilot because making the correct turns is the key to success! If we had been competing, I do not think we would have finished high in the rankings as the scenery and our in-car conversations may have torn us away from the road book once or twice.
ED: All the details are clearly listed in an essential road book, which we got in hand once the driving adventure began, so we were navigating the rally the same way that the vintage cars were doing it – weaving through the breathtaking French landscape, taking in views of alpine lakes and mountain peaks like Mont Blanc on the way to Évian or fields of poppies in the countryside.
NM: And it was just as amazing as it sounds!
The gorgeous route
ED: The Princess Rally began in Paris at Place Vendôme and sped through the Alps and then Provence down to the sunny beaches of Saint-Tropez covering 1,600 km (995 miles) in five stages. It was such a cool adventure to follow the gorgeous classic cars along these windy, sometimes hard-to-drive roads. It was never boring!
NM: The cars we followed included such classics as an Austin Healey 100/4 Le Mans, a Porsche 911 SC, a Jaguar XK120, and many more. The routes included historic rally roads such as Route Napoléon winding through beautiful French landscapes. The women navigate the alpine climbs and narrow country roads with a very detailed road book and pass insanely gorgeous vistas along the way.
ED: While we began our journey at the ski resort of Courcheval, joining the rally two days in, the 90 participating teams from 9 different countries rode north to south following a route that travels through the gorgeous towns of Dijon, Evian, Courcheval, and Pont Royal among others, ending in Saint-Tropez with exquisite stops for lunches and top accommodations along the way.
NM: The rally was exquisitely planned, and the finish in Saint-Tropez with a stay at the luxe, five-star resort La Bastide de Saint-Tropez (more to come on this stunning resort) is a wonderful reward for completing five days of dedicated and at times exhausting driving through various weather conditions.
It was a good thing we were not contenders in the race as the panoramic scenery drew us in, often causing us to miss a turn to pull over to capture a Kodak moment!
Who took part
NM: The crowd was full of fashionable and fabulous women, real princesses, all obviously serious about their cars.
ED: I spotted a French actress, some European blue bloods, heiresses, and other beacons of French-speaking society.
NM: And with 90 historic and classic cars it was no doubt that we would also spot some impressive wheels in the competition! Seeing the Ferrari 328 GTS, Dino Ferrari 246 GTS Spider, and a trio of Porsche 356s that belong to Richard Mille himself and were driven by cherished clients, among many others, in action against such picturesque scenery was noteworthy.
ED: Adding to the beautiful scenery were the glamorous women of the competition often matching the eras of their cars in terms of fashion.
NM: Some of the accessories, especially those of the Richard Mille variety like the RM 07-01, had the perfect, feminine tonneau shape and boasted a lovely blush-color ceramic case.
ED: I was so impressed by how much energy and resources Richard Mille’s company put into the Princess Rally. There were several higher-up company executives along for the ride every day and company PRs from every corner of the world brought key journalists along for the thrilling journey.
I particularly enjoyed meeting Lara Platman, a freelance photographer and journalist specialized in classic cars and female car drivers. Her style of working was so authentic and enjoyable. Did you see her pictorial in Classic Driver, Nola? It is well worth a look.
NM: I was impressed to see this group of competitive and talented women handle the curves of the road and have fun doing it.
ED: When it was time to celebrate the finish at hotspot Stéfano Forever in Saint-Tropez, I couldn’t have clapped louder for the winners!
NM: Yes, agreed! “Historic” winners Marie-Christine Perin and Véronique Morel-Lab drove a 1974 Austin Innocenti, while Servane Gabillon and Chantal Duke Dodonhe won in the “Classic” category in a Catheram this year.
ED: While we only caught part of the rally’s inclement weather from Courcheval, it was evident that the first three days brought less than ideal conditions. The rainy weather and rolling fog created extraordinary challenges through the treacherous hairpin turns and mountain switchbacks, adding elements of exhilaration upon completion of stage 3 in Courcheval.
Do you remember the curve we almost wiped out on ourselves, Nola? (Yes, I was driving!)
NM: (laughs) I must say that even with the sun hidden behind the clouds for part of the first day, for my first experience at the Rallye des Princesses Richard Mille, the striking backdrops and camaraderie was without a doubt more than memorable!
I hope one day to be behind the wheel in true competition myself wearing stylish attire, leather driving gloves on my hands, and perhaps a Richard Mille on my wrist.
ED: I could totally see that!
For more on the Princess Rally, please visit www.zaniroli.com/en/rallye-des-princesses.