Historic rally ace Angelica Fuentes on sensational career

WORDS: JOHNNY TIPLER | PHOTOGRAPHY: PETER BAKER, YOSSELYN RUIZ MORA, JOHNNY TIPLER

Angelica Fuentes-Garcia is the first Mexican woman to have won the Mexican championship as a co-driver in regularity, and the only Mexican woman to have won La Carrera Panamericana outright. Fresh from co-driving a 350SL on the Rallye Monte-Carlo Historique, she talked to Magneto about her career so far.

Rally navigators don’t come much more prolific than Angelica; she’s just done her fourth Monte-Carlo Historique, and looks set to do one of the classic Italian rallies, plus the Chihuahua Express and La Carrera Panamericana in her Mexican homeland, later in the year.

Angelica’s career in motor sport began 39 years ago – and that includes 26 times on La Carrera Panamericana.

“I won it in 2006 with Gabriel Perez in a Ford Crestline sedan,” she says, “and I have various second and third places, with Doug Mockett in the Oldsmobile. When I started, I co-drove for my dad in my first regularity rally, and then when I was 16 I won the championship, so I am also a Mexican champion in regularity as a driver. So, I know exactly what you need to do in a regularity stage. The same year, 1986, I had a booking to co-drive in proper rallies in Mexico as well, so I was doing two championships at the same time. From there my career took off, and then I co-drove for other guys, and I co-drove for my brother and we had a team together, we competed in rallies very successfully. I became Mexican champion in regularity, and I was the only woman to achieve that until two years ago, but I held that record for 30 years. So, I love this sport and I just take every opportunity because I’m just so passionate about it.”

Angelica has driven and co-driven a lot of cars over the years. Her current personal wheels, shared with husband Keith Mainland, include a Mini Sprint and the 1928 Peugeot JAP Lockhart Special, which has seen action at Brooklands. She does have a particular soft spot for one particular model, however.

“Over my career as a co-pilot and driver, I think my favourite car would be the Studebaker (the Raymond Loewy-styled Champion Regal Starliner). I love how aggressive it can be on the road: people don’t realise how fast we are in those cars.”

She’s just stepped away from a Mercedes-Benz 350SL after the recent Monte-Carlo Historique, and I ask if it’s a good car to do that event in, or is it a bit of a ‘long-bonnet’ car?

“I think it is a little bit big; it’s a comfortable car if you want comfort, but the best car to do Monte? You need a smaller car; obviously we had the power because it has a strong engine, but you need a small car that gives you the power to get to where you want to be. I don’t think people realise how difficult the Monte is, because of the roads we’re driving, very narrow roads with a lot of hairpins, with a lot of steep gradients, and negotiating every hairpin costs you about five seconds. And you can have hairpin after hairpin; there are some sections where you might have five hairpins altogether, but then you are too late to catch up 25 seconds: it’s just not possible.

“Trying to catch up, we got two speeding tickets because he was over the limit, and in the Monte that’s the rules and you get fined. We got penalties, too, and we were warned that if we get a third speeding ticket we will be out of the rally. So, there are lots of tricks, and lots of things to deal with on all these regularity stages. Obviously, you have pace notes for regularities, but they don’t tell you what the weather will be like, so you might find snow, ice, gravel, mud; there could be a change of circumstances on every stage, it’s really unpredictable.

“First of all, everybody has to drive through the first night, and this is the first Monte I’ve done out of four in which I have done that. We had so much fog we couldn’t see the road. So, you are against the elements, and you are trying to work as best you can with the car that you have, and sometimes it’s not the best car. And obviously you can’t keep up with the average speed because of all these elements, and also because the car might be a little bit bigger than you thought.”

What does you like about the Monte Historic?

“It’s a fascinating event. I love the Monte-Carlo Historique because of the challenges it brings. For example, as a co-driver you have to have a driver who works with you, not against you, because if he or she doesn’t take it seriously you’re in a completely different role. During a whole regularity stage you might have 40km of regular stage, where you’re totally concentrating for almost 55 minutes and you have to be reading the pace notes and also directing, giving instructions on the junctions, because when you arrive at a lot of junctions you might have five roads to choose from, and you have just a split second to decide, and you have to point and make sure that he takes the right turn. It’s a tough event.”

What’s been the best experience on the Monte so far?

“A big Mercedes coupé is probably not the right car to do the event in. For me, the best experience was with the Sunbeam Tiger. It’s narrow, it’s a V8, and Jeremy Holden was a really good driver. It was the first car I did the Monte in, and as a newbie you learn a lot about the event, because there are a lot of rules that you don’t even know exist. Every year they come up with a new rule!

“I joined the IRDC (International Rally Drivers’ Club), and it’s really nice to be in a club that’s experienced in the event. They all get together, and you find camaraderie at the end of each day. After the Sunbeam Tiger in 2016, I did it with Dan Allven in the Mustang; the Mustang was a lovely car, but it’s definitely not for the Monte. And then I did it with Andy Prill in the Porsche 924, and again maybe it’s a little big for the Monte; and then this time with the Mercedes. So, for me, the best car would be smaller, with a good engine that will give you the revs to be at the speed you need to be, and the time you need to score on the stages.”

Angelica hasn’t had the benefit of a back-up service crew on her Monte forays…

“There’s always a compromise. If you haven’t got a service van following you, then you’ve got to carry spare wheels, all your clothes and everything. Like in my case, with Andy in the 924, and in the Mustang, and with Jeremy in the Tiger, we did the rally on our own, we didn’t have a service crew so we had our luggage in the car. Okay, at Valence you can leave it in your hotel room for three days while you do the Ardèche stages, but then you have to drive to Monte-Carlo. So there are all these other challenges, how you work around all those logistics and carry clothes for seven or eight days when you’re in this rally. And then you have the black-tie dinner in Monaco at the end of it, so you have to have a decent outfit for that night, and that outfit lives in a suitcase for eight days!”

The most challenging stages?

“The stage that was closed this year was stage 12. It was at the end of the day, and we were lucky because we had snow tyres brought from Sweden, and luckily we wore those. But on the transit sections you’re on your own, you don’t have the road book, so you have to learn how to read the bulletins to decide which road you have to take. And we were driving on snow, and if you don’t have a specific snow tyre it can be more challenging than on the regularity. You’re just trying really hard to get to the finish, to reach another checkpoint.

“So that was a frantic stage, because we were driving through a snow storm as well. The wind and the snow that was blowing around were unbelievable; we had ice on the windscreen, and you’re just trying to keep the car on the road around the transit. On the Monday we had a couple of stages that started dry, and then it started raining and then we found it had turned to ice, but it was like rails, like a track, so you needed to be really careful because it could take you off the road.”

You do your own comprehensive recce, especially on La Carrera Panamericana; do you have pace notes on the Monte as well as the road book?

“Some crews buy a set of ice notes from scouts, and that gives them all these snow warnings. Somebody goes ahead and they tell them, “be careful, there is ice and snow”, but we didn’t have that, and I found it really challenging – you’re confident that it’s all dry, and then you’re coming out of a corner and you find ice, and it’s like skating. Every day in the Monte is very different, because we don’t know if it’s going to be okay; it could be dry, but it’s not dry all along, and then on some stages they had a lot of gravel. On really tight corners you could go into the corner and think it’s okay, but you found this gravel. A couple of cars went off there, because it really takes you by surprise. I’m happy that nobody gets hurt, because we are high on the mountains and sometimes the drop-offs are really long.”

How demanding are regularities?

“As simple as it sounds, ‘regularity’ – and Monte-Carlo has all the glamour and everything – it is a challenging event. To be a good co-driver we need to know the basics. I see the new co-drivers with calculators and the latest Brantz trip-meter, and you take away the calculator and they don’t even know how to work out an average speed, they will have no idea. Technology has moved on a lot, but I’m an old-fashioned girl who likes to do everything in her mind; my sums and pencil and paper, that’s good for me!”

And what became of the big Merc?

“On the very last night we were 4km from the end of the regularity with about 32km to the finish, and the water pump broke. There are always racing angels, and this Italian guy stopped and towed us to a safe place; we left the car there, jumped in a service car and he drove us back to Monaco. I’d do it again next year if somebody asks me. I want to go back, and obviously do much better, because I know we can be further ahead.”

In fact, Angelica has already been approached by a female rally team bent on tackling the Monte-Carlo Historique next year. In the halcyon days of greats such as Sheila van Damm, Ann Hall, Pat Moss, Ann Wisdom, Rosemary Smith, Tish Ozanne and Bron Burrell – not forgetting Michelle Mouton – the award they won was called the Ladies’ Cup; there’s a very strong possibility that Angelica Fuentes-Garcia will join them in 2023.

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