“It’s a difficult rally; one of the toughest,” explains Alex Fiorio his Italian accent characteristically elongating each vowel.
With the updated Maserati Ghibli S at our disposal – now boasting 430hp – he implores that we treat tomorrow’s planned test route with the utmost respect.
Like a frequent flyer listening to yet another safety briefing, we might be forgiven if his words were to slip in one ear and out the other but they don’t. Instead, we’re hanging on the Italian’s every word.
“The sinuous ribbons of tarmac that litter this region don’t suffer fools”
Fiorio’s experience behind the wheel has earned him my unwavering attention. The son of Lancia’s famed WRC team boss, he was a regular podium finisher in the late Eighties driving a succession of independently-run Lancia Delta Integrales. Cool? You bet.
We’re in Monaco and the Italian knows full well that the sinuous ribbons of tarmac that litter this region (and regularly act as a battleground for the principality’s world-famous rally) don’t suffer fools.
“I never won here,” he adds with a wry smile, just as we’re about to retire to bed for the evening.
The next morning, the planned route (starting outside the famous Casino de Monte-Carlo) takes us west towards Nice before heading up into the hills for a compelling run over the Col de l’Ecre. There’s even a coffee stop thrown in at Gourdon for those who haven’t had their adrenaline output boosted enough.
As an introduction to the thrills that the region’s roads can provide (complete with tortuously twisting ascents, ice-covered descents and even a whole flock of sheep crossing the road) it’s perfect. Fiorio’s warning the night before certainly wasn’t unwarranted…
However, by midday we’re relaxing in the idyllic Mediterranean enclave of Cap d’Ail, our insatiable appetite for Alpine roads still unsatisfied.
While undoubtedly entertaining – the Col de l’Ecre is like a post-hangover espresso – the drive was a mere tasting menu; what we’re really after is the full three-course meal.
WHAT TO DO
Prince Rainier III’s Car Collection
When you’re done wandering around the grand prix circuit or soaking up the Meditarranean rays, hang a left at Rascasse and head up to the Monaco Top Cars Collection, a museum featuring an eclectic selection of all things automotive from the late Prince Rainier III’s collection.
Monaco is no stranger to various Ferraris or F1 cars but the regularly-rotated display of cars also mixes in some intriguing oddities from an early corregated-body Citroen 2CV to a 1950s Austin London taxi and a smattering of wood-clad Americana.
Amazingly the entry fee is just €6, making it cheaper than a pint of Coke in most Monegasque eateries. That’s pretty good value in our books.
ACTIVATING PLAN B
We have a plan though, the seed of which was planted yesterday while ogling the various Group B rally cars housed inside the Prince of Monaco’s Car Collection and that truly flowered during Fiorio’s little chat of past rallying heroics last night.
The Col de Turini. Sound familiar? It is to the Monte Carlo Rally what the Alpe d’Huez is to the Tour de France. An iconic, unrelenting ribbon of Alpine tarmac where legends are made, titles won and lost.
While Maserati may not have an history littered with rallying successes, it’s FCA stablemates Fiat and Lancia certainly do. This tenuous link is enough to seal the deal. We need to test the new Ghibli S on the Turini.
“Where we’re heading the myriad of assisted drive functions aren’t going to matter”
Wafting through the labyrinthine streets and alleys of Monte Carlo, Maserati’s updated sports saloon, especially in the new Gran Lusso trim, feels totally in its element.
Sophisticated and elegant without being ostentatious the ‘little’ Mazzer passes through the principality almost undetected while still gaining admiring glances from those in the know. It’s almost like the automotive equivalent of a Mulberry handbag.
On the quick run up the A8, it’s clear the 2018 Ghibli’s suspension is more adept at soaking up cracks the of the French autoroute than its predecessor.
The addition of new autonomous tech – such as active lane keeping – doesn’t feel as polished (Maserati’s German rivals certainly have it covered on that front) but, where we’re heading the myriad of assisted drive functions aren’t going to matter.
A LEGENDARY INTRODUCTION
50 minutes after leaving Monaco we’re finally in Sospel. At 15 degrees Celsius the temperature is barely cooler than on the Riviera coastline. A further 1,300 metres above us though, conditions are bound to be colder atop the col.
Cold enough for the snow and ice that have made this road such an infamous (and integral) part of the Rally Monte Carlo? There’s only one way to find out.
After a few deep breaths – Fiorio’s advice to not the cut the corners too harshly in case of punctures still ringing in our ears – we switch the Ghibli S into sport mode and lock the gearbox into manual. This will be an extreme test for both Italian sports saloon (hardly a lightweight at over 1,800kg) and the nut behind the wheel.
The Maserati certainly shows its size as we begin the famous stage proper on the outskirts of Sospel. Winding through the residential remnants, the D2566 feels especially narrow here (and those gorgeous 20-inch alloys especially precious).
A quick high-speed section through La Torracca is punctuated by a couple of sharper kinks, keeping us on our toes but, fresh out the box, the Maserati is merely warming up.
Sheltered by a thick canopy of trees, the road down here feels less alpine than we expected, the verdant foliage blocking out most of the available sunlight and, with it, any potential taster of the mountains in the distance.
This changes at Chapelle Sainte-Madeleine where, after a high-speed section allows the Ghibli S to show off its extra 20hp, the view opens up as we begin the section through the Gorge du Piaon. The road feels fairly flat still but, every so often, we’re treated to a tantalising glimpse of rocky peaks in the distance.
Almost completely out of sight from the driver’s seat, the road is now lined by a two-foot tall perforated stone wall. Would it stop a near-two-tonne Maserati from falling into the gorge below if we overcook things? It’s probably best not to find out…
These first five kilometres have barely tested the Ghibli though. Relatively fast and flowing, it has been in its element along the bottom of the valley. A knuckle-clenchingly fast, multi-apex left-hander quickly changes that.
Suddenly the soft slope that had bordered the route to our left is replaced with a jagged rock face, often overhanging into the narrowed road, ready to snatch off a wing mirror or worse.
It’s proper rally stage stuff from now on, with a relentless succession of sweeps leading into the Turini’s first batch of famous hairpins, a quartet of switchbacks that neatly corkscrew up the lush green hillside.
“The Maserati’s wood-lined steering wheel is rarely kept straight. The road bucks this way and that”
Model: Maserati Ghibli S Gran Lusso
Price: From £66,520
Engine: 3.0-litre twin turbo petrol
Power: 430hp @ 5,500rpm
Transmission: Seven-speed automatic
0-62mph: 5.0 seconds
Top speed: 177mph
Economy: 29mpg (combined)
On sale: Now
Perhaps the newly introduced Q4 version would make sense on the world’s most famous rally stage but the traction from the ‘standard’ rear-wheel drive Ghibli S is still mightily impressive, slingshotting us up the mountainside voraciously to the next hairpin and then the next.
Time it right on the throttle though and you can still overcome the slight lag in the 3.0-litre twin turbo V6, kicking out the tail gently. Not that we actually did that. We’re much too serious. Honest.
From here, there’s no let up all the way to the Notre-Dame de la Menour, the small chapel tucked away into the hillside a further five kilometres up the road.
It’s classic Col de Turini. The Maserati’s wood-lined steering wheel (a nice nod to the elegant Modena icons of the Fifties) is rarely kept straight. Now lined by craggy grey and red rocks, the road – quickly becoming a rough patchwork quilt of different aged tarmac – bucks this way and that, punctuated by a brief sojourn through a small forested section.
Aided by the incessant upward angle of the road, the Ghibli S can hunker into each corner and, if we keep our inputs smooth on the entry to each curve, the whole car can stay relatively neutral.
The ascent is helping the brakes with their workload too, gravity assisting in scrubbing off some of the speed before each hairpin.
By the time we leave the relative respite of Moulinet, we’ve tackled 13 hairpins. The next 12 kilometres to the summit will require us to conquer another dozen. Oh, and then there’s even more on the descent to La Bollène-Vésubie.
North of Moulinet, the Route de Turini returns to its fast and flowing roots. However, unlike the valley floor, the trees that line the road up here sit inside that perilous perforated stone wall!
Oh, and to sharpen our wits even more, we’ve just spotted our first sign warning of ice. Maybe a 430hp rear-wheel drive super saloon with a Latin heart wasn’t the best idea…
Thoughts of an icy ending will have to wait though. A 100-degree left suddenly leads us into the first of the Turini’s rock tunnels.
With the windows wound up, the Ghibli (even in hotter ‘S’ trim) has never been particularly vocal from the cabin. Unfortunately, the 2018 update has seemingly done little to improve the aural spectacle from the driver’s seat.
However, tackle the Turini with the windows down and it’s a whole other story. Exposed to the elements, the V6 howl is bouncing off the mountainside, doing a more than passable impression of the Lancia Stratos that dominated ‘The Monte’ in the mid Seventies (albeit one muffled by two turbochargers).
Flamboyantly flicking the gearbox down through the gears on the oversized aluminium paddles is accompanied by a glorious staccato crackle.
With no one else venturing out onto the Turini this afternoon, the sound can, no doubt, be heard for miles. We bet no one is complaining.
Towards the summit, the landscape changes as quickly as road’s character. Raw rock faces, dense forests, perfectly-uniform hairpins lined with remote buildings. The Turini is throwing everything it’s got at the Ghibli S but, dynamically it’s holding up with style.
Sure, it’s no featherweight hot hatch rally replica but, play gently with the steering and the saloon feels perfectly pliable through the majority of switchbacks, the impressive damping helping to keep the chassis in check over the ever-changing surface.
WHERE TO STAY
There are few places that channel the old school glamour of Monaco in its mid-20th Century heyday as effortlessly and effectively as the Hotel Hermitage. It is one of the establishments to stay at during a trip to the world-famous principality and it’s not hard to see why.
From the impressively intricate glass dome above the breakfast atrium to the classically-styled suites, the Hermitage makes you feel like a superstar. There’s even a Michelin-starred restaurant – Le Vistmar – housed inside the grounds.
Make sure you opt for a harbour-view room to really make the most of the Hermitage’s stunning location just around the corner from Casino Square.
Prices run from €229 in the late winter to €949 in peak season. For more information head to Hotel Hermitage’s website here.
GHOSTS OF THE TURINI
Sprinting in and out of the upper slope’s forest, we’re now into the 20s on the hairpin count and these final few batches feel particularly perilous on approach.
The view out the windscreen alternates between tree tops or rocky peaks depending on our bearing up the mountain. On occasion, all we can see before reach the apex is a road disappearing into an empty sky.
Our earlier exuberance tempered slightly, the brakes are getting a thorough work out now. Maserati probably didn’t intend for 1,800kg of Ghibli to be sprinted flat-out up the Turini.
With little warning, the trees suddenly give way as we roll through a 90-degree right. We’ve peaked. Literally.
Parking up by the chequered flag painted across the road, we take a quick breather and soak in the atmosphere. Apart from a solitary Fiat Uno, the summit of the Col de Turini is deserted.
Without the blast of airhorns and crackle of approaching rally cars, it’s an ethereal atmosphere, as if we’ve just walked into Old Trafford and no one’s home. You can almost feel the ghosts of Turini heroes past.
There are chills down our spine and it’s not just the temperature (which is now barely above freezing).
This is just the halfway marker though. La Bollène-Vésubie at the mountain’s north-western base is calling. It’s time to fire up the Quattro. Er, sorry, we mean the Ghibli.
THE FULL MONTE
“50. Square left over crest. Adverse camber.” Maybe we’re getting too into this but we’re beginning to imagine the co-driver’s calls in our ear as we sprint off the summit to a wall of V6 noise, revving right out to the 6,500rpm redline.
We’re quickly brought back to earth however by the sweeping rollercoaster of turns that leads down to the Pra d’Alart section.
“The Mediterranean blue contrasts beautifully with the grey rock and the late autumn leaves”
On the way up, gravity had been our friend. Now we’re in a constant battle to control the Ghibli S’s heft as we slither down the col. We’re having to be smoother than ever with our inputs at the wheel to avoid the front end from washing out.
Accompanied by a glorious vista across the mountain range though, the Pra d’Alart is a joy. After levelling out beyond the first hairpins, the Ghibli shows that it can still hustle in the right conditions, the shrill Stratos-esque howl ringing out through another rock tunnel.
Faced with the evening sun, the colours here seem even more vivid too; the Mediterranean blue contrasts beautifully with the grey rock and the late autumn leaves.
Upon our arrival in La Bollène-Vésubie, we’re breathless once again. The descent has taken all our skill and pushed the Maserati Ghibli’s limits but, while it’s not quite perfect, its shown deeper reserves of dynamic skill than we expected.
What’s more, there’s just enough time before we’re due back in Monaco for dinner to do it all again. And, when we get back into the principality’s traffic jams, the loveable Maserati will feel just as at home. There aren’t too many cars that can be said for.