This year, “Rally Professor” Rauno Aaltonen, 79, who won the Monte Carlo Rally in a MINI in 1967, retraced his tracks for its 50th anniversary.

Picture it: Monte Carlo, 1967. One year before, three legendary rally drivers, Timo Mäkinen, Rauno Aaltonen and Paddy Hopkirk, finished first, second and third in the legendary Monte Carlo Rally, the most spectacular and toughest racing competition of its kind. They were all driving MINIs… That’s right, it was a hat-trick for the British brand, an incredible victory because this was also the third year in a row that a MINI had won the legendary race.

Flash back a couple of years earlier: in 1964, the Irish driver Paddy Hopkirk drove a classic MINI to its first overall victory. In 1965, Finnish driver Timo Mäkinen achieved the second overall victory in the classic MINI. For the Finnish driver Aaltonen’s part, he had finished the Monte Carlo Rally as class winner and third in the overall placings in 1963 (returning after his debut in 1962 when, three kilometres before the finishing line, and in second place, he came off the road, turned a somersault and the car went up in flames).

But the sweetness of that remarkable 1966 victory soon turned sour when all three MINIs were disqualified. According to the French race officials, their lights did not comply with the official regulations. It was a decision that drivers and fans alike still find difficult to comprehend.

A classic finish

When Aaltonen lined up for the 1967 race in a classic MINI, he had a point to prove. He was determined to achieve victory. The empathy felt by the race-going spectators for the diminutive racer heightened the mood of the event. When Aaltonen’s BMC Competition Department MINI Cooper S crossed the finishing line as overall winner of the 36th Monte Carlo Rally on 20 January, the cheering was epic. Relief, pride and a certain amount of satisfaction mingled with enthusiasm. An injustice had been corrected, MINI’s name had been cleared and its reputation cemented.

Since then, every time MINI enjoys a racing victory, a little of the spirit of the three-times “Monte” winner is reprised: the triumph of David in the field of high-powered Goliaths. But no event more so than the Rallye Monte-Carlo Historique 2017.

The new edition MINI

This year, 79-year-old Aaltonen celebrated the 50th anniversary of his landmark victory by getting back into the cockpit of a classic MINI and steering the minute British car up and down the steep mountain roads through France’s Maritime Alps, retracing his epic drive to Monaco over a distance of nearly 1,250km.

In 1967, Rauno Aaltonen and his co-driver, Henry Liddon, raced in a Classic MINI with the start number 177, which coincidentally was the same number they were assigned this year, 50 years after their historic victory.

In 1998, the organisers at the Automobile Club de Monaco created a new edition of the legendary race for historic automobiles, usually held about a fortnight after the main event. Only vehicles of the type that were able to line up at the start of the Monte Carlo Rally between 1955 and 1980 are permitted to take part. So, as well as being the 50th anniversary of MINI’s historic Monte victory, it was also the 20th edition of the Historique.

BMW Group Classic sent a special MINI Classic Rallye Team to assist Aaltonen, and prepared the ideal car for the Finnish driver – a MINI Cooper S that had already competed in the Monte Carlo Rally in 1965, and had been completely rebuilt by Swedish company Söderqvist Engineering. Their classic MINI even had the same start number as the winning car in 1967: 177.

Retracing the track

In preparation, the Finnish driver reminded his team why he was nicknamed the “Rally Professor” all those decades ago. Before the race, he surveyed the entire route in a brand new MINI Cooper S Clubman to write a complete “road book”. The memories of the winning drive in 1967 came flooding back with every curve and on each climb. But, nonetheless, he meticulously recorded all the important details about the route.

He also recalled a detail of his 1967 victory that he didn’t tell anyone about until many years later. His fast cornering had almost brought about the same outcome as at his “Monte” debut five years earlier. This was because the Mini Cooper S accidentally took off when the descent down the mountain became too adventurous. The car then crashed through the undergrowth and to the surprise of the crew they suddenly found themselves back on the road again. Aaltonen and his co-driver, Henry Liddon, took a deep breath and drove the car to a successful finish.

No such hi-jinks characterised his 50th anniversary race. These days, the Rallye Monte-Carlo Historique is staged as a reliability rally. This means that low speeds and excessively high speeds can be punished with penalty points. Aaltonen started the race in the class of “Low Average Speed”. This time, they didn’t win, coming 84th out of 275 entries.

One interviewer asked Aaltonen after the race whether he’d be back to race the MINI again. “I hope so, if my health allows,” said the indomitable Finn. “I am perfectly well, and I have tested for and passed the international racing driver’s licence, so I can drive any race car on the racetrack.”

Take a look at Aaltonen’s historical drive here.