Rallye des Princesses
Cars & motorsport

A Long and Winding Road: The Women, Weather, and Watches of the 2018 Rallye des Princesses

The Richard Mille-sponsored event brought teams of women drivers to France from around the globe, and Watchonista was there from the race’s start at Place Vendôme in Paris to its ending on the stunning shores of Biarritz.

By Barbara Palumbo

It is not a secret that women are still a minority when it comes to being watch or car collectors, but, being that minority doesn’t mean that women are not taken seriously or that they’re discounted altogether pertaining to their passion about either genre. In theory, being a collector of luxury items means one must be financially sound, and statistically, more and more women are taking on the roles of the breadwinners of their households because of their careers and/or financial stability. In the United States alone, women earn more higher-ranking college degrees than men (57% of Bachelor’s, 60% of Master’s, and 51% of Doctoral) which has aided in women controlling more than half (51%) of the wealth in the country.

With statistics like these, brands that have marketed to men for decades have at last started putting emphasis on their women buyers through new, realistic (and less sexist) ad campaigns, female-friendly events, and dedicated online presences, which – if the economical outlooks are correct – are pretty smart moves on their parts.

But for nineteen years, The all-women car race known as the Rallye des Princesses has welcomed women to be true to themselves and to do so in all of their badassery by getting behind the wheels of vintage automobiles and taking on the hairpin turns, flocks of sheep, and rain-soaked mountainsides of France for nearly a week every summer, and this year, I was lucky enough to be a part of the experience thanks to the race’s primary sponsor, watch brand Richard Mille.

The History – Aristocracy on Wheels

Back in 1929, Count Edme de Rohan-Chabot created a winter automobile event in Saint-Raphaël, France known as the Paris-Saint Raphaël Women's Rally, and while this was the first of its kind in France, it was not the first car race allowing women drivers to participate. The inaugural all-women race included drivers of utmost importance in France, such as members of the aristocracy and nobility. The course across France was driven in five stages and the race ran yearly until its last took place in 1974.

In 1999, as sort of an homage to that initial all-women’s rally, Viviane Zaniroli created a new race linking the Place Vendôme in Paris to the coastline of France. Over the nineteen years that the Rallye des Princesses has taken place, the legs of the race – and the routes, themselves – have changed year-to-year, sometimes (like this year) with legs concluding in Spain before heading back north to the coasts of France.

The Route – From Paris to Spain to the Beaches of Biarritz

The 2018 edition of the Rallye des Princesses Richard Mille started on Saturday, June 2nd in Paris where the newly-shined vintage vehicles – grouped by the decade of their introduction – lined the inimitable circle of Place Vendôme. The festivities of the first day invited the drivers and their family and friends to celebrate the upcoming journey with champagne and rosé wine provided by another of the race’s sponsors, Bertaud Belieu vineyards. But the lineup isn’t just for spectators to grab a quick picture in front of their favorite 60s-era Porsche (though naturally, that is part of the fun of the race). It’s also so that the cars can be inspected, top to bottom, to make sure that each is in the appropriate condition to tackle what would ultimately wind up being grueling weather conditions and challenging terrain.

On Sunday, the 90 teams of vintage vehicle drivers plus members of the press, staff, and VIPs (the latter driving in newer cars) departed Paris for a countryside drive near Guillerval where they began their first of many daily “Regularity Zones,” challenging each team to drive fast when necessary but also to slow down to specific speeds through farmlands, villages, and forests. Morning coffee was given at a stop near Ingrannes and lunch was provided at the elegant 18th century Champvallins castle in Sandillon before the teams headed out for an additional 140 km journey to Beauval Zoo Park in the Loire Valley.

Monday’s schedule took the competitive Princesses (and company) through Levroux and Châteauroux, into the Cher region (I wonder if they turned back time there...) and onward to Peufeilhoux Castle – built on a cliff in the 15th century – for a beautifully prepared lunch before heading off on another wild and wavy route ending at the Célestins Spa in Vichy, which is where my actual driving part of this experience began. On Tuesday, the teams began leaving Vichy at 8 A.M. to begin the longest (and so far, the wettest) day of the competition, which required the drivers to head due south through the mountains of Auvergne and the town of Saint-Flour. Eventually, a connecting leg sent the racers through Laguiole (I love their knives!) and Espalion before reaching l’Aveyron, and then onward to lunch at the Domaine de la Goudalie in Rodelle. From there, the competitors made their way toward Baraqueville and Camjac, driving alongside rivers and through sometimes torrential downpours before arriving at the leg 3 winner’s podium (or, what was left of it after some severe winds) located next to an Air France Concorde jet at the Aéroscopia museum in Toulouse.

The route on Wednesday was no less rain-soaked than that of the day before but only this time, the roads were somewhat more treacherous as the drivers made their way west through the Ariège region into the Upper Pyrenees. After lunch at a 17th century Cistercian Abbey at the foot of Mauvezin Castle, the teams first crossed Bagnères-de-Bigorre before travelling through the somewhat hidden valley of Castelloubon in the Lavedan mountains. But it was the upward climbs of both the Soulor and Aubisque passes that were the most difficult in the rain, particularly for the drivers who had to take on the challenges while in full regularity mindsets. Thankfully, the day’s journey ended with a stay at Hôtel Aragon Hills Hotel and Spa in Formigal, Spain, allowing us all to take a deep breath before the final leg the following day.

Thankfully, all the drivers were awakened Thursday morning with a bit of sunshine and a hearty breakfast, which was greatly needed and deserved as they – and we – headed into the home stretch. And while Thursday was the last official day of the race, it certainly was not the easiest. As the Princesses bid a fond farewell to a Spain they hardly knew, the teams headed toward the land of Aragon while climbing down Portalet Pass and into the Aspe Valley. With the sun glimmering off of the still-dampened asphalt ahead of them, the drivers took the narrow roads, intricate passes, and hairpin turns of the Basque country like the champions they already were, with the payoff being a much calmer drive to Bidarray to partake in a two-hour lunch at Auberge Ostape and visit its onsite Porsche Museum to celebrate the end of the timed portions of the race.

From there on in, it was smooth sailing and no pressure all the way to the official finish line in the magnificent seaside city of Biarritz.

The Watch – Breaking Ground and Breaking Ceilings

Just prior to the race’s official start, Richard Mille released their new haute horlogerie collection for women: the RM 71-01 Automatic Tourbillon Talisman. And after seeing the amount of women – 180 in total – who took part in this prestigious race, it is no wonder to me that Richard Mille felt the need to introduce his brand’s first automatic tourbillon caliber by doing so in a women’s watch. And to be honest, after spending time with Amanda Mille Bey during this journey as well as all the members of the Richard Mille team that I met along the way, it became quite clear to me that this is a brand that recognizes the importance of having women in leadership positions.

The RM 71-01 Automatic Tourbillon Talisman contains the calibre CRMT1 – Richard Mille’s eighth in-house caliber – which is shrouded in titanium and housed in a 6.2mm thick (at it’s most extreme section) white or red gold tonneau-shaped case featuring diamonds, mother-of-pearl, onyx and black sapphires.

Available in ten different variations, the RM 71-01 will be limited to five pieces of each of the versions and those watches will be available exclusively at Richard Mille boutiques around the world.

The Events – What Can I Say? #TheFrenchDoItBetter

From the opening day Rallye des Princesses Richard Mille cocktail party on Saturday in the Grand Salon at the Pavillon Vendôme Potel et Chabot, to the “Gala Night” and awards ceremony on Thursday at the magnificent Château d’Arcangues in Biarritz, and to every breakfast, lunch, and dinner in-between, drivers and guests of this event were treated to extraordinary gatherings, world-class wines, sumptuous flavors, and most importantly, remarkable memories that so many like I will carry with them for a lifetime.

I’m sure I’ll catch the same amount of slack for the above hashtag that I did when I (an Italian) posted an image of myself in a team France soccer jersey for World Cup, but as a journalist, it’s my job to tell the truth, and the truth is, when the French put their hearts into an event, what results is usually something otherworldly.

One more thing I’d like to add... the teams of women who drive these cars go all out when it comes to their attire. They do everything they can to match one another and to incorporate the official color of the event – pink – into their daily dress. Thankfully, all drivers are provided with polo shirts, hats, jackets, scarves, and driving gloves embroidered with the event’s logo for their day-to-day ensembles, but the teams take it one step further at the final finish line with often flamboyant costumes or smile-inducing dresses and accessories.

The Experience – What Happens in the Twingo, Stays in the Twingo

The one downside to the entire trip is that this American *right here* (points to self) does not know how to drive a stick shift, and so rather than get, oh, I don’t know, the ’57 Pontiac or the ’79 Ferrari to drive (not that I would’ve gotten those anyway since they belonged to the collectors driving them), my driving partner and I squeezed our nearly six-foot frames into our “VIP” Renault Twingo, and if you’re reading this and you’re not familiar with what a Twingo is, think the French version of a mini-cooper. HOWEVER, in defense of the Twingo, on those days when it down-poured and we needed to take those tight turns through the Pyrenees or squeeze our way slowly through cow crossings, that little Twingo and its automatic transmission came through, and I was pretty darn happy to have had it.

Many many many thanks to my driving partner and friend, Laura Hughes of Richard Mille Americas, for hours of laughter and patience during this journey (and for letting me wear various Richard Mille watches along the way) and for flying me out and putting me up. I’m so grateful to her and to Richard Mille for the invite and I truly hope to do it again someday.

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