This year's Monte Carlo Rally, which for the third consecutive year is the opening round of the Intercontinental Rally Challenge (IRC) season, is all about the legendary event's centenary celebrations.
The first edition took place in 1911, with the 2011 running being the 79th edition. The winding icy stages around the hills above the principality have become some of the most famous in world rallying.
This year's rally runs from Wednesday (19 January) morning until the early hours of Saturday (22 January). The rally will get underway with the return of the historic Moulinon – Antraigues stage in the form that it was used in the 1970s. Following SS2 Burzet – St Martial, Wednesday's action will conclude with two loops around the village of St Bonnet.
Thursday will see the crews attempt the Saint Jean en Royans test, which is split into two with each section to be visited twice. On Friday morning the competitors will head southeast towards Monaco, beginning with the Montauban sur l’OuvÃ¨ze-Eygalayes stage. Later that day the crews will two stages, both repeated. The first of those, Moulinet – Bollene, is made up of the famous Col de Turini. The rally officially finishes on the harbour-side in Monaco in the early hours of Saturday morning.
An impressive lineup of drivers are set to take up the challenge, part of an entry list of 120 crews. Reigning IRC champion Juho Hanninen tops the list for Skoda Motorsport, although the Finn will not be attempting to retain his crown in 2011. Hanninen finished second to Mikko Hirvonen last year, so will certainly be amongst the frontrunners this year.
Skoda has also entered Jan Kopecky, Freddy Loix and Nicolas Vouilloz in its factory cars – all capable drivers on asphalt. Another entry from the Czech brand is that of Andreas Mikkelsen, the Norwegian switching to Skoda UK after an impressive handful of IRC events last year in a Ford Fiesta.
Peugeot are taking the fight to Skoda with an equally impressive lineup of drivers. Petter Solberg is perhaps the biggest draw for the fans – and will be aiming to take his first victory on the Monte Carlo Rally. Alongside Solberg in Peugeot France entries are sportscar star Stephane Sarrazin, who boasts an impressive record on the event, and French national champion Bryan Bouffier.
Francois Delacour makes his return to international competition behind the wheel of a Peugeot 207. The 48-year-old, who won the event in 1994, said: “I still have a big motivation to succeed, I'm completely fit and I know stages such as Le Moulinon and Burzet better than anybody else on the rally.”
Guy Wilks has made the switch from Skoda UK to Peugeot UK to replace former champion Kris Meeke, with the Peugeot importers of Portugal and Belgium also represented on the IRC once again by Bruno Magalhaes and Thierry Neuville respectively. Toni Gardemeister will also drive a Peugeot for Astra Racing, just as he did in 2006 when he finished third overall. Former IRC champion Giandomenico Basso is another recognisable name behind the wheel of a Peugeot.
Away from Skoda and Peugeot, Petter Solberg's brother Henning starts in an M-Sport Fiesta, while Per Gunnar Andersson and Chris Atkinson represent Proton.
Television broadcaster Eurosport will once again provide extensive coverage of the event, with 12 of the 13 stages shown live across its network.
Stay tuned to The Checkered Flag for the latest news from the rally.