The Rallye Monte Carlo may be one of the most prestigious events on the WRC calendar, however this is the first time in four years the world’s greatest drivers will have faced the infamous rally, with the legendary Col du Turini once again included on the route of this year’s event.
Monte Carlo is like a second home to CitroÃ«n and SÃ©bastien Loeb – they’ve won here five times in the last ten years.
“And yet, it's three years since I last competed in this rally,” said Loeb, playing down his chances to dominate in one of his most successful stomping grounds. “I don't doubt my ability to be on the pace, since we haven't really stopped since the end of last season. But this rally is so specific, you can never be sure of anything.”
Loeb’s new team-mate Mikko Hirvonen is in the odd situation of being the most recent winner of the WRC drivers competing this weekend, yet a driver expected to struggle compared to both his team-mate and some of the other top drivers. He won the rally in 2010 for Ford when it formed part of the Intercontinental Rally Challenge, but his best result in the WRC was 2nd place in 2008 – finishing a massive two and a half minutes behind winner Loeb.
“I'm a little apprehensive about Monte-Carlo,” he said. “Starting a stage where there are icy patches on slick
tyres is not something I am particularly looking forward to, but that's part of what makes this rally special. My aim for
this weekend will be to 'survive', or in other words, make it to the finish without incident and pick up as many points as
possible in the championships.”
The Ford team Hirvonen departed at the end of last season has promoted Jari-Matti Latvala to lead driver – and the Finn is confident of a solid result, after winning the asphalt Rallye du Var last November as a warm-up to the season opener.
“I feel I'm more competitive on asphalt than ever,” he said. “It will be hard to win against the asphalt experts but a top three finish would be a good start to the season ahead of rallies that suit me more.”
Ford’s newest recruit Petter Solberg has never finished on the podium in Monte Carlo despite making seven starts here, but has an ace up his sleeve for this year’s event.
“I competed there last year, when it wasn't a WRC round, so I know all the stages except the two new ones,” he explained. However he may also be hindered by his lack of experience with the Ford Fiesta RS, having only completed two days of running leading up to the rally.
Mini has also returned with two Countryman WRCs, one for tarmac specialist Dani Sordo and the other for French pay-driver Pierre Campana. Mini won this even three times in the 1960s with the iconic Mini Cooper S, however with uncertainty looming regarding the future of the team – exemplified by Kris Meeke being sidelined in the opening two rallies of the season – many will wonder if the WRC’s newest manufacturer will have both eyes on the prize this weekend.
Outside the top teams, Ott TÃ¤nak and Evgeny Novikov will be representing M-Sport Ford. TÃ¤nak also warmed up for the opening rally of 2012 by contesting the Rallye du Var, finishing in second behind Latvala, driving an identical Ford WRT run Fiesta RS.
M-Sport also have a notable third driver for the Monte – FranÃ§ois Delecour, who won here in 1994.
“I am so excited to be back behind the wheel of a WRC car,” he said. “It’s been ten years since I last drove one. I have to say that the car is feeling fantastic. We did some testing with the Fiesta earlier in the week and it’s a real joy to drive. I cannot wait for the competition to start. There’s a great spirit here and so many spectators on the stages – even during practice. It’s unbelievable.”
Last year’s most frequently points nominated M-Sport drivers, Henning Solberg and Matthew Wilson, will again be present in Ford WRCs, albeit as independent entrants. Martin Prokop also returns at the wheel of a Fiesta RS WRC for the Czech National Team.
Over at CitroÃ«n, Thierry Neuville will make his top-level WRC debut for the junior team, and Peter van Merksteijn, Sr. will continue running in his own Citroen DS3 WRC. Neuville has shown genuine pace on sealed surfaces, winning last year’s Tour de Corse and Rallye Sanremo in the IRC, driving for Peugeot.
The conditions are always a game changer in Monte Carlo, and all the drivers seem well aware that something as simple as bad tyre choice could potentially wreck their weekend.
“It's challenging and stressful in equal measure,” said Latvala. “You have to think about the weather and tyre choice. When we're in the service park at sea level in Monte-Carlo, we must predict what the weather will be like in the mountains at 1200m and make a selection accordingly. A wrong choice can cost several seconds per kilometre, so it can win or lose the rally.”
Even rally favourite Loeb is worried about the conditions, after completeing the recce earlier this week.
“The first two days in the recce it was looking like a tarmac rally, with wet and humid conditions in some places,” he explained. “Then the third day of the recce it was full of snow. So it was really tricky, and if we have this kind of condition it will be very difficult. Now it depends on the weather.”
“It looks like there are going to be many moments where we are in those conditions on the wrong tyre, but that’s what Monte Carlo is about,” added Hirvonen. “So we just need to cope with that, survive and get through the stages. It’s all about making the best compromise with the tyre choice.”
The rally begins tomorrow morning, with the longest stage of the entire rally getting the drivers underway. At 37km, Le Moulinon to Antraigues and its second running later in the day represents the best chance for drivers to gain time on one another – but all eyes will be on Saturday’s stages 14 and 16, when the cars will drive up to the legendary Col du Turini. The rally comes to a close with a single sprint finish on Sunday, with only 5km of tarmac to settle any close battles lasting until the final day.
All signs may point to Loeb taking yet another convincing win, but considering all the twists and turns the sport has endured leading up to the season opener, perhaps it is a sign of things to come for the drivers themselves.