It’s hard to describe Rallye Monte-Carlo without straying into the realms of cliché, but that’s perhaps understandable considering how long this event has been a fixture, indeed the opening fixture, of the FIA World Rally Championship calendar. Steeped in both prestige and history, the Monte has long been defined by the dreaded tyre lottery, and the ability of drivers to fight at the top largely rests on the decisions they make back at Parc Ferme. The need to pick and run with a particular compound of tyre means that crews must drive within their limits, well aware that what works brilliantly at the bottom of the col is likely to be ill-suited to conditions at the top.
The specialised nature of of the rally tends to divide opinion between those crews taking part, and it’s relatively rare to find a driver merely indifferent to it – most tend to either love or loath the Monte. Succeeding here forces crews to drive in a highly cerebral manner, maximising those stages well suited to the tyres they happen to be on at the time, while taking care not to hemorrhage time on those which aren’t. This year looks to have presented the crews with an even steeper challenge than usual, with an especially blanket heavy snow coating much of the route. Mastering these innocuous enough looking stages has vexed many a WRC driver over the years, which is explains why experience counts for so much – one need only to look at Sébastian Ogier‘s record to see that.
2018’s running takes in a smattering of classic Monte tests with names sure to make those of a certain age smile and adjust their rose-tinted specs, with opening runs through the 36.6km of Sisteron (run in reverse for the first time) and the 25.4km of Bayons-Breziers, both conducted in the dead of night. Friday brings a tricky trio of tests totaling 150km, with Vitrolles – Oze kicking starting the action, followed by Roussieux – Eygalayes (the longest stage of the day 33.63km) and Vaumeilh – Claret. Saturday sees the rally move North of Gap for 5 further stages, Agnières-en-Dévoluy – Corps and Saint-Léger-les-Mélèzes, and another run through Bayons-Breziers, this time in daylight. The 67.7km of Sunday must be tackled without the aid of a service, while the stages themselves are far from straightforward; La Bollène-Vésubie – Peïra-Cava and La Cabanette – Col de Braus, the second run through the latter forming the Power Stage.
No driver can claim to have truly mastered the Monte Carlo tyre lottery entirely, but some have proved more adept at it than others. Drivers must pick from a heady mix of rubber, including soft compound, super-soft compound, non-studded snow, and for when the going gets really tough, fully studded snow. Each crew is allocated 80 tyres in total for the whole event, increasing the pressure yet further and underscoring the value of experience on the Monte. It’s the ultimate tightrope walking exercise, one conducted against some of the most spectacular scenery the world of motorsport has to offer.
M-Sport Ford WRT, Fiesta WRC
The M-Sport crew find themselves in the unusual position of being defending champions, having spent the best part of a decade playing the role of WRC underdog, first to Citroen, then VW. 2018 might therefore be the most important year in the Cumbrian outfit’s long and storied history, a make or break season that could go either way; if Ogier’s able to defend his title (or at least put up a good fight) then they’ll be established as a fully paid up WRC powerhouse, every bit the equal of Citroen, Toyota and Hyundai. If their charge falters, then it’ll be hard for them not to slip down the order and once again become ‘the best of the rest,’ though extra Ford funding should act as something of a bulwark against this.
The good news is that M-Sport can call upon an established ‘Monte Master’ in the form of Sébastian Ogier. Winner of the last 4 Monte Carlo rallies on the trot, Ogier will in all likelihood be even more potent in 2018, having had the whole of last year to familiarise himself with the M-Sport operation and the Fiesta WRC. The Frenchman remains the clear favourite, providing he avoids the small errors which so nearly prematurely ended his charge last year (errors which can probably be attributed to his lack of ‘seat time’ at that point), and assuming the 2018 Fiesta is as good as its rivals on the mix of tarmac, snow and ice.
Ogier’s mastery of the Monte shouldn’t detract from the pace of his team mate though, with Elfyn Evans having shown he has the raw speed to run with best on ‘tar.’ A podium on the Tour de Corse back in 2015 served to bolster his standing in this respect, while a strong run on the Monte last year demonstrated that the Welshman has what it takes to win and win consistently on sealed surface rounds. Best of all, this year he’ll be able to fight on an even footing thanks to his Michelin rubber, a crucial development on a rally which places so much weight on flexibility in terms of tyre performance.
M-Sport also play a wildcard for this rally with Bryan Bouffier, as a former Rallye Monte-Carlo winner the Frenchman brings a whole host of experience. Last year out he secured tenth place overall in R5 machinery, this year he will surely be in the mix with the Ford Fiesta WRC.
Hyundai Shell Mobis WRT, i20 WRC
The Hyundai team which takes the start of the Monte looks to be a far more rounded, better placed to commence and maintain a title charge, with the disappointments of last year very much in the past. The combination of Thierry Neuville and Andrea Mikkelsen is an extremely potent one, well able to win anywhere in the world, though it’s likely to be the Belgian who leads the Hyundai charge in Monte Carlo, ably supported by the WRC’s ‘Mr Consistent,’ Dani Sordo.
Neuville’s spectacular run of form last time out looked to have brought him to within grasping distance of victory, but he slid wide partway through Sunday and hit a concrete bollard, wrecking the i20’s suspension and putting any top-step ambitions on ice. Neuville has worked hard to rid himself of these costly lapses in concentration and should therefore be able to take the fight to Ogier and Ford, but as is always the case with the Monte, disaster is only ever a miss-timed shift, overly-ambitious ‘cut’ or missed braking point away.
Much rests on the shoulders (well, the wheel arches) of the i20 WRC itself of course, but there’s every chance that Hyundai has managed to build on what was statistically the quickest car of them all last year. It shouldn’t be forgotten than Hyundai’s coffers are deep, perhaps the deepest in the WRC now that VW have collected their toys and done a runner, and much as we might like to believe otherwise, budgets really do matter in top-tier motorsport. The combination of a healthy development fund coupled with the ample driving talents of Neuville and Mikkelsen could well pay dividends for Hyundai in 2018, and it will all start at the Monte.
Citroen Total Abu Dhabi WRT, C3 WRC
Pre-event testing has shown marked improvements across the board for Citroen, so the Versailles outfit will be feeling cautiously optimistic in the run up to the opening round of the season. The C3 WRC has always looked more at home on tarmac than gravel, as demonstrated by Kris Meeke‘s commanding lead in Corsica (until his oil pressure dropped and his engine died) and stunning win in Spain, so there’s every chance that it will once again be on the pace in the principality.
2017’s tarmac pace won’t completely dispel the question marks hovering over the team though, especially as Meeke returns to the scene of his brutal crash from this time last year. That being said, a cool-headed drive with some points (and ideally a podium) at the end will do much to quell the service park rumor mill, one that’s been thundering away with gusto over the course of the off-season.
The news that Sébastien Loeb, the foundation on which all Citroen’s success has been built this last decade and a half, will again be joining the team for selected rounds will have also have buoyed expectations, but that shouldn’t come at the expense of Meeke or Craig Breen. The Irish contingent were brought up and blooded on the Emerald Isle’s pockmarked, often damp and slippy tarmac roads, and both will relish the chance to once again showcase their sealed surface expertise in front of a partisan crowd rooting for a Citroen home win. Meeke will no doubt approach the Monte with the bit between his teeth, well aware that he’s shown the pace and versatility essential to mastering this, one of the most technically demanding rallies on the WRC schedule.
Toyota Gazoo Racing WRT, Yaris WRC
The Yaris WRC emerged as an unexpected winner last year thanks to the combined efforts of Jari-Matti Latvala and Esapekka Lappi. Developed and honed on Finland’s uniquely fast roads, the Yaris’ biggest weak point has thus far been its sealed surface performance, certainly in terms of outright, consistent pace. This is understandable given its Finnish origins but can’t remain the case for long. Indeed, Toyota top brass will hope that the ‘off season’ has been spent perfecting the Yaris’ ability to take the fight to its rivals on asphalt, and pre-event testing has given ample cause for optimism in this respect; the 2018 car has looked visibly faster and more planted on ‘the black stuff.’
Further cause for sealed surface positivity can be found in Toyota’s re-worked driver lineup, with Ott Tanak taking the place of Juho Hänninen. Tanak’s stock soared as 2017 progressed and his tally of wins grew, with the Estonian coming home first in Italy and Germany. The latter was perhaps the most significant of the two for coming on a classic, all tarmac WRC round, a surface not traditionally associated with Estonian (indeed Northern European) drivers. There’s every chance that Tanak’s exceptional performance in the Rhineland convinced Toyota of his worth, and the team will no doubt hope he continues to give the likes of Ogier and Neuville cause for concern on tarmac as this season unfolds.
2018 Rallye Monte-Carlo gets underway with the official shakedown on 24 January and The Checkered Flag will be providing daily updates and news throughout the event, click here for the latest news from the rally.