Challenging debut awaits Ford quartet
14 January 2013
The new-look line-ups at the Ford-powered Qatar M-Sport and Qatar World Rally teams face a tough baptism this week as they prepare to tackle the traditional – albeit reinstated – season-opener of the 2013 World Rally Championship.
Famed as one of the most demanding and punishing rounds on the calendar, the Monte Carlo Rally takes no prisoners, but Mads Ostberg, Evgeny Novikov, Thierry Neuville and Juho Hanninen will be aiming for a strong result as they embark on their 2013 campaign with the Ford Fiesta RS WRC, but without the backing of Ford itself.
Steeped in motorsport history, the Monte is regarded by many as the jewel in the WRC crown, but the glitz and glamour of the Principality hide a demanding asphalt route through some of the region's most treacherous mountain roads, whose 465 competitive kilometres - spread over four days - can produce snow and ice as well as dry asphalt – and occasionally all on the same stage.
The tricky conditions could well play into the hands of Ostberg and Novikov, although it will be the former's first venture to Monte Carlo, and only the second outing for his young Russian team-mate. However, with the prospect of snow covering some of the higher mountain tests, and ice making the going exceedingly difficult, the conditions could well lessen the advantage of those with more experience of these notoriously difficult stages.
“I am very excited to finally start the season,” Ostberg admitted, “For me, it will be a very big challenge as I have never competed in Monte Carlo before. I'm excited, but I know that I need to focus on all the details and do everything I can to ensure we are as best prepared as possible.
“I think, if the rally is really difficult, with lots of snow and ice, then the experience that the other drivers have won't be as great. But if it's nice and clean, then experience of the stages is really important and could make a big difference in terms of stage times. Hopefully, we will have some tricky conditions and be able to fight with the other drivers.
“It's not easy to go to an event for the first time and fight for a podium, so we need to be realistic, but, if we have a good rally, then a top five position is certainly possible. If we are able to do that and score some good points for the championship then I will be really happy.”
Novikov secured an excellent fifth place finish on his debut last year and, with the Qatar M-Sport duo having the benefit of some legendary names as part of their ice-note crews - Morten Ostberg and Ola Floene for the Norwegian and Denis Giraudet and Francois Delecour for Novikov - the pairing will be well equipped.
“We have had two very successful tests, one in dry conditions this week and one in the wet last month,” Novikov revealed, “This week's test was really good as we learnt a lot about set-up and tyres but, most importantly, we now have some knowledge of almost all the conditions we could face next week. Of course, the weather in Monte Carlo is always changing, but that is part of the challenge and we are feeling as well prepared as we can be.
“It will be difficult with no Rally 2 this year, so that makes it all the more important to have a clean run and finish every stage. This will only be my second time competing [on the Monte], so it is important to gain as much experience and knowledge as possible. Of course, I will push where I can and when I have confidence, but we won't be taking any big risks. The most important thing is to finish and score some good points for the team.”
Both Neuville and Hanninen will be making their competitive debuts in the Ford Fiesta RS WRC this weekend, but both have at least run on the Monte before. It will be Neuville's third time on the event, although he has yet to score points there, while Hanninen will be making his debut in a World Rally Car, but has an impressive record on the event, having finished second to Mikko Hirvonen's Ford Fiesta S2000 in the 2010 running, which formed part of the IRC rather than WRC competition.
“We had a very good test [on Thursday], so I am feeling positive ahead of the event,” Neuville confirmed, “This will be my first competitive outing in the Fiesta [RS WRC] and we leant a lot about set-up and tyre choices, which is good. There is still a lot to do - we just need to make sure we have a good recce to get a feel for the stages and be as well prepared as possible.
“For sure, this is a difficult event, especially for us with this being our first event with the new car. This rally is a lot like a lottery so, if you finish with no problems, you are likely to not be in a bad position. If we can secure a top-ten finish on our first rally with the team then that would be a good result for us on this difficult event.”
“The difficulty with Monte Carlo is that, as a driver, you need to understand that you cannot be the quickest all of the time,” Hanninen added, “This event is all about compromise - sometimes you need to drive slower than you might naturally want to and tyre selection can make all the difference.
“Thanks to last week's test especially, I am feeling really confident with the car. There is still a lot to learn, but we have a lot of kilometres behind the wheel now. Our confidence is growing all the time and we are ready to rally.
“I want to finish the event - it would of course be a pity to go home on day one - but my main goal is to set some good stage times and try to challenge some of the more experienced WRC drivers. Many of the stages I know from the past, and we want to be in Monaco on Friday and Saturday.”