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.