The 2006 FIA World Rally Championship will kick-off with the classic Rallye Automobile Monte Carlo this weekend - renowned as the most prestigious event in the schedule.

The combination of glamour and opulence makes this rally one of the most eagerly anticipated WRC events of the year, but its twisty route with little margin for error also makes it one of the most fearsome for drivers.

The Rallye Monte Carlo will also play host to the first round in the 2006 FIA Production WRC - a change to the norm, as Monte Carlo is usually a Junior WRC event.

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The rally will feature 18 stages and a competitive distance of 366.39 kilometres. The first leg includes a return of the classic St Sauveur sur Tinee-Beuil last used in 1997 and two new stages, with the famous Col de Turini stage run on the final leg on Sunday.

Special notes:

Run through the southern Alps above Monte Carlo, the route often features vertical drops on one side and sheer rock face on the other. It's not uncommon for the twisty asphalt roads to be dry and abrasive at the start, only to become ice and snow covered as they climb up into the mountains.

In these variable conditions predicting the levels of grip is extremely tricky and tyre choices are almost always a compromise, with drivers forced to base their decisions on the most suitable pattern for the majority of the stage.

The ability to be ultra-fast when conditions and tyres are well suited, yet still maintain a competitive pace when the choice is less than ideal, is a key test of this rally.

FIA World Rally Championship news:

2006 will bring a range of challenges for teams and drivers, with new technical regulations demanding the removal of several computer controlled systems and a longer season stretching into December.

Sebastien Loeb and Citroen won the drivers' and constructors' championships last year, however Citroen won't be present this season in an official capacity. Instead Loeb will be with a 'privateer' outfit. The big question is: Can he win the title for the third year running? And can he win the Monte Carlo Rally again, after also winning it in 2005, 2004 and 2003?

News from the Manufacturers' teams:

Manufacturer 1.

Kronos Total Citroen:

[Sebastien Loeb, car #1 and Xavier Pons, car #2]

Sebastien Loeb will be run in the WRC this season by Kronos Racing, following Citroen's decision to take a sabbatical from the sport, before returning in 2007 with the all new C4. The Frenchman is hopeful he can begin his title defence with a win - making it four-in-a-row at Monte Carlo.

"We will try everything to get another win in Monte Carlo, which is an event I really enjoy," he said. "It's Daniel [Elena]'s home rally and the Kronos team is very motivated. We could judge the quality of their work in 2005 and I'm cautious but confident too. Defending my Drivers' title in a private team is a real challenge, a target I would love to achieve."

Kronos team boss, Marc van Dalen meanwhile is aware that while they did well last year, this season will see them take on the might of works backed efforts from Ford and Subaru.

"In 2005 Kronos Racing was the best privateer team," added van Dalen. "This year we are climbing one step higher. Since we knew that Seb' and Daniel will join us, our thirty-people-team based in Naninne-Namur area in Belgium has worked harder than ever. Welcoming the world champions to our team gives us an extra motivation. But we aren't going to Monaco for a Sunday morning drive! We know this round stands out as one of the toughest of championship.

"On the other hand though, we're happy to start with a rally that Seb' and Daniel like and they have dominated for the past four years. This event, maybe more than another, can be won with a perfectly organised team. We will do our maximum to succeed in this very important first test."

BP Ford:

[Marcus Gronholm, car #3 and Mikko Hirvonen, car #4.]

Ford will use the brand new Focus WRC 06 this season and following its first appearance in Australia at the end of last year, the M-Sport based squad has been busy testing to adapt the car for asphalt.

Ford completed their pre-season testing in the south of France on Friday, with team leader, Marcus Gronholm, Mikko Hirvonen and test driver Roman Kresta all in action during the five-day sealed surface test near Gap. It was the third test in preparation for the season following pre-Christmas programmes in Sweden and France.

"The car is ready on asphalt. Testing has gone well and I already have a good feeling with the car," said Gronholm prior to the event. "I feel excited about this season and I have been counting down the days to the start it since the end of last season. It's best not to try too hard on Rallye Monte Carlo though. It's a tough rally and my aim is to score a good result and avoid making any silly mistakes in the unpredictable conditions."

Hirvonen meanwhile, who drove for the team back in 2003, was also pleased following their latest test.

"Testing has gone well for me so far. Asphalt isn't my favourite surface but I scored my best result on an asphalt rally in Spain last year - taking my first podium - so I know can drive well enough on it," he added. "I've had no problems settling into the team. Many of the faces are the same as when I drove for Ford in 2003 and that has made it easier. I know testing is different to the heat of competition, but I'm confident I can start the season well and open the year with a good, solid result."

555 Subaru World Rally Team:

[Petter Solberg, car #5 and Stephane Sarrazin, car #6.]

Subaru, like Ford, will introduce a new car this weekend, however while the new Focus ran in Australia last year, Monte Carlo will be the first appearance for the Subaru Impreza WRC 2006.

Subaru will also stick with the same driver line-up they had in 2005, with Petter Solberg leading the team, while Stephane Sarrazin, who will only do the four asphalt events this season, will drive the second nominated car on the Rallye Monte Carlo. Chris Atkinson will take part in a third Impreza, entered by the Banbury based team under the Subaru Australia banner.

"Our new Impreza WRC2006 will make its debut in Monte Carlo," said SWRT team boss, David Lapworth. "The testing we've done on asphalt so far has been good and we're pleased with the starting ground. This year will be a big shake-up for everyone and who'll be fastest will be one of the biggest questions of the rally.

"The drivers' championship itself won't be affected. There are still the top three drivers, [Sebastien] Loeb, [Marcus] Gronholm and Solberg, all with very good teams and the battle for the championship will be as hot as ever. With the same faces and names it will be business as usual. Our goal is to win that drivers' championship with Petter.

"Petter certainly has a shot at winning every rally, but our eye will always be on the championship. We start each event looking to win, but we won't sacrifice points at the expense of the title. If a win is on the cards in Monte Carlo we will go for it, but if the weather doesn't suit us we'll strategically go for points - this isn't a case of Monte Carlo or bust!"

Manufacturer 2.

OMV Peugeot Norway WRT:

[Manfred Stohl, car #7 and Henning Solberg, car #8].

The OMV Peugeot Norway WRT will be run by Bozian Racing and will enter Manfred Stohl on all 16 events this season, while his team-mate, Henning Solberg will do 12.

After being the top privateer runner in 2005, and taking in 10 events, Stohl is delighted to being doing all 16.

"Sixteen rounds seem almost incredible to me," he said. "It also offers many advantages. Doing sixteen rallies you spend so much time in the car that it will seem like driving to work in the 307 WRC! It is also a matter of rhythm. You get a very good feeling for the car. And if things don't go so well one week you get the opportunity to do better two or three weeks later."

The team completed their first test with the 307 WRC over the weekend, running for two days near Lyon.

"I'm very confident for my first start in Monte Carlo," noted Henning. "The team has prepared the car perfectly."

Stobart VK Ford:

[Matthew Wilson, car #9 and Pieter Tsjoen, car #10]

The Eddie Stobart Motorsport team step-up to the WRC this year, after two years in the British Rally Championship. The Stobart VK M-Sport Ford Rally team will contest all 16 events, with upcoming rally star, Matthew Wilson leading the outfit.

Wilson Jr. will make history when he arrives in Monte Carlo for the start of this year's championship. The 18-year-old will become the youngest driver ever to start a full programme of events in the sport's global series.

"This is an amazing opportunity that people like the Stobarts and Steve Perez, from VK, have provided me with," he told the official Stobart VK website. "I certainly intend to make the most of it. Monte Carlo is a really tricky rally to start the programme.

"Unfortunately, I was too young to do the recce last year, you have to be 18 to drive on the roads in France - I was only 17. I've heard all the stories about Monte, about the changing road conditions and things like that. I think one of the hardest things will be the first time I come across a patch of ice when we're on slick racing tyres. I will have to slow to virtually walking pace, there'll be no grip at all. Pyschologically, that's quite tough - you have to keep telling yourself that everybody else is doing the same thing. The minute you try to push a bit harder on the ice, you're likely to go off the road. It's going to be very different to the events I've done before, but right now I just can't wait to get started."

Triple Belgian champion, Pieter Tsjoen meanwhile will make his sole appearance for the Stobart VK team this weekend on the Rallye Monte Carlo, when he drives the second Ford Focus alongside Wilson Jr.

Red Bull Skoda:

[Gilles Panizzi, car #11 and Andreas Aigner, car #12]

The Red Bull Skoda team will kick off their assault on the WRC with Andreas Aigner and Gilles Panizzi piloting the energy drink backed Fabia WRC's.

Aigner has been confirmed for all ten events the team will take in, while Panizzi will take part in Monaco, Spain and France, while DTM ace, Mattias Ekstrom will do Sweden. The team have yet to decide who will partner Aigner from Sardinia onwards.

Following a positive recent three-day test near Le Moulins in the Maritime Alps of Southern France, the team are confident they can do well.

"We not only completed our test schedule in the intended time frame but were also able to shake down all systems without any problem," explained chief engineer, Dietmar Metrich. "Hence we are all set up for the start in Monte Carlo."

Aigner and Panizzi were also enthusiastic. "We tried different set-ups and tested various tyre compounds. I learned quite a lot, it was a perfect test session," stated Aigner. "That's why I can hardly wait for the rally to start, although it is going to be tough."

"I got along very well with the car right away [at our recent test]," added Panizzi. "The mechanical differential worked faultlessly, and I was quite happy with the times I achieved. Therefore it should be possible to get a top result in Monte Carlo."

Production Car WRC:

Of the 13 Production Car World Rally Championship crews only six have opted to contest the Rallye Monte Carlo. All of them will therefore be guaranteed a points finish.

Amongst the front runners and those likely to fight it out for the victory will be Nasser Al-Attiyah, who finished second in the PCWRC last season and Fumio Nutahara, who was fourth overall at the end of last year.

2004 British rally champion, David Higgins is also likely to be 'there or there abouts' in his Mitsubishi Lancer, while Jari-Matti Latvala is a new comer to the series. Latvala incidentally will also compete in four 'senior' events this season with the Stobart VK team. The other two PCWRC entries are Stefano Marrini and Jasen Popov.

Other significant entries:

Around 50 crews have entered the Rallye Monte Carlo. Following the withdrawal of works backed teams from Peugeot, Mitsubishi, Skoda and Citroen there are a number of other significant runners.

Former works Ford driver, Toni Gardemeister will take part in a Peugeot 307, run by Astra Racing, while Rally Australia winner, Francois Duval will use a Skoda Fabia WRC. Gigi Galli will be present in a privately enter Mitsubishi and Junior WRC champion, Daniel Sordo will get his first taste of a World Rally Car, driving a third Kronos run Citroen Xsara WRC.

Schedule:

Monaco's famous Casino Square, home to celebrity gamblers and big bets, is where the stakes will be raised at the ceremonial start on Thursday evening. The rally is highly compact and is based in the mountains above Monaco and Nice with competitors returning to the Principality for service in the port area.

The opening leg is based entirely to the north of the Var river with the second day, the longest of the event, generally located on the opposite side. The opening day includes a brand new stage and another not used since 1994 while the second day includes a stage not used for 14 years as well as a first pass over the classic Col de Turini.

The final leg has a more traditional flavour. It is based in the mountains near Sospel and includes two further passes over the Turini, with the spectacular gorge section near Moulinet again run downhill.

Drivers tackle 18 stages in total, covering 366.39km in a route of 1336.84km.

Hot tip:

Sebastien Loeb is the master of Monte Carlo - and with his record at the Principality it is difficult to see anyone beating the Frenchman, even if he won't be in a 'works' backed car.

Last year:

Sebastien Loeb won the event last year taking the victory for the third time in succession. Toni Gardemeister finished second, while Gilles Panizzi completed the podium, with Markko Martin and Marcus Gronholm fourth and fifth respectively. There were six 'works' retirements - including Petter Solberg, Francois Duval, Roman Kresta, Armin Schwarz and Stephane Sarrazin.