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.
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.
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:
Kronos Total Citroen:
[Sebastien Loeb, car #1 and Xavier Pons, car #2]