Marlboro Mitsubishi Ralliart will enter a new era when the 2002 FIA World Rally Championship begins on the Monte Carlo Rally, for it has an entirely new driver line-up.

Frenchman Fran?ois Delecour and Britain's Alister McRae form a powerful pairing and there is a sense of optimism in the team as it seeks to make the most of its new drivers and its latest car, the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution WRC.

Rallye Monte-Carlo - the oldest and probably the most prestigious event of all - is famously unpredictable, in keeping with an event that begins outside a casino. Venturing into the French Alps in winter ensures that the conditions can vary enormously - if an icy wind sends the temperature plummeting below zero, it can seem a long way from the palm-fringed Principality on the Mediterranean - but this year's event promises to be more than usually uncertain.

All seven factory teams have made changes to their driver line-ups and most of them are extensive. The rally will accordingly be a test of the drivers' ability to adapt to new cars as much as the challenge posed by the route.

Nevertheless, the Monte is likely to be won and lost on the ability to read the conditions accurately. Marlboro Mitsubishi Ralliart has an exceptional record in this respect and is aiming for a fourth successive victory. Drivers can expect anything from dry asphalt to deep snow and patchy ice - sometimes all three on just one special stage. Accordingly, assessing the weather and picking suitable tyres can sometimes gain minutes rather than seconds. Experience and judgement are vital.

Few crews are better equipped for the Monte challenge than French duo Fran?ois Delecour and Daniel Grataloup. The winners of the 1994 Monte, they bring a wealth of experience to Mitsubishi and Delecour has taken an instant liking to the Michelin-shod Lancer Evolution WRC.

"I don't want to tell you I can win Monte Carlo. The car is still young, but we will be competitive for sure. As soon as you can see the exit of the corner, you accelerate a little bit and it is nearly impossible to spin the car. If you look at the other World Rally Cars, they are sideways at the end of the corner. If you look at the Mitsubishi, it is nearly straight at the end of the corner. They have done a lot of work and it is very efficient. If you understand you have to accelerate very early, it is good," Delecour commented.

British crew Alister McRae and David Senior don't possess Delecour's wealth of experience in the Alps, although they were going well last year until they lost time after hitting a wall. McRae, who had his first taste of the Lancer Evolution WRC on asphalt during a test this week, sees the event as an opportunity to gain experience rather than to take chances.

"The initial feeling is that the car's as good on Tarmac as it was in the snow in Lapland. We tried a lot different damper settings to get the feeling I want and, although we didn't have any real snow or ice in the first few days of the test, conditions were still pretty slippy. Generally the car's got a strong engine and the rest of it is working very well. The first time you drive it down the road it is a different feeling, but you just have to adapt to a different driving style. To me, it felt good. I wouldn't have any worries about driving the car the way it is, but I just want to get the tyre choices right, have a clean run and finish the Monte. We can save the heroics for later in the year!" McRae said.

There are few major technical changes to the Lancer Evolution WRC, but Marlboro Mitsubishi Ralliart Engineer Bernard Lindauer believes that subtle alterations will bring a substantial benefit. Any Monte Carlo car is set up primarily for asphalt and the team has drawn on experience gained from the car's first rallies late last year to modify the suspension. New spring and damper rates, along with revised rear suspension geometry are reckoned to have improved the handling. There have also been adjustments to the electronic mapping of the engine.

In keeping with the leaner, more concentrated outline that World Championship rallies have adopted, the 70th Rallye Monte Carlo is noticeably compact. Running from January 18-20, it is divided into three legs and covers 1,463 kilometres, with 15 stages covering 396 kilometres. While it lacks the geographical range of bygone Montes, it will be a tough event that pays due regard to tradition. The first leg, which includes four stages totalling 148 kilometres, heads deep into the Alps north of Digne and includes two visits to the 36-kilometre Sisteron stage, which has played such a decisive role on the rally in the past. The second and third legs are fought out closer to Monaco in the Alpes-Maritimes. The second is the longest in competitive terms, with 149 kilometres of stages, including two runs at the renowned Col de Turini, from west to east. The final leg is somewhat shorter, with 95 stage kilometres, but as it includes two assaults on the Turini from the opposite direction, the outcome could remain in doubt until the very end.