Rejuvenated by an extended winter break, Marcus Gronholm will begin the defence of his FIA World Rally Championship driver's title on Rallye Monte Carlo tomorrow [Friday].

Gronholm and his Peugeot team will be aiming for a better start than in previous years, as neither the Finn or a 206 WRC has won round one.

Subaru's Tommi Makinen poses possibly the biggest threat on this event. The four-times world champion is undefeated on Rallye Monte Carlo since 1999 and he has a new Impreza WRC at his disposal.

Citroen starts its first full season in the championship, having tackled eight rallies last year. Former world champions Carlos Sainz and Colin McRae join the French team and its existing driver Sebastien Loeb.

Another world champion, Didier Auriol, is also on the move, coming out of retirement to join Skoda alongside Toni Gardemeister. Ford's driver line-up is one of the youngest ever. Markko Martin drives the lead Focus RS WRC, while Fran?ois Duval and Mikko Hirvonen back up the Estonian. This will be Hirvonen's first full year in the championship.

This rally will be the first to use a new points-scoring system introduced by the FIA over the closed season. For both drivers and manufacturers, points will be awarded for the top eight , rather than the top six places. In the manufacturer's race each team can still nominate three drivers with the highest placed two able to score points.
Peugeot:
One of the biggest changes to the Peugeot 206 WRCs is the colour scheme. This year the cars will run in red, reflecting the arrival of title sponsor Marlboro. Beneath the skin the 206 WRCs remain largely unchanged for Rallye Monte Carlo.

The cars are all brand new for this event and run in similar specification to that of Sanremo last season.

The defending champions have entered three official cars for this event. Reigning world champion Marcus Gronholm drives the number one car with Richard Burns and asphalt ace Gilles Panizzi piloting the remaining 206s.

"Finishing in the top three would be a good result for me in Monte Carlo," claimed Gronholm. "This is not one of my favourite rallies because it's so unpredictable. You don't know if there's going to be good grip in one corner and ice in the next."

Starting his second year with the team, 2001 champion Burns is in buoyant mood: "Compared to when I arrived here in Monte Carlo last year, I feel much more confident. Having had a year in the car, I know what it's going to do. I feel at home in the Peugeot now, which is really going to help on this event."

The remaining member of the Peugeot team, Harri Rovanpera will not compete in Rallye Monte Carlo, his first event will be Sweden where he drives an official car.

Panizzi has already received a one-minute penalty from the Stewards before the start, for having his GPS system unplugged on the third day of the recce.

Ford:
Ford start the season with an improved 2002-specification Focus RS WRC. This will be the team's first event in two years running on Michelin tyres, following its closed season switch from Pirelli. The team has been testing right up until the start of the recce earlier this week.

The team will enter three cars for Markko Martin, Francois Duval and Mikko Hirvonen all season.

"I don't have that much experience of this rally. Last year was the first time I actually did the stages (he retired before the SS1 in 2001), and I wasn't pushing very hard in 2002. This year I want to complete the stages and get more mileage," declared Martin.

Duval knows he's also up against it, but is ready to learn: "This is my first Monte Carlo in a World Rally Car. It's going to be very different to last year, when I was in the Junior World Rally Championship. My objective is to get some points, but I have a lot to learn."

Hirvonen is the newest member of the team and comes in with substantial financial backing from his manager. Hirvonen's car will run in a different colour scheme to those of Martin and Duval.

"My first Monte Carlo is not going to be easy at all, but this is a great opportunity for me to get more mileage and more experience of the world championship," he said.
Subaru:
Monte Carlo is the first event for the team's all-new Impreza WRC2003. The new car features heavily revised aerodynamics. At the front of the car the alterations are also to improve the flow of air into the engine.

The car's rear spoiler has an additional lip - to enhance downforce - and it has been sectioned with fins to increase downforce when the car is sideways. Under the bonnet the turbo, exhaust manifold and engine mapping, have been worked on to improve performance.

Team Boss David Lapworth explained the changes made to the Impreza: "We looked at our performance on the faster rallies and felt we could improve, which is why we worked on the engine and aero packages.

"The top speed we achieved on the stages indicated that we didn't have a problem with the car's drag, which is why we've been able to put more aerodynamics on it to create more downforce. From a tyre choice perspective, Rallye Monte Carlo is probably the hardest of the year. If you want to win this event you've got to make brave tyre choices," added 'Lappy'.

The Prodrive run team will field two Imprezas all year for Petter Solberg and Tommi Makinen, although there is a chance a third car could appear at some time during the season.

"I have forgotten about winning Rally Great Britain last year," confessed Solberg. "This is a new season and I feel more focused on winning than ever. I have worked hard on training over the winter and I can't wait to get started."

Makinen's co-driver Kaj Lindstrom has been confirmed for the whole of this year's FIA World Rally Championship and will be aiming to help Tommi take his fifth straight win on this rally.

"I like this rally," said Makinen. "I feel comfortable in the conditions. Okay, you have to be very flexible and ready for the road surface to change from snow to ice or dry asphalt, but it's a great event. This is like another home rally for me."

Hyundai:
Hyundai has not done any specialist testing ahead of this event. The only changes to the car are to the differential mapping and suspension settings, which make it easier to drive on snow and ice.

Freddy Loix and Armin Schwarz are the two full-time drivers for this season, although a third WRC3 will be used on selected rallies by Finland's Jussi Valimaki.

"I'm feeling good for this rally. I had the pins taken out of my leg (put in after he broke his leg on this event last year) after Rally Great Britain, which means that I have been able to get on and do plenty of exercise over the winter," said Loix.

Schwarz stated that he wants the kind of conditions others fear: "I'm hoping for snow and ice on this rally. It would be nice if the conditions were consistent, this would give us our best chance to keep up with the Peugeots."
Skoda:
The Czech team has worked hard on the distribution of weight between the front and rear axles on the Octavia WRC, which includes moving the position of the fuel cell. The car's centre of gravity has also been lowered. The team has employed three new technical engineers for this season's FIA World Rally Championship. Both cars are brand new.

world champion Didier Auriol joins the team and is re-united with his former co-driver Denis Giraudet. Auriol only tackled one round of the FIA World Rally Championship last season (Rallye Monte Carlo in a private Toyota Corolla WRC). Toni Gardemeister remains in the squad for 2003.

"I have been very pleased with the way testing has gone for this rally," began Auriol. "When I first drove the car we were using the tyres very quickly, but after we'd made some changes they are lasting longer. That is important for this rally. I'm very happy to be back in the championship and there's no question that I still have the passion for the race."

Pavel Janeba said: "Having Didier in the team gives me great confidence for the future. Didier has his own style, he's a perfectionist. He is very good for the team, now you can see the motivation going right through everybody in Skoda."

"The car feels very good after our winter testing," added Gardemeister. "It's a big improvement over last year, now we are closer to the cars in front of us."

Citroen:
The new Xsara WRC is expected in April, so the team starts 2003 with an improved 2002 car. The biggest change is the inclusion of hydraulic anti-roll bars. Colin McRae has the only brand new one. Sebastien Loeb drives the same car he used in Monte Carlo last season.

Ex-Ford drivers Colin McRae and Carlos Sainz joined the team. Sainz's deal came late in the year after Citroen's Spanish importer and Telefonica put budget into the programme.

Both drivers start the year with a different co-driver to that used on Rallye Monte Carlo 2002. Derek Ringer, who won the 1995 world championship alongside Colin McRae, returns to sit with the Scot, while Marc Marti co-drives for Sainz. Last year's Rally Deutschland winner Sebastien Loeb stays with the team.

"This is a rally we could win," stated McRae, who's never hidden his dislike of the event. "It would be easier for us if the conditions were dry as we've done most of our testing the dry. I have done quite a lot of testing in the car, but it's not the same as a rally. I've still got to learn about the car and doing that in the snow and ice is not ideal."

Sainz added that he expects to pick his pace up as the year goes on: "The car feels very well balanced and although I haven't done all that much testing I feel confident about the season ahead. I feel especially confident about the second half of the year."

Loeb, the short-lived winner of last year's event before being penalised, is hoping the experience of his team-mate will help him this time.

"Colin and Carlos coming to the team is very good for Citroen and for me. I can learn a lot from them, especially on this rally. Last year I went well, I think this was because the conditions were so dry - and that suited the car. It looks like it will be different this week, so I'm hoping my team-mates will be able to help me with my tyre choice," he explained.
Other entries:
The private competitors on this event are headed by Cedric Robert, whose Peugeot 206 WRC is funded by the FFSA, the French governing body of motorsport. Robert's car is run by the Bozian team which is also responsible for Roman Kresta's 206 WRC.

This will be Kresta's first FIA World Rally Championship outing in a Peugeot, having driven on selected rounds of the 2002 series for the official Skoda team.

Antony Warmbold, the son of former Mazda Rally Team Europe boss Achim, drives a Focus RS WRC for the first time in Monte Carlo. He will tackle a selection of rounds in 2003. Irish driver Eamonn Boland is a Monte Carlo debutant in his Subaru Impreza WRC.

Behind the top privateers is the Junior World Rally Championship field, which is led away by Mirco Baldacci's Fiat Punto. Some of the leading drivers in last year's JWRC competition have moved on, which means there will be some new faces on the podium this season.

Sweden's Daniel Carlsson is driving a Suzuki for the first time, while Kosti Katajamaki will give the new Volkswagen Polo its debut in the FIA World Rally Championship. The new Polo was first seen in the hands of former Dakar winner Jutta Kleinschmidt, when she drove it as a course car on last year's Rally Deutschland.