Ford BP Rallye Sport enters the opening round of the FIA World Rally Championship in Monte Carlo this week boasting the youngest driver line-up of any team contesting the series.

In a sport where drivers have traditionally never reached their peak until their 30th birthday, lead driver Markko Msrtin is 28 and team-mate Francois Duval is just 23, and the youngest works driver in the series. However, their youth belies great experience and Ford's championship hopes lie in the hands of two drivers with 90 world rally starts between them.

In contrast, the Monte Carlo Rally [22 - 25 January] is the oldest event in the championship calendar. The playground of the rich and famous and home to chic shops and fine hotels provides the ideal backdrop for the opening battles in the 16-rally series, which covers five continents. However, it is the bleak and inhospitable mountain roads high in the Alps, where the weather can be notoriously unpredictable, that offers the first test of the season for the Ford BP squad.

The 2004 championship is set to undergo some changes from the third round in Mexico onwards but consistency is the key word for Ford BP's championship challenge. Both Martin and co-driver Michael Park and Duval, co-driven by Stephane Prevot, are entering their third seasons behind the wheel of the Focus RS World Rally Car. And the stunning 2003-specification Focus RS, victorious twice last season and a winner on speed tests as diverse as smooth asphalt and rough gravel, has undergone a winter's work focused on improving reliability ahead of planned engine and aerodynamic upgrades in April.

Essentially an asphalt event on technically simple roads, the Monte Carlo Rally can be the most difficult round of the season because of the unpredictable weather. Drivers can face wet asphalt, treacherous ice and full snow. They can often encounter all on the same speed test as the route climbs and descends mountain cols, switching from southern facing roads sheltered from the extreme weather to exposed northern ones. There is no perfect tyre choice for such conditions and the secret for success is selecting compromise rubber which loses least time in the 'wrong' conditions.

Information provided by the team's ice note crews is crucial. Allowed to drive the stages several hours before competitors, these crews, who are experienced rally drivers, relay details on road and weather conditions back to the team to give drivers the best information from which to make their tyre choice.

Martin will start Monte Carlo for the third time and has yet to fully experience the difficulties posed by constantly changing conditions.

"There was no snow at all in 2002 and it was probably the easiest Monte Carlo Rally for many years," said the 28-year-old Estonian. "Last year there were a few sections of snow but nothing to worry too much about. Dry asphalt would be the easiest but more important is consistency, so that tyre choice is as simple as possible. Full snow would be OK but mixed conditions of dry asphalt, snow and ice on the same group of stages would be awful because, even with the best information, tyre selection becomes a bit of a lottery.

"Because of the weather this isn't a good rally to make predictions, so I won't! But I would like to kick-start the year with a good points finish and that is something both ourselves and the Focus RS are capable of. I find this the most difficult rally in the championship. The mountain roads are often quite tricky, even in good conditions, and in bad weather they can be lethal. It's easy to make a small mistake and in poor weather, mistakes can be magnified," he added.

Duval has good memories of the Monte Carlo Rally, having won the junior category in a Ford Puma in 2002.

"I like the rally but it can be very difficult, depending on the weather," said the Belgian. "Last year we reached the top of the Col de Turini and it was covered in snow while the climb and the descent were dry asphalt. How do you choose the perfect tyre for such differing conditions? If the weather is inconsistent it is crucial to have a good ice note crew to ensure reliable information. My crew lives in the region. They know the area well which is an advantage in trying to predict the weather.

"Ice would be the worst. If you have slick tyres fitted to the car and hit a patch of ice, it is not nice. Spectators sometimes make things more difficult by throwing snow onto the road. It is more spectacular for them but is not good for the drivers.

"There are some new special stages this year which means all the drivers have to make new pace notes. That's good for me because it reduces the advantage held by drivers like Carlos Sainz who have started this rally so many times. A top five finish would be good for me. It's important for me to finish as many rallies as possible this year to improve my experience. We have shown that the Focus RS is a good car on asphalt and I think a top five result would be a perfect start to the year," he added.

The Monte Carlo Rally gets under way this Thursday evening with a ceremonial start. The rally then moves north into the Alps for the following day's opening leg, which is based around a single service park at Tallard, south of Gap, and which includes four stages not used in 2003.

The final two legs are based at the service park at the swimming pool complex on Monaco's Grand Prix circuit. Saturday includes two loops of two tests north of Grasse, both used in the opposite direction to 2003. The final day follows an identical format to last year, incorporating two loops of two tests in the mountains above Monaco. It twice traverses the famous Col de Turini, where spectators will gather in their thousands.

Competitors face 389.32km of competition in a total route of 1413.97km.



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