The 2004 season sees the WRC continue to evolve. Firstly thanks to a greater territorial spread than ever before, and secondly following a number of changes to the sporting and technical regulations, some of which will apply from this weekend's Monte Carlo Rally, the season's curtain raiser.

The majority of these new measures will only come into effect from February's Swedish Rally however. Accordingly, the Monte represents a certain degree of stability for the competitors who know just how important the role of tyres can be over this particularly delicate terrain. And this is where the experience of Michelin stands out as another constant during this time of change.

Indeed, as it prepares to tackle its 32nd world campaign, the French firm enjoys an enviable record in the Principality with a total of 18 wins on the winter classic to its name!

Mid-March sees Central America become an active player on the world rally scene with the organisation of Rally Mexico. In September, eighteen months after the introduction of a round in western Asia, in the south of Turkey, Japan will become the latest nation to host a round of the World Rally Championship. For the first time since the creation of the series in 1973, the WRC will comprise no fewer than sixteen qualifying rounds. Meanwhile, Italy's qualifier this year switches from the traditional asphalt of Sanremo to the gravel of Sardinia to make it a total of three new events that teams face over the coming year!

The calendar, however, is not the only parameter that changes in 2004. The format of the events themselves is also poised to evolve, including the introduction of longer 'groups' of stages, shorter servicing time, as well as revised reconnaissance procedures, etc.

These changes also concern the rules that govern tyres: for the first time, an upper limit will apply to the number of tyres that each driver will have at his disposal for any given event, a decision that comes on top of the existing restriction concerning the number of tyre types that teams may nominate for each rally. Coupled with the shift in the format of the events themselves, this development is sure to place the accent more than ever on polyvalence, with tyres produced to cover a far wider spectrum of conditions. That said, this new measure will only apply from the Swedish Rally, which means the Monte Carlo represents a certain stability compared with the recent past.

The challenge for Michelin therefore also remains essentially unaltered: the development of a range of products that are competitive over the staggering variety of terrains competitors could well face in the mountains between Gap and the French Riviera. Conditions ranging from fresh snow to dry asphalt, sheet ice, slush, frost and rain.

That's no mean task, but the experience of the men from Michelin - materialised by Bibendum's record of seven wins over the last ten years on rallying's oldest fixture - will once again be a key asset for their 2004 partners, namely Citroen (defending champions in association with Michelin), Ford, Mitsubishi and Peugeot.

On the technical front...

Tyre regulations for 2004... From the Swedish Rally onwards, the total number of covers drivers will have at their disposal for any given rally will be equal to ten times the number of scheduled tyre changes, or 'groups' of stages [NB: this does not mean they will only be able to choose from ten tyres at each service halt].

The Monte Carlo Rally is not affected by this new ruling, but had this been the case the number of tyres authorised per driver for the season's opener would have been:

Monte Carlo: 10 tyres x 8 changes = a total of 80 tyres (excluding snow tyres) per driver.

For information, the quantities authorised for the two ensuing rounds are:

Sweden: 10 tyres x 9 changes = 90 tyres per driver,
Mexico: 10 tyres x 6 changes = 60 tyres per driver.

Deadlines and marking... The list of serial numbers of the tyres allocated to each driver must be registered with the FIA by the Monday preceding rallies based in Europe, or the Monday three weeks before the start of non-European rounds. For the latter, this lead-time eliminates the possibility of shipping covers out by plane just before the start, as was occasionally the case in the past [NB: for this ruling, Cyprus and Turkey are considered European rounds].

From Rally New Zealand onwards, it is planned that individual tyres will be identifiable by means of a barcode visible on the sidewall. For the first year, this system will run in conjunction with the FIA's usual marking procedure.

Aime Chatard - Michelin Competition Rallies Manager...

"The common interest of this new regulation is to try and minimise costs, and the quantities specified take into account actual average consumptions in recent years, plus a certain amount to cover potential different weather situations.

"This will lead to the production of tyres that cover a wider range of conditions, something that shouldn't be too much of a handicap for the drivers, even though as far as the new events - Mexico and Japan - are concerned, we will have no data on which to base ourselves given the impossibility of carrying out pre-event testing for these events on-site.

"The main difficulty will be for the teams who will have to optimise their choice a number of days, sometimes weeks even prior to the start without knowing for sure what the prevailing conditions will be during the event."

Clairvoyance... The drivers know that tyre choice can be decisive on the Monte Carlo Rally. As a result, the gathering of precise information from the teams' and Michelin's own ice-note crews, as well as from weather spotters posted in the mountains is of vital importance. Experience and a detailed knowledge of the relative performance characteristics of each tyre option in all types of conditions are the other essential keys to getting strategy spot on.

Bear in mind, however, that on the six occasions this year when it will be necessary to choose tyres for two consecutive stages, the start of the second test is scheduled for at least 1 1/2 hours and as much as 2 hours after the crews leave the preceding service halt! The difficulty is compounded of course in changeable weather conditions!

For memory...

Stages 2 and 4 are due to start 1h 26m after the preceding service...
Stages 9 and 11 are due to start 2h 06m after the preceding service...
Stages 13 and 15 are due to start 1h 48m after the preceding service...

2004 Monte Carlo Rally in brief...

Rally Headquarters: MonacoTotal distance: 1413.77 kmTotal stage length: 389.12 kmLongest stage: 34.41 km (SS7, Lantosque-Col de Braus)Longest group of stages: 58.49 km (SS5/6)Surface type: Asphalt, snow/ice.Number of stages: 15Number of tyre changes (groups of stages): 8

The organisers of the season's curtain-raiser have essentially kept to the same format as last year, with a day of competition based around a service park in Tallard, near Gap, followed by two legs in the southern French Alps, both starting and finishing in the Principality itself.

Despite appearances however, much of the actual competitive distance will be new to the majority of WRC runners, a phenomenon highlighted from Day 1, the longest of the weekend. Only the stage from Selonnet to Br?ziers (SS1 and 3) was run in 2003. For two other tests, it is necessary to go back as far as at least 2000 to find a trace in the menu of the winter classic.

For sure, Days 2 and 3 will visit familiar Monte territory, yet here again the stage profiles have undergone a certain amount of changes that will be sure to test the ability of the younger generation of drivers to learn and assimilate the trickiest portions...



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