Three Ford Puma pairings face what will undoubtedly be the most difficult challenge of their fledgling rally careers when they tackle the opening round of the FIA Junior World Rally Championship [JWRC] in Monte Carlo this week.

The hostile mountains in the French Alps, the location for three days of competition in the famous Monte Carlo Rally [22 - 25 January], will provide a fierce test of the young trio's skills as tricky asphalt roads and often inhospitable weather provide the toughest of conditions.

Finnish duo Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila head the Puma challenge, driving for the Italian-based Astra Racing team. They will be joined in the Astra squad by Lebanese duo Abdo Feghali and Joseph Matar, returning for a second season in the JWRC. Zimbabwe's Conrad Rautenbach and Pete Marsh will drive a similar Puma for Chris Birkbeck Rallysport, the team for which Fran?ois Duval won the junior category in Monte Carlo in 2002.

This opening round of the seven rally series will be the last for the Puma. Round two in Greece in June will mark the debut of the Ford Fiesta JWRC, a stunning all-new two-wheel drive car which is due to be homologated for competition on March 1.

Conditions in the Alps are frequently inconsistent. Drivers may often find themselves in a position where they start a speed test on dry asphalt before encountering ice and snow as they reach the top of the mountain and reverting to asphalt again as they descend the other side. Tyre selection in such conditions is incredibly difficult. There are no 'perfect' tyres for such hugely contrasting weather and the secret is for teams to select a compromise choice which loses least time in the varied conditions.

Eighteen-year-old Latvala is widely regarded as a star of the future. Last season he finished fourth in the British Championship, after winning one rally in a Ford Focus RS WRC. He also finished 10th on both the Greek and British rounds of the world championship. This will be his first attempt at the JWRC and his first event in a Puma.

"It's an incredibly hard rally to begin with," he said. "I competed in two small rallies in a JWRC category car in Britain in 2002 but all my experience has been in four wheel drive cars and I think it will take me quite some time to get used to the Puma. It's also my first rally on mountain roads so I have much to learn. This is a rally where caution is important. It's so easy to make a mistake if the conditions are bad. I plan to drive sensibly and not push too hard and hopefully capitalise on the mistakes of others to make a good result."

Feghali has started the rally once before, in 2002, when he was 10th in the junior category.

"It's one of the hardest rallies in the world," said the 26-year-old. "I learned much about the rally last year and I also learned how easy it is to make a simple mistake and go off the road. Finishing is all important and that will again be my target this season. Conditions were not so difficult last year as most of the route was asphalt but there was some ice and snow which was tricky."

Rautenbach and Marsh will be starting their first rally outside Africa. But they have solid experience of the 1600cc, two-wheel drive category having won the 1600 Cup in the FIA African Championship last year.

"I covered about 400km of asphalt testing before Christmas and spent a day at John Haugland's ice driving school in Norway in preparation for this rally," said 19-year-old Rautenbach. "I'm sure it will be totally different to anything I've ever done before so a steady drive to the finish and gaining experience will be my aim for the weekend. The second and third rounds in Greece and Turkey are held on rough gravel and should be more suited to me."



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