Huge crowds gathered in Monaco's famous Casino Square yesterday evening to see the start of the Monte Carlo Rally, the opening round of the 2004 FIA World Rally Championship.

The colourful start ceremony right outside the Casino itself heralded the beginning of three days of tough competition for the 43 starters over inhospitable mountain roads high in the frozen French Alps.

This morning the setting switched some 350km north to Tallard, just south of Gap, from where the first day started. However, so many spectators flocked into the opening 22.64km Selonnet - Breziers speed test that organisers were forced to cancel it on safety grounds.

So the action began on the 20.18km Piegut - Urtis special stage, a test new to many drivers as it has not been used since 2000. However it held no fears for Ford BP Rallye Sport drivers Markko M?rtin and Michael Park who began their 2004 season with second fastest time, despite being one of those crews never to have driven the stage before. Their Castrol-backed Focus RS World Rally Car was 9.9sec behind stage winner Marcus Gronholm.

The roads were treacherous with freezing temperatures, snow, black ice and asphalt creating the kind of inconsistent conditions and tyre selection dilemmas for which this rally is so renown. Both Martin and Ford BP team-mates Fran?ois Duval and Stephane Prevot had selected wide Michelin snow tyres with studs to bite through the snow and ice.

"It was a good time but that wasn't an enjoyable start to the year," said 28-year-old Martin. "The downhill sections were incredibly slippery. Every time I went round a corner I was waiting for the conditions to catch me out. It's difficult to find grip when the conditions change all the time but the Focus was perfect. I drove on the limit but always on the safe side of the limit."

Duval and Prevot were fourth fastest in their similar Focus RS. "It's the first time I've driven in such conditions so I was careful and braked early," said Duval. "Conditions were worse than I expected with a lot of snow on the road. I think most of it had been dragged there by the cars running before us."

Drivers now tackle both the cancelled opening test and Piegut - Urtis for a second time before returning to the Tallard service park.



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