Just as Natalie Barratt was getting comfortable in the driver's seat of the MG ZR S1600 in which she will contest this year's Junior World Rally Championship, a wheel coming off in one of Friday's stages meant that her rally ended early.

The Monte Carlo Rally began in traditional fashion Thursday night as Casino Square once again played host to the ceremonial start of the opening round of the 2004 FIA World Rally Championship.

Shortly afterwards teams left the high life of Monaco behind to travel three hours north of the principality into the Alps to Tallard, just south of Gap, in preparation for the start of Friday's opening leg.

The day witnessed six special stages based around a single service park at the Tallard Aerodrome, the first of which had to be cancelled for safety precautions as there were too many spectators on the stage.

Together with new co-driver Carl Williamson, Natalie made a cautious start on SS2 allowing herself to get used to the unpredictable conditions and unfamiliar roads.

Building confidence she then started to attack on SS3 before her rally came to a dramatic end 6kms into the stage. Coming into a left hand corner the right front wheel studs sheared on her MG ZR causing the wheel to fly off the car and straight down a 600ft drop beyond the corner. Natalie luckily managed to bring the car to a stop on the bend without any further incident.

Remaining philosophical despite her early retirement on the opening round of her Junior World Rally Championship bid, Barratt looks forward to the more familiar gravel roads of round two of the JWRC, the Acropolis Rally [June 4-6].

"We decided to take the first stage really slow this morning to get a bit more of a feeling for the car and then begin to build up speed on the next," she said, "Stage three was going really well and then about six kilometres into the stage I heard a loud bang and Carl told me the right front wheel had come off the car.

"It flew straight past us," she explained, "and went straight over the cliff in front of us. We slid along the road and managed to bring the car to a stop on the corner. We were really lucky the incident hadn't happened earlier in the stage as there are some sheer drops and we may not have been able to stop.

"This was my first Monte Carlo Rally and I knew it was going to be a difficult event so all I wanted to do was get the car to the finish. I'm really disappointed not to be able to do that but these things happen."

Despite her early end to the first rally of the season, Natalie is looking forward to the rest of the year in the MG ZR S1600.

"I'm really excited about the rest of the season and being back on gravel roads for the Acropolis Rally in June. Hopefully we'll have more luck there and by then I'll have had a lot more time getting used to the car."