The spectacular backdrop of Monte Carlo's floodlit casino provided the perfect setting for the opening of the 2005 FIA World Rally Championship.

Large crowds gathered in Casino Square yesterday evening for the start ceremony of the famous Monte Carlo Rally, the first of 16 rounds which will take competitors across five continents in pursuit of the two world titles.

The focus moved north to the mountains of the Alpes-Maritimes this morning as the competition began in earnest with two demanding speed tests. Temperatures were at an unusually mild 7?C, with dazzling sunshine lighting up the mountains, as cars began the opening 22.93km special stage from Ilonse to Pierlas. There was little ice or snow on the asphalt and Michelin's medium compound slick tyres were the choice of BP-Ford World Rally Team drivers Toni Gardemeister and Jakke Honkanen and team-mates Roman Kresta and Jan Tomanek.

For both drivers this was their debut with the BP-Ford squad and their first competitive drive in the latest specification Focus RS World Rally Car. It was a new stage to the rally and incredibly narrow stretches of asphalt along the flank of the Col de la Sinne, punctuated by frequent hairpins with huge drops into the valleys below, demanded caution.

Gardemeister started well, posting fifth quickest time in his Castrol-backed Focus RS. The 29-year-old Finn was then sixth quickest through the twisty 20.16km St Antonin - Toudon test to return to the Monaco service park in sixth, 30.1sec behind leader Sebastien Loeb.

"I drove quite slowly on the opening test but that was my plan because it was my first stage in the car," he said. "There was about 1.5km of snow and I wasn't prepared to take any risks. I drove faster on the second test but I'm braking too early at the moment. I don't have 100 per cent confidence yet, but that will come with time. There was ice near the start of the second stage but my safety crew has done a great job and all the tricky places have been marked."

Czech team-mates Kresta and Tomanek were 13th through the opening test and 10th through the next to return to service in 12th.

"It has been a difficult morning. My times weren't so good but that wasn't a surprise because I drove very carefully. Everything is new to me, but the Focus feels good and we made a good tyre choice," said 28-year-old Kresta.



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