The FIA World Rally Championship gets underway again this week with the Rallye Monte Carlo - and just 53 days have passed since the Wales Rally GB concluded the 2007 season.

Once again the Monte is based in Valence and it is essentially an asphalt event on technically straight-forward roads. However unpredictable weather can make it devilishly difficult.

Drivers can face dry roads, streaming wet asphalt and treacherous ice, with the threat of snow on higher ground. They can often encounter all on the same stage as the route climbs and descends inhospitable mountain cols, switching from southern facing roads sheltered from extreme weather to exposed northern ones.

The rally can be won or lost on a good or bad tyre choices. Each group of speed tests can contain stages which offer vastly different conditions and must be tackled on rubber chosen more than three hours before the action begins.

There is no perfect choice for such weather, especially with new regulations restricting the options available. Frequently the secret for success is selecting compromise tyres which lose least time in the 'wrong' conditions.

Special notes:

This is the 76th Rallye Monte Carlo and the four day event is a notoriously tricky combination of snow, ice and demanding routes which often produces some surprise results.

Crews will leave the service park in Valence, near the river Rhone in south-east France, for three of the four days of competition until the finish of Saturday's stages, at which point the WRC contingent will decamp to a second service park location in Monaco, opposite the Automobile Club de Monaco headquarters.

The asphalt roads twist and flow through the breathtaking but tricky mountain stages of the region. A welcome inclusion of the Alpes Maritimes region on Sunday will see crews tackle the spectacular Col de Turini and finish the rally with a high-speed blast around the harbour section of the famed Monaco Grand Prix circuit.

The 365 kilometres of competition starts on Thursday evening with two night stages. There is no gentle start to the year: the opening stage is just shy of being the longest of the event at over 28 kilometres.

The weather in January in Monte Carlo will be typically cold, and this year the rally has been scheduled one week later in an attempt to ensure the snow that the rally just missed last season.

FIA World Rally Championship news:

There are a number of changes this year to the WRC and in addition to the fact there will be no Marcus Gronholm - and he will be definitely missed - the biggest difference concerns the tyres.

The Monte will be the first rally in which the teams will use the Pirelli championship control tyre and there will be just three options: the DS soft slick tyre, the snow WX tyre without metal studs, and the WX tyre with studs that provide extra traction on icy sections. Anti-deflation devices have also been banned and this could definitely influence the outcome of events.

"We always say that a rally is never over until you cross the finish line and I think that will be even more so in the future," BP Ford team director, Malcolm Wilson told Radio recently when asked about the changes. "There is still a great unknown out there at the moment.

"All it needs is for a driver to throw up one rock and you come round a corner and you are on your line and you can't change it. It is inevitable then that you will probably burst a tyre. You could end up in a situation when you have got a very good lead and coming out of the final corner on the final stage something like that could happen.

"I think it is another dimension that we are going to have to get use to and there is still a lot of tactics to be sorted out. Do you take one spare? Do you take two spares? There are a lot of possibilities and while everyone will be looking for performance, I think we will see drivers' changing wheels on stages."

News from the Manufacturers' teams:

Citroen Total WRT:

[Sebastien Loeb, car #1 and Daniel Sordo, car #2]

Loeb in line for record win.

Sebastien Loeb will begin his bid to win a record fifth world title this weekend on the Rallye Monte Carlo.

The Frenchman will start the classic as the undisputed favourite and having come out top in 2007, 2005, 2004 and 2003, he could become the most successful driver in the history of the event should he and co-driver, Daniel Elena succeed again this Sunday.

"As is often the case at the start of a new season, there are a lot of unknown factors. We will need to find the best match between the tyres we have and the stage conditions, but our aim is to try to win and get the year off to a positive start," he stated.

Asked about the event itself, Seb added that he would love to see some snow again, after it was absent from last year's edition.

"I'm obviously dreaming of a white Monte Carlo, with real wintry conditions," he continued. "The route focuses on three different regions, so the stages will be very varied. Thursday evening's tests are wide, fast and smooth. Those in the Ard?che are more technical, narrower and occasionally bumpy. Last year, the conditions were particularly dry but it should be fun if we get snow and ice this time round!

"I am delighted to see that the Col du Turini and some other classic stages in the southeast corner of France are back. That said, the challenge of having to contest the final day's four stages with the same tyres could well turn out to be quite delicate."

Loeb's team-mate Daniel Sordo meanwhile would prefer there to be no snow, as a pure asphalt event would definitely play to his strengths and help him secure a place on the podium.

"I'm very much looking forward to the start of the Monte Carlo Rally, although we will probably need time to adapt to our new tyres," he added. "We have prepared thoroughly for this event but nothing can replace actually being on the rally. The Monte's stages are fantastic but we will need to stay focused from start to finish if we want to achieve our objective which is a top-three finish with a view to scoring as many points as possible for Citroen."

BP Ford Abu Dhabi WRT:

[Mikko Hirvonen, car #3 and Jari-Matti Latvala, car #4]

Mikko sets sights high.

Mikko Hirvonen has vowed to go for 'gold' on the Rallye Monte Carlo.

Mikko will have his first real shot at going for the title this season and while the event at the Principality is traditionally one that is dominated by Sebastien Loeb and Citroen - Seb has won it four times in the last five years - the Finn told Radio at the Autosport International Show earlier this month that he has no intention of just going for solid points and trying to limit the damage.

"I think if I want to win the title I need to go to all the rallies and try and win [including Rallye Monte Carlo]. Of course, like always, it depends on what the weather does," he explained. "Last year when it was a dry tarmac rally it didn't really 'feel' like the Rallye Monte Carlo. You always need some ice and some snow and tricky conditions. That is the real Monte.

"Hopefully we will have that this year. But still [whatever happens with the weather] I just need to go there and try and win the rally - and if I can't then I will try to be second."

Asked how important it is to get his campaign off to a good start on the Monte, the BP Ford Abu Dhabi WRT-man added that it is crucial.

"It is very important - but of course anything can happen on the Rallye Monte Carlo. It is a difficult rally," he continued. "But if you want to take the title you cannot have any rallies where you don't get any points.

"There is no room for any mistakes or to go off the road. It is going to be tricky but it is the same for everybody. Everybody has to drive in the same conditions. You never know what is going to happen."

Mikko's new team-mate Jari-Matti Latvala meanwhile has said that he will be targeting a top-five finish. Jari goes to the opening round on the back of a superb end to the 2007 season, when he claimed his first podium in Ireland and won a string of special stages in Britain.

Furthermore since being confirmed with the Ford 'A' team for 2008, the 22-year-old has been busy doing several tests, the most recent of which came to a close on Saturday when the M-Sport-run outfit was back in France to conclude its preparations for the Monte.

"I have a good feeling. We have been at M-Sport and have been getting ourselves familiar with the new car. I have done quite a lot of testing too. I am confident and we have a test on Saturday [January 19] and hopefully we can get a good set-up for Monte Carlo," he told Radio in a separate interview.

"I would say if I can finish in the top-five I would be very satisfied. Monte Carlo is of course though very difficult. It is always a very hard rally for all the drivers. It is not so easy to enjoy because there are some big challenges to get through during the rally.

"But if it is snowy I hope it will suit my driving style. It should be a good rally also for the Ford Focus. Marcus Gronholm won the rally in 2006. It should be good for the Ford team."



Subaru WRT:

[Petter Solberg, car #5 and Chris Atkinson, car #6]

Punctures could be a real issue, says Petter.

Subaru's #1 driver Petter Solberg has warned that competitors will pay a high price for punctures this season following the outlawing of anti-deflation devices.

Speaking ahead of the Rallye Monte Carlo, the Norwegian added that whoever adapts quickest to the new Pirelli tyres and the conditions will do well this weekend at the Principality.

Furthermore while Petter himself hasn't had much luck on the Monte - only scoring points twice in his last five attempts, when he was sixth in 2007 and seventh in 2004 - he is determined to do as well as possible this time out to get the new season off to a positive start.

"It is important to get into a rhythm straight away and settle into a pace you feel comfortable with. With no anti-deflation mousse you can't take risks in the stages as a puncture could finish your rally," he confirmed.

"There will be a lot of snow I think and Monte is always tricky anyway so it won't be easy, that's for sure. It will be about who can make the most of their tyres and adapt to the conditions fastest, but if someone manages something special with them people will follow quickly."

Asked how pre-season testing has gone, the Norwegian added that he has been reasonably pleased, although he reiterated that punctures will be a big worry, especially on round one.

"Testing has been ok so far. I feel comfortable on the new tyres - tyre testing has gone well and I feel I have learned them very well," he told the team's official website, "You need a little different driving style now to get the most from them, but I am happy going into Monte and Sweden.

"Thinking about punctures will be very, very important though. You can't drive like before - one puncture and you're finished. I think people will drive more cautiously and definitely not cut corners as much."

Subaru team boss David Richards meanwhile believes that it is possible one of his drivers could finish on the podium. Although the Banbury-based outfit only managed that feat twice last year, Richards reckons that the tricky four-day event could produce a surprise result and allow Petter or Chris Atkinson to get onto the rostrum.

Indeed the weather could be especially beneficial for the Prodrive-run concern, which will have to persevere with the Impreza WRC2007 for now, until new car makes it debut at a yet to be announced event later on in the season.

"Monte Carlo Rally has often turned out to be a lottery, where the weather has thrown up some opportunistic and historic victories," he noted, "and if we can snatch those chances, who knows? I wouldn't be at all surprised if either of our drivers climbed the podium. It's one of those events where anything can happen."

For more see Part 2 of our preview for the Rallye Monte Carlo.



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