Rally fever has been steadily growing across the globe as we get ready for one of the most historic rallies in history. Two weeks ago we got a taste of the European Rally Championship at the Austrian held Jänner Rally which ended in an epic charge by Jan Kopecký to win by just half a second. This time it will be the top level WRC class on the icy roads of southern France pushing to the limit. Who will win? Will Loeb once again out pace everyone? Or will Ogier now in his new VW Polo finally get the upper hand on his nemesis?
Rallye Monte Carlo begins the 40th anniversary season of the FIA World Rally Championship, and on its own is one of the oldest rallies in history. This is the 81st running of the Monte which dates back to 1911. Back then early motorist adventurers would start from different locations throughout europe and race on open roads to Monte Carlo which at that time was the finish to a multi-day 2500 kilometer cross country event.
Rallying today is quite a bit different from the days of yore with a much more compressed format of short closed stage sprints. Regardless of those changes, many of the historic routes remain. Most of the stages these days are run just north of Monaco in the southeast corner of France at the foothills of the Alps. With its deep valleys and high peaks the roads in this region contain many hairpin turns, narrow bridges, steep climbs, and hair raising descents. The most famous being the epic 20K climb over the Col de Turini.
Rally Monte Carlo is officially a tarmac rally, but with it running in January there is always the threat of weather. And by weather I mean snow and ice. What makes this event so interesting is that a single stage can start out with dry roads, climb up into full snow and ice at the peak, then descend back into dry conditions again. This is why Rally Monte Carlo is all about the tires. If a team takes studded tires, performance on the dry pavement will be horrible but they will have excellent grip in the snow and ice. The other option is to gamble on running tarmac tires gaining all the speed and performance at the lower elevations, but having to be extra careful in the snow. Last year saw Jari-Matti Latvala do a unique cross-pattern setup with soft tarmac and studs. The combination allowed him to gain 50 seconds over Leob until he went off halfway through day one.
Rally Monte Carlo will run 468 competitive stage miles spread out over 4 days from Wednesday through Sunday. And so much for the doom and gloom for the WRC. Last year saw 12 top level WRC entries, and this year has 13. Additionally there will be the other classes competing with the WRC-2 4wd normally aspirated Super 2000s and Group N production cars. As well as the new WRC-3 2wd class. In all there are 113 cars entered!
With the top level WRC class, Ford is well represented even though they are no longer a “title sponsor.” Six Ford Fiesta RS WRC cars will be in the hunt at Monte, four of which under the new Qatar M-Sport World Rally Team. Their top two entrants eligible for manufacturer points are young Norwegian Mads Ostberg and Russian Evgeny Novikov. Also flying the Qatar banner will be ERC Champion and WRC Super 2000 Champion, the very much underrated Juho Hanninen. Finally Theirry Neuville formerly in a Citroen will be in the last of the Qatari Fords. Entered in privately run Fords will be Czech driver Martin Prokop and last but not least local French driver Julien Maurin.
Citroen Total Abu Dhabi World Rally Team (that’s a mouthful!) will of course be headlined by the master himself, Sebastian Loeb. Technically the new lead, Mikko Hirvonen, is the other driver up for manufacturer points. Tarmac specialist and former Loeb teammate Dani Sordo will drive a third Citroen DS3 WRC. Bryan Buffier, the ever so close runner up in the Jänner Rally will be sporting a privately entered DS3.
Then we have the all new Volkswagen squad in their VW Polo R WRC cars. The insanely quick Sebastian Ogier leads the team seconded by the charismatic and also fast (when he can keep it on the road) Jari-Matti Latvala. VW does not yet have any customer cars, but there is one final entrant in the top WRC class. Polish driver Michal Kosciuszko is entered in a Mini John Cooper Works WRC.
As of this writing, snow is falling on the stages of Rally Monte Carlo. Slick conditions are known to be the great equalizer where cars with maybe not as perfect a setup or a little less power are still competitive. When it comes to snow and ice, nobody knows that better than those who grew up in the northern latitudes of Scandinavia where they race on frozen lakes. However, experience is everything in rally racing and nobody in the top class has more than Loeb, so it is hard to bet against him. Also, Citroen in general seems to have the magic touch in predicting weather conditions and getting the tire choice right.
Here is my podium prediction. Loeb will still win, but not by much. He will be closely chased by Juho Hanninen who will be anxious to show how he can perform if given the right hardware. 3rd place I’ll give to Sebastian Ogier, who will dial in just a bit of conservancy as there is a long season ahead of him.
First out? Well, that’s a tough one. Will it be a newcomer or one of the more experienced drivers? I’m going to pick Dani Sordo as first out as I heard this is his first time in a Citroen DS3 in the snow.
I strongly encourage you all to take a listen to the action on WRC.com. All times are central european which means for me on the west coast the first stage starts at midnight tonight (3 AM for you eastern folks). Thankfully most stage reporting is replayed multiple times on WRC Live radio. Bring on the Monte!