New-look Rallye Monte Carlo offers tough season opener
Just 46 days after ending the 2006 FIA World Rally Championship season, it's all about to start again as the teams launch in to the Rallye Monte Carlo (18 - 21 January).
The oldest event in the calendar, celebrating its 75th anniversary, it is the first of 16 in the 2007 calendar and organisers have made big changes. A new base in Valence, north-west of its traditional home in Monaco, signals a return to legendary asphalt speed tests in the Ardèche and Vercors mountains unused for 10 years.
The inland special stages are away from the warming coastal influence experienced in the traditional tests in the Alps above Monaco, home to the event in recent years. Temperatures may dip lower at night and take longer to warm up in the day. Although recent weather has been mild, the forecast arrival of a cold snap next week may bring patchy snow and ice on the bleak and inhospitable higher sections of the rally.
Essentially an asphalt event on technically straight-forward roads, unpredictable weather can make Rallye Monte Carlo hugely difficult. Drivers can face bone dry roads, streaming wet asphalt and treacherous ice – always with the threat of snow on the highest ground. They can often encounter all on the same stage as the route climbs and descends mountain cols, switching from southern facing roads sheltered from the extreme weather to exposed northern ones.
The rally can be won or lost on a good or bad choice. Each group of stages can contain tests which offer vastly different conditions that must be tackled on rubber chosen more than three hours before the action begins. There is no perfect tyre choice for such weather and frequently the secret for success is selecting compromise rubber which loses least time in the 'wrong' conditions. Reliable weather data from team personnel in the mountains and accurate condition checks from safety crews, allowed to drive the stages before competitors, are the key to the right tyres.
This year's opening leg will be held entirely in the dark, another challenge on a rally already regarded as one of the most difficult of the season and certainly the most unpredictable. It is the first time an entire leg has been held in darkness for more than 10 years.
This will be the seventh start for Grönholm, who won last year on his debut for the team. However, the move away from Monaco means the roads will be new. "I drove some in 1991 as an ice crew driver but I can't remember a thing about them," said the 38-year-old Finn. "It will be dark on the first leg and that will be difficult, especially on stages I don't know. Then on Friday there is a 46km stage in the morning to wake me up – one of the longest in the championship. It won't be easy.
"You can never drive flat out in Monte Carlo because road conditions are so unpredictable. I want to win but I'm not going to go crazy for victory. It's much better to finish second or third than risk everything pushing for a win in changing conditions. Tyres are always so important. The weather on the stages can change so quickly and can also be entirely different from that in the service park so it is important to have the best weather forecasts and the best information from our personnel in the stages," he added.
The route has been completely revised and only the final morning will be spent in its traditional Monaco base. Instead Valence will host the service park around which the bulk of the action is based. Thursday evening's opening leg is in darkness throughout and heads into the Vercors mountains east of the city. On Friday the action moves south-west of Valence into the Ardèche for the longest leg of the event, which includes two passes over the massive 46km St Pierreville - Antraigues. Saturday's competition is located north-west of the city in the Haute - Loire region. A free transit section then takes competitors to Monaco in the evening before a short super special stage around the harbour area of the Principality's Grand Prix circuit brings the competition to a close on Sunday morning. There are 15 stages covering 328.54km in a route of 1185.02km.