Monte Carlo, chic, stylish and home to the rich and famous, is a fitting location for the first FIA World Rally Championship event of the new millennium. It is also the ideal setting for the Ford Martini World Rally team to launch its title campaign with an improved car and a new driver combination that gives the team the strongest line-up of any manufacturer.
Ahead lie 14 rallies on five different continents in conditions as diverse as the frozen wastes of Sweden and the searingly hot plains of Kenya before the world championship titles are bestowed. It all starts in the Principality of Monaco with probably the most famous and certainly the most unpredictable event of all, the Monte Carlo Rally (20 - 22 January).
Much is different within the Ford Martini team for 2000. The Ford Focus World Rally Car, the most radical and technologically advanced rally car ever seen when it made its debut in Monte Carlo 12 months ago, has undergone major modifications to keep it at the forefront. A new aerodynamic package gives the Focus a re-profiled front bumper and rear wing. Under the skin a new turbo and anti-lag system and a revised transmission are the results of a year's experience, while remaining faithful to the basic layout of the car which won twice in 1999.
Colin McRae and Nicky Grist are joined in the team by double world champions Carlos Sainz and Luis Moya and all are looking forward to the challenges ahead.
"As with any new car it's difficult to form an accurate opinion of its capabilities until you drive it for the first time on a rally and have the opportunity to compare it with other manufacturers," said McRae. "But our test in France earlier this month, on roads similar to those used in the rally, was encouraging. We had a few niggling troubles but the new transmission worked well and the revised engine has plenty of potential."
For the 31-year-old Scot, the rally can almost be described as his home event as he now lives in Monaco, but it is not one of his favourites. "Everything is very unpredictable. The special stages themselves are not difficult but the constantly changing conditions, where the roads can be snowy and icy on one side of a mountain and bone dry on the other make it very hard," he added.
Sainz is a Monte Carlo veteran and has won the rally three times (1991, 1995 and 1998). He, more than most, understands the intricacies of the event. "It's a difficult event and it's all the harder because this will be my first rally in the Focus. We've just finished a good test, continuing the process of learning the car and we've had the opportunity to drive for four days without major problems.
"My target for the rally is to get more experience with the car and the ideal situation would be to finish and score points. A podium would be fantastic. It will be important to develop a good feeling straight away. If I'm confident with the car from the very beginning it will be much easier," added Sainz. Ford Martini team director Malcolm Wilson is upbeat about prospects for the year. "It's hard to believe we're already into the second year of the Focus but we learned a lot during 1999 and have tried to incorporate those lessons into the 2000 car. We know the car is competitive and in Colin and Carlos we have a driver pairing that will benefit from each other's input as the season goes on," he said.
Tyre selection is more important on the Monte Carlo Rally than on any other event in the championship and Ford Martini's tyre partner, Michelin, has spent many hours testing and evaluating different rubber. No fewer than 14 basic patterns of tyre will be available for McRae and Sainz and with different stud options and the possibility of adding additional cuts, the choice can be bewildering.
"This is the toughest round as far as tyres are concerned because of the variety and combination of surfaces plus the fact that you must often choose a single type of tyre for consecutive tests in different conditions," said Sainz. "Get your choice wrong once and it can make the difference between winning and losing.
"The more difficult the conditions, the more your choice becomes a compromise. It's not rare for dry weather racing tyres to be the ideal choice despite snow or ice somewhere in the stage. In this situation, it's crucial to know how to adapt your pace for the portions where the tyres aren't ideally suited to the surface," he said.
To assist with selection both the Ford Martini team and Michelin position personnel high on the mountain tops. They relay information by radio about the road and weather conditions to help tyre engineers predict what the conditions will be like, maybe two hours later, when the rally drivers tackle the stages.
While Monte Carlo provides the glamorous backdrop, the real action is fought out over inhospitable mountain passes in the French Alps. Having left the Mediterranean Riviera following Thursday's ceremonial start in Casino Square, competitors do not return until Saturday's finish - the small town of Gap providing both overnight halts. Drivers face 412km in just 15 stages in a route of 1468km and the average stage length of almost 27.50km is one of the highest in the championship. The rally could be won and lost at two locations. The 48.55km Plan de Vitrolles - Faye test during leg two is the longest of all and a repetition of the ice during the opening test of the 1999 event could see a similar rate of attrition. The famous Sisteron - Thoard test in leg three is always a key stage. Conditions can change rapidly at the top of the Col de Fonbelle making tyre selection harrowing.
MONTE CARLO RALLY
ROUND 1 FIA WORLD RALLY CHAMPIONSHIP 20 - 23 JANUARY 2000
Stage km Time
Thursday 20 January: Leg 1 Monaco - Gap
Start Monaco 10.30 SS1 Tourette du Chateau - St Antonin 24.81 12.03 SS2 Saint Pierrre - Entrevaux 30.63 12.36 SS3 Norante - Ets. Thermal 19.75 14.40 SS4 Selonnet - Breziers 17.94 17.28 SS5 Rochebrune - Urtis 19.70 18.01 Finish Gap 19.40 Total 112.83 Friday 21 January: Leg 2 Gap - Gap Start Gap 07.00 SS6 L'Epine - Rosans 31.40 08.38 SS7 Ruissas - Eygalayes 27.70 11.11 SS8 Plan de Vitrolles - Faye 48.55 13.29 SS9 Pruni