The 2006 season will bring a range of challenges for teams and drivers, with new technical regulations demanding the removal of several computer controlled systems and a longer season stretching into December. The 16-round series kicks off with the classic three-day Rallye Monte Carlo, renowned as the most prestigious event in the Championship calendar. But bleak and inhospitable roads in the southern French Alps can provide one of the hardest challenges of the year.
Essentially an asphalt event on technically straight-forward roads, the Rallye Monte Carlo can be hugely difficult because of the unpredictable weather. Drivers can face bone dry roads, streaming wet asphalt and treacherous ice - with the threat of snow on the highest ground. They can often encounter all on the same speed test as the route climbs and descends mountain cols, switching from southern facing roads sheltered from the extreme weather to exposed northern ones.
There is no perfect tyre choice for such mixed conditions, especially when each group of special stages contains three tests which can offer vastly different conditions and on rubber that must be chosen up to four hours before the last action begins. Frequently, the secret for success is selecting compromise rubber which loses least time in the 'wrong' conditions.
Monaco's famous Casino Square, home to celebrity gamblers and big bets, is where the stakes will be raised at the ceremonial start on Thursday evening. The rally is highly compact and is based in the mountains above Monaco and Nice with competitors returning to the Principality for service in the port area. The opening leg is based entirely to the north of the Var river with the second day, the longest of the event, generally located on the opposite side. The opening day includes a brand new stage and another not used since 1994 while the second day includes a stage not used for 14 years as well as a first pass over the classic Col de Turini. The final leg has a more traditional flavour. It is based in the mountains near Sospel and includes two further passes over the Turini, with the spectacular gorge section near Moulinet again run downhill. Drivers tackle 18 stages in total, covering 366.39km in a route of 1336.84km.
As well as the team entries, Gigi Galli takes to the event in a 2005 spec Mitsubishi Lancer WRC, Alexandre Bengue drives a Skoda Fabia WRC, and so does Francois Duval and Jan Kopecky, Toni Gardeneister is entered in an Astra Racing Peugeot 307, and a host of other drivers in WRC cars. It looks to be a competitive Monte Carlo.
1. Kronos Total Citroen
The Kronos Racing Belgian team participates in the event with three Xsara WRCs. Two of these will be entered under the colours of the Kronos Total Citroen World Rally Team: one for two-times World Champions Sebastien Loeb and Daniel Elena, and the other one for their Spanish team-mates Xavier Pons and Carlos Del Barrio.
Bearing number one and two on their doors, these Xsaras depend on a team registered in the 'Manufacturers one' category, and comply with the 2006 technical definition. The most known measures of these new regulations are the prohibition of the electronic front and rear differentials and an increased restriction of the spare parts changes.
After dominating in 2002, and winning three times consecutively in Monaco, Sebastien Loeb and Daniel Elena cannot escape the fact they will play the role of favourites for another victory. No matter how confident they can be, they remain very cautious. Seb does not ignore that the changes in the other teams' line-up - and how they will adapt to the new regulations - raise many questions. In any case, some of the answers will be given by the first stage times.
Sebastien Loeb/Daniel Elena: "After clinching our second world title, Daniel and I received a lot of various requests...and it was of course really nice. But in this very busy period, we absolutely had to do two big test sessions. The previous years, during the Monte tests, we were just checking everything and fine-tuning the settings. This time, with the comeback of the mechanical front and rear diffs, we had a lot to do. We started from a basic definition and we worked mostly on the car's balance which is our priority It took a while. In tests now, we don't change the differentials' settings. We simply change it with a new one: either the rear diff itself, or if it's the front one, the gearbox in which it's located. In that case the car could be stopped for around an hour."
Xavier Pons/Carlos Del Barrio: "In 2004, I discovered the Monte in the Super 1600's category. In very difficult conditions, we went off the road and unfortunately we couldn't go any further. Last year was my first outing with a World Rally Car. There was a huge difference. I think we set some interesting times. Unfortunately, our engine broke two stages before the end of the event. This rally is very difficult but I enjoy it. You should remain calm and much focused due to all the traps you can encounter."
2. OMV-Peugeot Norway
Manfred Stohl and Henning SOLBERG will participate to the 2006 World Rally Championship in a two car team at the wheel of BOZIAN RACING Team's PEUGEOT 307 WRC"full spec 2005" ! Man fred and Henning who already illustrated themselves in the BOZIAN RACING outfit aboard PEUGEOT 206 WRC in 2004 (Henning finished 6 th overall in Rally Sweden and Man fred 6 th overall in Acropolis Rally) will compete for Manufacturer points in 12 events of the WRC within the "OMV Peugeot Norway World Rally Team" regrouping both drivers in BOZIAN RACING structure. Both cars will contest the rounds in Monte Carlo, Sweden, Mexico, Argentina, Italy, Greece, Finland, Cyprus, Turkey, Australia, New Zealand and Great Britain. Man fred STOHL, who will contest the whole championship, will additionaly participate to Catalunya, Corsica, Deutschland and Japon ! Former Ski Champion, Philippe ROUX will also join the team with a Peugeot 206 WRC in Monte Carlo.
Manfred Stohl/Ilka Minor: "The initial impressions of the Peugeot 307 WRC were fine but I've learned not to rely on feelings too much. The first rallies will show how we really will be getting along," OMV driver Manfred Stohl explains. In the beginning Manfred Stohl had to wrestle with the vehicle length which is 20 cm longer than the one of his car last year. But the problem was duly solved. Said the OMV driver, tongue firmly in cheek: "After a few kilometre the front and rear bumper were missing -- and we were back at the old measurements."
Henning Solberg/Cato Menkerud: Teammate Henning Solberg is impressed by the engine power of his new vehicle: "I'm very confident for my first start in Monte Carlo. The team has prepared the car perfectly."
Rallye Monte Carlo heralds a new era for Ford. An exciting new Focus RS World Rally Car is complemented by a fresh driver line-up comprising the experience of double world champions Marcus Gronholm and Timo Rautiainen and the raw talent of rising stars Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen. The new Focus RS WRC, based on the recently launched Focus ST road car, encompasses the innovative design of BP-Ford World Rally Team technical director Christian Loriaux, his team of designers and engineers at M-Sport and the expertise of Ford TeamRS. After a test debut on the Rally Australia last year, the car lines-up for the first time in serious competition at the start of a 16-round championship which covers gravel, asphalt, snow and ice across five continents.
Marcus Gronholm/Timo Rautiainen: "The car is ready on asphalt," said the 37-year-old Finn. "Testing has gone well and I already have a good feeling with the car. I feel excited about this season and I have been counting down the days to the start since the end of last season. It's best not to try too hard on Rallye Monte Carlo though. It's a tough rally and my aim is to score a good result and avoid making any silly mistakes in the unpredictable conditions. "The rally is historic and it has to be in the championship, but it's far from being my favourite event. It's scary to start a stage when you don't know what the road conditions are going to be like. You can encounter asphalt, ice and snow and when you know you don't have the perfect tyres for one of those, you can't drive flat out. Some years I have driven in first gear on snow and ice for 3-4km because I have asphalt tyres on the car and I don't like that. You really don't know what to expect round the next corner," added Gronholm for whom this will be his seventh start.
Mikko Hirvonen/Jarmo Lehtinen: "I want to be able to learn without the pressure of having to deliver victories on my first few rallies," he said. "This is a great opportunity for me at Ford and I want to make the most of it. Testing has gone well for me so far. Asphalt isn't my favourite surface but I scored my best result on an asphalt rally in Spain last year so I know can drive well enough on it. "I've had no problems settling into the team. Many of the faces are the same as when I drove for Ford in 2003 and that has made it easier. I know testing is different to the heat of competition, but I'm confident I can start the season well and open the year with a good, solid result," he added.
4. Stobart VK M-Sport Ford
Cumbria's Matthew Wilson will make history when he arrives in Monte Carlo for the start of this year's World Rally Championship on Thursday the 19th of January. The 18-year-old becomes the youngest driver ever to start a full programme of events in the sport's global series. Despite owning a driving licence for less than two years, Matthew will go head-to-head with the best drivers in the world as he travels through 16 countries and crosses five continents in the next 11 months. And what a place to start: right outside Monaco's iconic Casino. The World Rally Championship might be new to him, but Matthew's already proved his mettle in international rallying. He won Rally Yorkshire -- one of the highest calibre events in the UK -- last October, driving a Ford Focus RS WRC similar to the one he'll be driving in Monte Carlo. But for Matthew, this year is what his whole life has been leading up to: the chance to play his part in the Stobart VK M-Sport Ford Rally Team. The chance to take on the world. Matthew won't be alone in the Stobart VK M-Sport Ford Rally Team this season. The team's second Ford Focus RS WRC will be piloted by four drivers through the year. On round one, triple Belgian champion Pieter Tsjoen takes the wheel of the number 10 Focus. This is Pieter's sole 2006 outing with the Cumbrian team, but the 31-year-old brings a wealth of experience. Along with a plethora of domestic triumphs, he has also tasted victory on the world stage, having won a highly competitive battle on the production car round of the 2002 Catalunya Rally.
Matthew Wilson/Michael Orr: "This is an amazing opportunity that people like the Stobarts and Steve Perez, from VK, have provided me with. I certainly intend to make the most of it. Monte Carlo is a really tricky rally to start the programme. Unfortunately, I was too young to do the recce last year, you have to be 18 to drive on the roads in France -- I was only 17. I've heard all the stories about Monte, about the changing road conditions and things like that. I think one of the hardest things will be the first time I come across a patch of ice when we're on slick racing tyres. I will have to slow to virtually walking pace, there'll be no grip at all. Pyschologically, that's quite tough -- you have to keep telling yourself that everybody else is doing the same thing. The minute you try to push a bit harder on the ice, you're likely to go off the road. It's going to be very different to the events I've done before, but right now I just can't wait to get started."
Pieter Tsjoen/ Eddy Chevalier: "Since I started rallying in 1998, I've been aiming for a drive like this. To be part of the Stobart VK M-sport Ford Rally Team on what is probably the most famous rally in the world is fantastic for me. Having driven in the Belgian Championship for so long, I have a lot of experience of asphalt rallies. Some of those events, such as Condroz, are run in wintry conditions similar to Monte Carlo, but it's still going to be a very big challenge for me to take on the best rally drivers around on round one."
5. 555 Subaru
The Subaru World Rally Team launches its 2006 World Rally Championship campaign in style next week in the glamorous principality of Monaco. Commencing on Friday 20 January, the historic Rallye Monte Carlo will see the competitive debut of the Subaru World Rally Team's latest title challenger, the Subaru Impreza WRC2006. Petter Solberg, Stephane Sarrazin and Chris Atkinson continue with the team in 2006. Chris Atkinson makes his Monte Carlo debut with in a Subaru Australia-entered Subaru Impreza WRC2005.
Petter Solberg/Phil Mills: "I hope a podium will be possible in Monte Carlo, but it will be a very tough rally with lots of good cars and drivers. Marcus and Sebastien will be our main rivals but we are well prepared and I hope we'll be able to fight with them. The team has worked hard to be ready and has planned everything very well. A lot will depend on the weather as always in Monte Carlo. Cold, wet and snow would be the best conditions for us."
Stephane Sarrazin/Stephane Prevot: "This is my second Monte Carlo Rally with the team and I'm more relaxed than last year as I have more experience now. I know the team, I know the car so it is automatically better. We did well on tarmac last year and I have a very good car so I think we can have a very good event and get a good result. This is a very exciting rally as you never know if you will have snow or patches of ice or just the tarmac, making it very difficult for tyre choice. I hope all the same to get some solid points. We could get in the top four."
Chris Atkinson/Glen MacNeall: "This will be my first Monte Carlo Rally and I'm really looking forward to the challenges of the roads. To get ready for the event I've been watching through videos of the stages to get a feel for them. We're running last year's car, which will make it easier for preparation as we won't have to get used to a new car and a new rally. Of course Petter and Stephane are nominated to score points for the manufacturers' championship, but it would be nice for us to get some points too. Overall though the goal is to get miles and experience of this specialist rally."
6. Red Bull-Skoda Team
Baumschlager Rallye Racing (BRR) is the name of the new Red Bull Skoda Team that will be taking on the field of the Rally WC 2006. Gilles Panizzi, Mattias Ekstrom and Andreas Aigner are the names of the drivers, meaning the private BRR team will be represented at the Rally WC 2006 with a promising mixture of experienced star pilots and powerful youngsters.
Experience is what the 40-year-old Frenchman Gilles Panizzi has in spades. Panizzi was for years unbeatable on asphalt (earning him the nickname "Tarmac Expert" in racing circles). As part of BRR, he will compete in the WC races in Monte Carlo, Spain and Corsica, joined by his brother Herve as co-pilot. It has also been announced that for the second WC race in Sweden, "local hero" Mattias Ekstrom will be taking the wheel. At 28, the Swede has already had a remarkable amount of experience with winning: he captured the DTM in 2004 and finished second behind Gary Paffet in 2005. Ekstrom, who has long displayed ambitions to drift from the asphalt, was the Group N winner at the Sweden rally.
The third man, and the rookie of the team, is Austrian rally talent and Red Bull Rallye Junior Andreas Aigner. The 21-year-old was discovered two years ago. This year, he's already made a name for himself at several Rally WC races in Group N. "Andreas, in particular, will profit from the experience of the two older pilots and learn a great deal," says team coach Raimund Baumschlager.
Gilles Panizzi/Herve Panizzi: illes Panizzi about driving the Skoda Fabia WRC for the first time: "I got along very well with the car right away. The mechanical differential worked faultlessly, and I was quite happy with the times I achieved. Therefore it should be possible to get a top result in Monte Carlo."
Andreas Aigner/Timo Gottschalk: Junior Andreas Aigner, who in December already completed a day of testing in the Czech Republic, was enthusiastic as well: "We tried different setups and tested various tyre compounds. I learned quite a lot, it was a perfect test session. That's why I can hardly wait for the rally to start, although it is going to be tough."