Just one year ago, the Citroen team laid down the gauntlet for the 2003 season by showing why they were competing in what is one of the most challenging series: The FIA World Rally Championship.
The Monte Carlo Rally lifts off tonight with the ceremonial start at the Place du Casino in Monte Carlo. Last year's winner, Sebastien Loeb will not just be defending his win in the Principality of Monaco but will hope to garner points to win the drivers' championship at the end of the 2004 season.
In a sport that is demanding of the drivers, co-drivers, cars and teams - the WRC takes place on countryside, tarmac and paved roads in any weather conditions that nature tosses their way, on fourteen countries in remote or city locales.
The defending champion, Subaru's Petter Solberg expressed his past experiences with the season opener, "Monte Carlo has not been the best rally for me in the past. I'm planning for things to be different this year, so I'm changing my strategy for the opening rounds.
"Last year I would have been fighting for first place from the very first stage, but now I think that's not the best way to be, so don't be surprised if I'm not in the points after the first day. I have a good feeling right now, I'm relaxed and just thinking about driving," Solberg added.
The first leg will take place Friday, January 23 with six stages totally 144.13kms. The rally will cover 389.32kms in 15 stages over three days. There are news stages and the familiar old ones.
"Of the nine different stages, I have previous knowledge of three of them," Loeb commented on the changes for the 2004 Monte Carlo Rally. "Three-and-a-half if you count 'Lantosque-Col de Braus" which is an extended version of 'Lantosque-Luc?ram'. I also know 'Tourette' and 'Le Bleine'. but in the opposite direction, so that doesn't help much. 'Pi?gut', 'Laborel' and 'Rosans' are all new to me. That said, apart from Carlos and those who did the 2000 Monte, I think we are pretty much all in the same boat."
The rally promises to show why it is the first event on the calendar - demanding, fast, icy roads, the Alps, the valleys - all surrounding the playground of the rich and famous.
Ford's Markko Martin discussed how the weather is unpredictable; "Because of the weather this isn't a good rally to make predictions, so I won't! But I would like to kick-start the year with a good points finish and that is something both ourselves and the Focus RS are capable of."
The top teams return for 2004 and Mitsubishi tosses their hat back in after a one-year hiatus. The young guns of the sport are in the forefront as favorites: Solberg, Loeb, Martin and Francois Duval. Add in the wily veterans, Marcus Gronholm, Carlos Sainz, Freddy Loix and Gilles Panizzi. And toss in the two youngsters, Mikko Hirvonen and Gigi Galli making their WRC debut tonight.
Loix will mark his seventh start in the Monte Carlo Rally tonight, this time in a Peugeot. "The Monte will be the 307 WRC's competition debut, so it will be important to go the whole distance."
"Testing has already shown that the car has real potential," continued Loix. "But nothing can replace actually competing and the Monte Carlo will be a very good test of reliability."
Mitsubishi's Galli commented on being the "rookie" for the season opener, "I have done very little testing in the new car, but we managed a lot more kilometers in the 2002 specification car, which gave me a chance to try out different tire specifications. The car is very young and there is a lot of work to do, but I am happy to see the team is so motivated."
Today, Thursday, was the Shakedown stage around Sospel and Gronholm had fast time of 6 minutes, 10.2 seconds in the debut of the 2004 307 WRC.
Peugeot has done extensive testing and development work on the new car, one will have to wait to see what the final results on Sunday will bring before the jury comes in.
Ford's Duval was second quickest just a mere 0.1 seconds off of Gronholm's pace. The 2003 Monte Carlo winner Loeb had the Citroen at 6 minutes, 11.4 seconds with the 2003 WRC champ Solberg 0.4 seconds adrift in his Subaru.
Mitsubishi's best was at 6 minutes, 33.1 seconds set by Panizzi in 9th position.