After a 'closed season' of less than two months, the 2001 FIA World Rally Championship begins this evening with the ceremonial start of the Rallye Monte Carlo. The event, which celebrates its 90th birthday this year, will start in earnest tomorrow...
After a 'closed season' of less than two months, the 2001 FIA World Rally Championship begins this evening with the ceremonial start of the Rallye Monte Carlo. The event, which celebrates its 90th birthday this year, will start in earnest tomorrow morning on the icy mountain roads of southern France. Seven manufacturer teams have committed to the 14-round championship, and six of them are poised to fight for victory on the opening rally, traditionally one of the most unpredictable on the calendar.
Double world champion Peugeot has made only mild revisions to the successful 206 WRC, and altered its driver line-up with the signing of 1994 title-winner Didier Auriol. He joins reigning champion Marcus Gronholm, Gilles Panizzi and Harri Rovanpera, although the latter will not appear for the team until the next round in Sweden. Gronholm is confident that he will be an even stronger contender as he aims for a second crown, but the Finn admits that starting the year with a victory in Monte Carlo could prove difficult. "I should be better throughout the season because at least I know the rallies better," he said, "but I only managed five stages in Monte Carlo last year so my experience here is nearly zero. My aim is to settle back into competition and try to get some points." Local hopes are being pinned on Auriol and Panizzi - particularly the former, who is already a three-times winner of the rally. As was often the case last year, Peugeot's drivers have opted for different transmission set-ups. Gronholm's 206 will be fitted with three computer-controlled, 'active' differentials, while Auriol and Panizzi will use non-active examples at the front and rear of their cars.
The latest version of the Focus WRC incorporates a number of small revisions over its predecessor. Most notably, Ford's engineers have introduced a fly-by-wire throttle, as well as a new ceramic turbocharger and more sophisticated transmission that features traction control for the first time. The car's rear wing has also been reprofiled to reduce aerodynamic drag at high speeds. Ford's existing driver line-up of Colin McRae and Carlos Sainz has been bolstered further by the addition of Francois Delecour, who joined from Peugeot just before Christmas. The new signing is confident of a strong showing in Monte Carlo, an event that he won for his new employer back in 1994. "I've already been impressed with the car," he said, "and I don't see any reason why I shouldn't be able to fight for the win." Ford switches from Michelin tyres to Pirelli for 2001, although Sainz doesn't believe that the move will make too much difference. "I'm glad to work with Pirelli again," he said, "but Michelin was also strong. For the last few years, both tyre companies have been fighting hard for the championship, so it's quite close now anyway." For his part, McRae is resolved to put his 2000 disappointment behind him and fight for a second world title. "What happened last year has only made me more determined," he said. "I think we proved in the second half of the season that we've got a competitive and reliable car - now we just have to build on that."
Team Principal David Lapworth admits that Subaru is 'taking a risk' in both its choice of drivers and technical strategy in 2001. "The new car should be a major step forward," said Lapworth. "We wanted to stick our necks out, take some risks and hopefully set new standards for performance." Although the latest Impreza draws heavily on last year's model, the team's engineers have experimented with engine airflow and packaging. Double World Rally Championship runner-up Richard Burns is optimistic that the team has prepared for Monte Carlo's notoriously fickle weather conditions. "We've gone through just about every permutation of tyres that we can think of," he said. "I'd expect all of last year's title contenders to be involved again, as well as Didier Auriol (who moves to Peugeot). He'd a lean year in 2000 but I think he'll bounce back." Both of Subaru's 'young chargers', 26-year old Petter Solberg and 25-year old Markko Martin, will tackle Monte Carlo, with the Estonian nominated for manufacturers' points alongside Burns. Recent signing Toshihiro Arai is not scheduled to make his first appearance for the team until Portugal.
The Ralliart team takes its first real step towards the World Rally Car version of the Lancer in Monte Carlo, with a heavily-revised version of last year's car. It will feature improvements in key areas (in particular, its rear suspension and the flywheel) that will be incorporated in the new Lancer WRC that will make its debut in Sanremo later this year. The team's operations are now under the control of experienced co-ordinator George Donaldson, who joined Ralliart from Toyota Team Europe late last season. Four-times world champion Tommi Makinen has been encouraged by the progress made in recent testing. "The revised rear suspension makes a big difference," he said. "It's more than just increased travel - the geometry is improved too. Last year was difficult - it always is when you try to achieve something and fail - so I'm determined to win our titles back. That starts here, and my record in Monte Carlo is quite strong. I think we've got a good chance, particularly if the conditions stay slippery." Belgian driver Freddy Loix starts his third season with Mitsubishi determined to erase the memory of two difficult years. "I've had more testing and it's gone well," said Loix. "If conditions stay snowy and icy then the most important thing will be not to make mistakes. Just staying on the road will probably be good enough to guarantee a reasonable result."
Armin Schwarz stays with the Czech marque in 2001, as the firm celebrates its 100th year in motorsport. His Octavia WRC features mild modifications since the end of last season, most notably revised ducting in the engine bay to improve airflow to the turbo. Schwarz believes that it could take another year before Skoda is ready to fight for wins, but he believes that progress made in the meantime will keep the Octavia in contention for points finishes. " Monte's a good place to start," said Schwarz. "It's completely unpredictable and a good, clean run can be enough to score a fourth or a fifth place. The car's getting better all the time and if we stay out of trouble, a good result is possible." Schwarz has a new team-mate for 2001 - Bruno Thiry - although the Belgian drove for Skoda once before, on the Rally Great Britain in 1999. He finished fifth in Monte Carlo last year, and pre-event testing has left him hopeful of a repeat performance this season. "The Octavia's a big car but it handles quite well," said Thiry. "If the conditions are as unpredictable as ever, then one good tyre choice could be enough to score a good finish."
The Korean manufacturer fields new signing Piero Liatti alongside Alister McRae, with veteran Kenneth Eriksson due to appear on the next round in Sweden. Liatti's pre-event preparations were hit by an accident during the shakedown test yesterday. The Italian was experimenting with tyre choice but he slid off on his opening run and damaged his Accent WRC sufficiently to end hopes of further mileage. "I only drove for 200 metres," said Liatti. "I suppose my testing really starts tomorrow morning, so it'll be difficult." Team Principal David Whitehead reports that although the Accent's chassis was bent in the accident, the damage was all in front of the car's suspension and it has been completely repaired. Alister McRae suffered no such dramas, and the Scot is optimistic that changes to the Accent's engine will reap rewards. "I think we'll have closed the gap to the top teams since the end of last season," he said.
The new Xsara T4 World Rally Car is not scheduled to appear in the FIA World Championship until Catalunya in March, but Citroen is adopting a long-term strategy and has entered two of its drivers, Philippe Bugalski and Jesus Puras, for this weekend's event to help them gain experience. Both will use 1600cc Saxo kit cars that will not allow them to fight for overall honours, but the pair's aim will be to make and check pacenotes for the stages at competitive speed. Puras said: "I'm glad Citroen is giving us the chance to compete and recce for rallies outside of the Xsara T4 programme this year. At least we'll be able to have a look at the roads and conditions, and be better prepared for when we come back with the four-wheel drive car." Citroen's other driver, Thomas Radstrom, is not present in Monte Carlo but he will make use of the flexibility of his contract to drive for Mitsubishi in Sweden next month.
Beyond the factory World Rally Car entries, former works SEAT driver Toni Gardemeister switches to an HF Grifone-run Peugeot 206 WRC for Monte Carlo. The other leading World Rally Car privateer is likely to be Italian Piero Longhi, who fields a Toyota Corolla WRC.
In Group N, meanwhile, Manfred Stohl and Gustavo Trelles have enjoyed fierce competition in the category for more standard vehicles in recent years, and there's little to suggest that they'll break the habit in 2001. Both will compete in Monte Carlo this weekend, and reigning FIA Group N World Champion Stohl is predicting a tough fight - here, and during the rest of the year. "There have never been so many good drivers in Group N," he said. "Even outside the regular guys there are often local drivers who'll make it tough. It'll be hard to keep my title." Italian Gianluigi Galli is a likely challenger to Stohl and Trelles in Monte Carlo.
<pre> ITINERARY GMT +1
Leg 1, Friday 19th January (667.49 km) SS 1 10:03 Bif. D 5 / D 10 - Roquesteron 22.89 km SS 2 10:46 Saint Pierre - Entrevaux 30.34 km SS 3 13:19 Bif. D 5 / D 10 - Roquesteron 22.89 km SS 4 14:02 Saint Pierre - Entrevaux 30.34 km SS 5 17:03 Comps Castellane 20.53 km SS 6 18:09 Clumanc - Lambruisse 14.75 km Leg 2 - Saturday 20th January (814.77 km)
SS 7 09:53 Bif. D 1 / C 1 - Turriers 24.12 km SS 8 11:06 Sisteron - Thoard 36.69 km SS 9 13:34 Clumanc - Lambruisse 14.75 km SS 10 15:07 Comps - Castellane 20.53 km SS 11 18:00 Sisteron - Thoard 36.69 km
Leg 3 - Sunday 21st January (277.11 km) SS 12 09:08 Sospel - La Bollene Vesubie 32.72 km SS 13 10:03 Loda - Luceram 16.55 km SS 14 12:28 Sospel - La Bollene Vesubie 32.72 km SS 15 13:23 Loda - Luceram 16.55 km 15:15 Finish of the rally in Monte-Carlo
ENTRY LIST (TOP 30)
1 Gronholm/Rautianen (Fin) Peugeot 206 WRC A8 2 Auriol/Giraudet (F) Peugeot 206 WRC A8 3 McRae/Grist (GB) Ford Focus RS WRC A8 4 Sainz/Moya (ES) Ford Focus RS WRC A8 5 Burns/Reid (GB) Subaru Impreza WRC A8
6 Solberg/Mills (N/GB) Subaru Impreza WRC A8 7 Makinen/Mannisenmaki (Fin) Mitsubishi Lancer Evo A8 8 Loix/Smeets (B) Mitsubishi Carisma GT A8 9 McRae.A/Senior (GB) Hyundai Accent WRC A8 10 Piero/Cassina (I) Hyundai Accent WRC A8
11 Schwarz/Hiemer (D) Skoda Octavia WRC A8 12 Thiry/Prevot (B) Skoda Octavia WRC A8
16 Panizzi/Panizzi (MC/F) Peugeot 206 WRC A8 17 Delecour/Grataloup (F) Ford Focus RS WRC A8 18 Martin/Park (EST/GB) Subaru Impreza WRC A8 19 Gardemeister/Lukander (Fin) Peugeot 206 WRC A8 20 Bugalski/Chiaroni (F) Citroen Saxo Kit Car A6
21 Puras/Marti (E) Citroen Saxo Kit Car A6 22 Longhi/Baggio (I) Toyota Corolla WRC A8 23 Stohl/Muller (A) Mitsubishi Lancer Evo VI N4 24 Trelles/Fel Buone (ROU/RA) Mitsubishi Lancer Evo VI N4 25 Galli/Bernacchini (I) Mitsubishi Lancer Evo VI N4
26 Pozzo/Cretu (RA) Mitsubishi Lancer Evo VI N4 27 Maselli/Arena (I) Fiat Punto Kit Car A6 28 Burri/Patthey (CH) Toyota Corolla WRC A8 29 Tsjoen/Vergalle (B) Toyota Corolla WRC A8 30 Zanchi/D'Esposito (I) Toyota Corolla WRC A8 -Dusty, WRC