Monte Carlo: Ford season opener preview

Ford's young ones tackle old classic in Monte Carlo. Ford Rallye Sport enters the opening round of the FIA World Rally Championship in Monte Carlo with the youngest driver line-up ever to represent a senior team at rallying's top level.

Ford's young ones tackle old classic in Monte Carlo.

Ford Rallye Sport enters the opening round of the FIA World Rally Championship in Monte Carlo with the youngest driver line-up ever to represent a senior team at rallying's top level. Twenty-seven-year-old Markko Märtin and 22-year-old team-mates François Duval and Mikko Hirvonen provide proof of Ford's policy of placing its long-term world championship hopes in the hands of three of the sport's rising stars.

The Monte Carlo Rally (23 - 27 January) is the most celebrated and the oldest rally in the championship calendar. The playground of the rich and famous provides the ideal backdrop for the opening battles in the 14-event championship which spans three continents. However, it is the bleak and inhospitable mountain roads, high in the Alps where the weather can be notoriously unpredictable, that offer the first test of the season for the new-look Ford Rallye Sport squad.

Märtin and co-driver Michael Park, fresh from a career-best second on the final round of last year's championship in Britain, head the driving line up. They are supported by Duval and co-driver Jean-Marc Fortin, tackling a full 14-event programme for the first time, and Finnish pairing Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen, who will make their debut for Ford as a nominated works crew.

The Ford Focus RS World Rally Car has been upgraded since the end of last season, ahead of the introduction of an all-new Focus RS in April. The team has returned to French tyre partner Michelin, on whose rubber the Focus ran during its first two seasons of competition in 1999 and 2000. The car's chassis set-up has been modified slightly to accommodate the different characteristics of the new tyres.

Essentially an asphalt event over relatively simple roads, the Monte Carlo Rally can be the most difficult event in the championship because of the unpredictable weather. Drivers can face wet asphalt, treacherous ice and full snow, often all on the same speed test as the route climbs and descends mountain cols, switching from southern facing roads sheltered from extreme weather to exposed northern ones. There is no perfect tyre for such conditions and the secret for success is selecting compromise rubber which loses least time in the 'wrong' conditions.

Information provided by the team's ice note crews is crucial. Allowed to drive the stages two hours before the competitors, these crews, who are experienced rally drivers, relay information back to the team about the road and weather conditions to give drivers the best possible chance of making a good tyre choice. Exceptionally for this rally, drivers have the choice of two patterns of snow tyre, as well as two asphalt patterns, and studs are inserted into the rubber to provide extra bite through the ice and snow.

Märtin has only tackled the Monte Carlo stages once before in 2002 when there was little snow or ice to trouble drivers. "In terms of conditions, last year's rally was probably the easiest for many years. If conditions are snowy and icy this year the character of the roads will be entirely different and it will be like tackling the rally for the first time. Conditions make all the difference here. It's the trickiest rally in the world if they are bad. If they're good, it's quite straightforward. I would be pleased to finish with a point or two," he said.

The Estonian will be competing on Michelin rubber for the first time as a works driver and has spent much time in pre-event testing learning the intricacies of the French tyres. "It would be nice to have more experience of them as we still have a lot to learn. This is the most difficult rally of the year in terms of tyre choice and knowledge of the tyre range is all important but we'll have good advice from Michelin's engineers," he added.

Duval is competing on the rally for the second time, having won the Junior World Championship category in a Ford Puma in 2002. "That was good experience but it's so different driving a two-wheel drive Puma to a four-wheel drive Focus," said the Belgian. "The exit and entry speeds into corners are faster in a Focus so we'll have to rewrite our pace notes. Our existing notes will provide a basic starting point, but no more than that so we'll look at the event with fresh eyes.

"I'm happy with the way testing has gone in France because I've had a lot of time in the car, driven in a variety of conditions and begun to build a good working relationship with the team. I think I can surprise a few people this season. Last year I drove at only about 80 percent on events so this season I hope I can show people I have the potential to achieve great things," added Duval.

Hirvonen will start only his fourth world championship event in a Focus, prepared to the same specification as the cars of Märtin and Duval. "I can't wait to get behind the wheel. We've not done this rally before. Our only real experience of asphalt events was the Sanremo Rally last year and some small Italian events, so we're not putting any pressure on ourselves - we just want to finish. Our focus is learn, learn, learn - exactly what Markko did last year," said the Finn.

"When you hear anyone talk about this rally, they talk about the weather and it's been interesting spending time with the team at the pre-event test to get a feel for what the variations can be. Ideally I would wish it to be either consistently dry, snowy or icy - not a mixture of the three - and ideally snow," he added.

Team News

* Throughout the season Ford Rallye Sport's Focus RS World Rally Cars will feature the Ford centennial logo to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Ford Motor Company.

* Since the end of the 2002 championship Märtin and Duval have completed 21 days of testing in preparation for the 2003 season

* H & R has been appointed as the new supplier of specialised springs for the cars' suspension system.

* Emma Lowe has joined Ford Rallye Sport as the team's new physiotherapist. She previously ran her own Sports Injuries and Remedial Massage Clinic in Carlisle, England, and will be based full time at M-Sport.

* The logistics are such that the team will use eight different hotels in four different towns to house personnel during the rally

* The team will use 26 different vehicles to transport personnel

* Ford Rallye Sport's catering team expects to service more than 750 meals during the event

FIA Junior World Rally Championship

Four Ford Puma Super 1600 cars will tackle the first of seven rounds of the Junior Championship, which runs alongside the main series. Chris Birkbeck Rallysport, the team that prepared the Puma which carried Duval to JWRC victory on this rally last year, will run cars for former British Championship contender Guy Wilks and Phil Pugh and Norway's Martin Stenshorne with co-driver Clive Jenkins, who finished sixth in the series in 2001. Italian team Astra Racing will be represented by rising young Lebanese star Abdo Feghali and co-driver Joseph Matar and Austrian Beppo Harrach with partner Michael Kölbach.

Wilks has progressed through Ford's Ladder of Opportunity programme and views his maiden season in the JWRC as one of learning. "My confidence will improve as the year progresses as I haven't done any JWRC rounds apart from Great Britain. Monte Carlo will be about getting experience and fighting the rate of attrition to score some points. If you drive at 100 percent all the time, you won't finish. It's about finding the right balance between speed and staying on the road," said the 21-year-old.

Although Stenshorne has tackled the rally before, he only completed six stages before retiring. "It's a gamblers' rally. I'll drive carefully, try and be fast on the dry stages and easy on the others and if I can end up in the top three I'll be happy. I haven't had much time to prepare. I'm competing in the Norwegian Group N Championship this year as well so in January and February I have rallies every weekend," he explained.

Twenty-five-year-old Feghali said it was 'like a dream' when his 2003 drive was confirmed. "I'll aim to finish in the points in Monte Carlo by taking it slowly and making no mistakes. This is one of the hardest rallies in the world. I have no proper experience on ice or snow and I don't know how I will tackle it until I get there," he said.

Harrach's JWRC programme came as a surprise to the Austrian. "I wasn't expecting to be competing at all. The deal with Astra happened very quickly and it's all been a bit of a blur as I only finished the Austrian Group N Championship two days before the Rally of Great Britain last year. Swapping to a two-wheel drive car will be difficult. I've only driven heavy, long, four-wheel drive cars before," said the 23-year-old.

Rally Route

Monte Carlo's famous Casino Square, home to celebrity gamblers and big bets, is where the stakes will be raised when the 2003 championship gets under way on Thursday evening. After a ceremonial start there, drivers head north into the Alps for the following day's opening leg, which is based around Gap and accounts for almost half the event's competitive distance. It includes two runs at the 47.27km Plan de Vitrolles test, the longest of the rally, the second of which will be in darkness. The second and third legs are based at the service park around the swimming pool complex on Monaco's Grand Prix circuit. The second day features two laps of two tests north of Grasse while the final leg follows a similar format over two tests in the mountains above Monte Carlo itself. The famous Col de Turini section, where spectators gather in their thousands, will be tackled twice on the final day but another famous stage, the feared Sisteron, is missing from the schedule. Just seven different stages, each run twice, comprise the 415.02km of competition in a route of 1390.03km.


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Series WRC
Teams M-Sport