Next week sees the start of the 2004 FIA World Rally Championship, and the first event of the expanded 16-round season, Rallye Monte Carlo. Commencing on Friday 23 January, the historic rally, which is the oldest in the WRC, will see the rally...
Next week sees the start of the 2004 FIA World Rally Championship, and the first event of the expanded 16-round season, Rallye Monte Carlo. Commencing on Friday 23 January, the historic rally, which is the oldest in the WRC, will see the rally debut of the 555 Subaru World Rally Team's 2004 driver line up of Petter Solberg and Mikko Hirvonen.
Renowned as the most prestigious rally in the Championship calendar, Rallye Monte Carlo's combination of glamour, opulence and high-octane action close to the principality of Monaco, makes it one of the most eagerly anticipated WRC events of the year. Essentially an asphalt rally run on the twisty mountain roads of the region, the unpredictable Alpine weather conditions conspire to make it one of the most challenging events of the season. The fast-changing climate makes predicting the levels of grip on the narrow roads extremely tricky. Indeed, on this specialist rally it's not uncommon for an individual stage to start out dry and abrasive, only to become ice and snow covered as it climbs up into the mountains.
In these variable conditions tyre choices are almost always a compromise, with drivers forced to base their decisions on the most suitable pattern for the majority of the stage. The ability to be ultra-fast when conditions and tyres are well suited, yet still maintain a competitive pace when the choice is less than ideal, is a key test of this rally. Accurate information on the state of the roads is vital. The 555 Subaru World Rally Team will be using data gathered by their ice crews, who drive through each stage ahead of the competitors, before selecting which tyre to use.
Following Thursday's ceremonial start in Monaco, this year's rally will begin on Friday from the town of Gap, 220km north of Monte Carlo. On the opening day of competition, crews will contest six stages based around a single service park in Tallard. The subsequent legs will start and finish in Monte Carlo, with cars servicing at an area built on a stretch of the Formula One circuit on the principality's harbourside. The event is made up of fifteen stages and 389 competitive kilometres and will conclude on 25 January at 1430hrs.
The 555 Subaru World Rally Team will be entering two cars in the Monte Carlo Rally.
Starting the season as the reigning World Champion, 29-year-old Petter Solberg will be seeking to defend his newly acquired WRC crown. Petter has contested the rally three times before, and is looking to improve on his best finish so far, sixth place, that he achieved in 2002.
Driving the second Subaru entry will be Finnish driver, Mikko Hirvonen. The latest example of Subaru's commitment to developing young drivers, the 23-year-old will contest his first event for the team in Monte Carlo, and make the 18th WRC start of his career. The Finn's aim is to complete the event and gain further experience in an Impreza WRC.
"Well, I start the year as World Champion, but in terms of driving it makes no difference to me at all. Some people have asked if I can afford to take it easy now, but I know there are areas that I can improve on and there's still a lot of hard work to do. Monte Carlo has not been the best rally for me in the past and I've yet to prove myself in the first few events of the season. In fact, after Turkey last year (round three) I think I only had three points in total! 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. One good thing is that I never feel any pressure in the early part of the season as I'm not someone that people look at to be leading at this point! That said, I'm hungrier than ever for success now and am very keen to get back in the car. I have a good feeling right now, I'm relaxed and just thinking about driving."
"Monte Carlo is always going to be a tricky rally to start the season, and add to that a new car and a new team and I think there's going to be a lot for me to learn over the coming weekend! Monte Carlo will be the first opportunity that I've had to meet all the team and there'll be so much to take in, but I'm really looking forward to it. I've only taken part in the event once before, and I know the weather can be anything here. Sometimes the sun is shining, sometimes it's dry and there's often snow, so tyre choice is not straightforward. My main aim is to finish, get more experience of the car, and hopefully some points for the team. Things always happen in Monte and if you finish, there are often points up for grabs, so that's my plan."
Team Principal, David Lapworth
"I think Monte Carlo's going to be an exciting event this year. Not only will it be the first time that Petter's been defending his position as World Champion, but it will also the first time that Mikko Hirvonen will be driving as part of the Subaru team. We're realistic in our expectations for Mikko, he's a very quick driver, but his aim for this year will be to get as much experience as possible in the Impreza and become more familiar with the events. His talent is obvious, but we're working to a long-term plan with Mikko so it's experience that counts for now. For Petter, this event will see him assume the role of the teacher, rather than pupil. He gained so much knowledge from Tommi over the last couple of years and now he's the experienced one who will be offering guidance to Mikko.
"Looking to the car, we'll be taking a proven package with us to Monte Carlo. The Subaru Impreza WRC2003 proved it's worth on the asphalt rounds last year, especially with Petter's momentous win in Corsica, so we'll be using a similar tried and tested formula for the opening rounds of the season. Our development is now focused on the Subaru Impreza WRC2004, which we're planning to launch later in the year. The challenge of Monte Carlo is staying on the road and making the right tyre choice. We've concentrated a lot of our recent testing on the Pirelli tyres, and have made some good progress in several areas."
Between the Seasons
Leaving behind the glittering lights of Monte Carlo, Petter, Pernilla and son Oliver returned to Norway for the Christmas holidays, and to Petter's childhood home - his parents' farmhouse. The World Champion received lots of presents, but although these included a new tie and some socks, it seems it was Oliver who received the best ones. The proud owner of a new electric tractor, electric Ferrari and mini mobile kitchen, Oliver spent most of the day zooming round the farmhouse on his new toys serving the family plastic beans on toast.
New Year was spent in Golsfjellet, where Petter and Pernilla got married earlier in 2003. Staying in a large wooden chalet with lots of friends and family, the Solbergs spent time snow-scootering, skiing, playing on the Playstation and singing on a karaoke machine. After competing two days of testing in Sweden, Petter travelled to Monte Carlo yesterday and is now preparing for the start of the event.
Meanwhile Mikko spent Christmas at his parent's house in Kannonkoski with his family and fiance Karoliina. Apparently his best present was one that he got before Christmas day - his contract with the 555 Subaru Team! "It was a very, very nice feeling to know what I would be doing in 2004 at that time", he told us. For New Year Mikko kept up his long-standing tradition of staying in a wood cabin in Kannonkoski with his friends, having a sauna and then going outside to watch fireworks at midnight. After a few more days in Finland, which Mikko spent working on his collection of old cars, completing numerous Finnish media interviews and attending various meetings, he went to Sweden to clock up some more miles at the wheel of an Impreza WRC. He arrived in Monte Carlo on Thursday and is now getting ready for his first WRC event as a member of the 555 Subaru team.
Awards for Solberg
Petter's 2003 Championship winning performance, and his celebrations immediately after crossing the line on Rally GB, brought him to the attention of motorsport fans and organisations around the world.
In addition to December's official FIA presentation, Solberg received more than ten national and international awards that recognised his achievements. He picked up the Inmarsat 'Star of the season', Autosport 'Rally driver of the year' and Autosprint 'Casco d'oro' (golden helmet) awards. While back in Norway, he was announced as 'Sportsman of the Year' at six national award ceremonies, and 'Role Model of the Year' by the television network NRK.
"I'm very pleased and very grateful," said Petter, "It's been a lot of fun, but I'm a driver first and I just want to get back to rallying now."