The fight for the 2005 World Rally Championship kicked off tonight with the traditional ceremonial start at Monaco's famed Casino Square. SÃ©bastien Loeb. Photo by CitroÃ«n Sport. The challenge for everyone -- bar reigning WRC...
The fight for the 2005 World Rally Championship kicked off tonight with the traditional ceremonial start at Monaco's famed Casino Square.
Loeb is looking for his fourth straight Monte Carlo win, and he is the clear favorite once again. On the primarily tarmac-based Monte Carlo Rally, the combination of Loeb's speed on hard surfaces and the mighty Citroen Xsara will certainly be hard to beat.
"I'm getting used to the pressure that goes with (being a favorite), but I remain lucid," Loeb reflected. "All good runs come to an end some time and I tell myself that this one will too!"
"On the other hand, the complexity of the Monte Carlo is such that, more than anywhere else, winning is a team effort," the champion continued. "And we have a strong team, made even stronger by its recent record on this event. So although I am totally aware that anything can happen, I feel confident. More confident than last year ..."
Over at sister team Peugeot, which, like Citroen, is running a works team for the last time this year, two-time champion Marcus Gronholm is joined this year by a relative youngster, the 29-year-old Estonian Markko Martin, in his fifth season of WRC works competition.
The Finnish-Estonian duo will be the strongest on loose surfaces, snow and gravel, and on team has set their expectations somewhat lower for hard surface rallies like Monte Carlo.
"We're going into tarmac events fighting for third and fourth places," explained Timo Rautiainen, Gronholm's co-driver. "In other rallies we'll be trying to find the right pace (to win)."
But with snow and ice expected en route at often unpredictable locations, the door may yet be open for the Peugeot duo to challenge for the win.
Not, of course, if Petter Solberg has any chance to do something about it. The spectacular Norwegian, the WRC champion in 2003, will be partnering the ex-F1 driver Stephan Sarrazin at Subaru, and is intent on improving his second-place finish in the 2003 title fight.
"Up to now Monte Carlo has not been such a good event for me, but I can't wait to get back behind the wheel and be fighting for Championship points," the WRC and rallycross veteran explained. "I like (Monte Carlo) and, this year, hope to make it to the podium."
At Ford it's all change for 2005: with the team's delayed decision regarding the 2005 championship, both Martin and Francois Duval bolted, so the team is back this year with Toni Gardemeister and Roman Kresta, both moving over from Skoda.
The duo is new to the team and to the Ford Focus WRC, so their ultimate speed may not show right out of the starting gates, but the Monte Carlo weather roulette may yet give Gardemeister and Kresta an opportunity to fight for podium positions.
Skoda returns for the first full season of campaigning the new-for-2004 Fabia WRC, with longtime Skoda pilot Armin Schwarz partnering with a combination of Janne Tuohino, jani Paasonen and Alex Bengue, depending on the event. For the first event, it's tarmac specialist Bengue driving the second Fabia in his works WRC debut.
The wildcard at the start of the 2005 season is Mitsubishi: the team finally makes a full return from its hiatus to the WRC title fight this year. The team's drivers are tarmac specialist Gilles Panizzi and gravel expert Harri Rovanpera, moving from Peugeot. The two drivers complement each other perfectly, and may provide Mitsubishi with a chance to fight for victory at each rally, regardless of the surface.
For Rovanpera the Monte will be his first tarmac event in three years, but Panizzi is raring to go on the Monte Carlo mountain roads -- the Frenchman has shown his speed many a time on bare pavement, with a total of seven WRC wins to his credit.
Bring on the mountains! for his first shot at a "big" works team, and