AFTER a short and hectic off-season, the 2016 FIA World Rally Championship will start at Rallye Monte-Carlo on Thursday, launching drivers on a high-speed 14-nation odyssey set for its finale at Rally Australia in November.
- New cars, driver line-ups challenge Volkswagen dominance
- True test of ability awaits drivers on icy mountain stages
- Rally Australia moves to prestigious final round as China joins WRC
- 2016 FIA World Rally Championship calendar HERE
The legendary “Monte”, staged since 1911, has attracted the sport’s fastest drivers and top manufacturer teams for a classic winter contest invigorated by any changes since the 2015 WRC finished just nine weeks ago.
They will tackle ice, snow, endless mountain hairpin bends and the notorious, 1600-metre Col de Turini pass before a podium ceremony with Prince Albert of Monaco at the royal palace on Sunday.
Conditions on the French alps behind Monaco could not be more different to what awaits competitors at the WRC’s 14th and final round on the New South Wales Coffs Coast on 17-20 November. Exemplifying the variety in motorsport’s most challenging world championship, the 25th Rally Australia will feature fast gravel roads through sub-tropical rural and forest scenery.
After winning his third straight World Drivers Championship at Coates Hire Rally Australia last September, Frenchman Sebastien Ogier will defend his title and his Monte-Carlo trophy in a barely-changed Volkswagen Polo R.
The Polo has won from 34 of its 39 starts over three seasons in the hands of Ogier and teammates Jari-Matti Latvala of Finland and Andreas Mikkelsen of Norway. The stable Volkswagen team should offer little hope to rivals – if not for the wildcard factor of new cars and crew line-ups among those aiming to upset the Germans’ dominance.
Volkswagen’s only significant update is the signing of a new co-driver for Mikkelsen in countryman Anders Jaeger; news last week about the impending departure of team director Jost Capito is not expected to have any immediate impact.
Elsewhere among the leading teams, a multitude of changes will debut at the Place du Casino start on Thursday night –
• Hyundai launches an all-new i20 competition car for the second half of its reported four-year, 320 million Euro (approx $A500 million) WRC program. Drivers Thierry Neuville (Belgium), Dani Sordo (Spain) and Hayden Paddon (New Zealand) remain, but the Kiwi is starting his first Monte.
• Independent Ford squad M-Sport has a new main line-up with Mads Ostberg (Norway) and Eric Camilli (France) in its re-liveried Fiesta RS cars. Co-driver Ola Floene switches from Mikkelsen to Ostberg. Brit Elfyn Evans lost his main-game seat but has been retained by team boss Malcolm Wilson to showcase the Fiesta R5 model in the second-tier WRC2 series.
• Citroen has parked its official team this year while it develops a car for new-generation 2017 technical rules. But it’s retained Ulsterman Kris Meeke, 36, on a new three-year deal to lead the testing while he drives the current DS3 part-time this season for Sheikh Khalid Al Qassimi’s Abu Dhabi Total Racing team. Frenchman Stephane Lefebvre, 23, will be the second driver.
• Tyre supplier DMACK has stepped up to elite level to run former M-Sport driver Ott Tanak of Estonia in a Fiesta RS WRC. Fiestas also will power Prada fashion heir Lorenzo Bertelli, 2011 Monte-Carlo winner Bryan Bouffier and ex-Formula 1 star Robert Kubica.
• WRC2 will feature important developments, with new Skoda Fabia and upgraded Ford Fiesta R5 models making their Monte-Carlo debuts among five brands in the field.
• Rally Australia takes the coveted slot as the season’s last round in a calendar stretched from 13 to 14 rounds. A new event in China will take over Australia’s former September date.
• World number one auto maker Toyota will be an active observer throughout this season as its team, managed by four-time world champion Tommi Makinen of Finland, prepares for a WRC return with the new 2017 regulations.
Hailing from the French alpine city of Gap, where the event will be based for the first two days, former ski instructor Sebastien Ogier knows intimately the challenges of Rallye Monte-Carlo’s unpredictable weather.
“I have won the ‘Monte’ for the past two years and would obviously like to win it again this year. For me, it is the most important rally of the year,” he said.
“The key factor is tyre selection. We drivers are very dependent on our ice spies. It is all about interpreting the weather conditions correctly and understanding the unique weather in the alps.”
Ostberg, last year’s highest-placed non-Volkswagen driver, says the Monte is a true test of any driver’s ability.
“Rallye Monte-Carlo is one of the classics. It’s a fantastic rally with some great stages, but the amount of challenges that we have to face over the course of the weekend is unbelievable!
“You can never learn this event – it’s different every time you’re there and I think that will be the same again this year.”
The 84th edition of Rallye Monte-Carlo will cover over 377km over 16 stages, kicking off with the ceremonial start in Monaco’s Casino Square and two night stages on the way to the service park at Gap.