The 2009 Intercontinental Rally Challenge season gets underway with the unique Monte Carlo Rally: the oldest, best-known and most prestigious event in the history of the sport. Running for the 77th time this year, Monte Carlo is a legendary event to be ranked alongside the Le Mans 24 Hours, Monaco Grand Prix and Indianapolis 500 in the pantheon of world motorsport.
The event contains a number of epic challenges and some of the world’s most classic stages. Chief of these is the legendary Col de Turini, which forms the climax of the event on Friday night. Only the top 60 classified crews will go through to the final four stages held in Turini, before returning to Monte Carlo in the early hours of Saturday morning. This year’s Monte Carlo Rally goes back to the future, recapturing the traditional values of the sport’s golden age within a thoroughly modern format. Thanks to Eurosport’s innovative television package, viewers all over the world will be able to see the action live from the stages.
On Wednesday and Thursday, the bulk of the action takes place in the Ardeche region, with the service park in the city of Valence. The crews then make their way through the Maritime Alps, as they gradually head back to Monaco. The rally route consists mainly of narrow and bumpy mountain tracks, often with some steep drops on either side. However, the biggest challenge in Monte Carlo is traditionally the weather. With regional temperatures in mid-January dipping well below freezing, there is always a high possibility of ice, snow and black ice.
To make matters even more complicated, each individual stage can contain a wide range of conditions within a reasonably short distance, starting off with bright sunshine for example, and ending in heavy snow. Tyre choice becomes a crucial factor, and to find some grip in the snow and ice, the teams use studded tyres to bite through the layer of slush into the surface below. Often, the best compromise choice for a stage or loop of stages is the most effective although drivers willing to gamble can gain huge chunks of time if luck is on their side. So far the conditions are expected to be largely dry, although there will be some snow and ice in high areas. With a few days still left to go before the start, anything is possible.
Even without snow, the roads offer a wide variety of different grip levels, due to the changing nature of the surfaces. Some of the stages are run on very rough and bumpy roads while others have been treated to newer and smoother asphalt. Even within the same stage, the amount of traction can differ greatly. Monte Carlo is a rally where experience definitely helps, as drivers learn to look out for things such as patches of ice at the exits of tunnels where melting snow often re-freezes.
The Monte Carlo Rally gets underway at 07:30 on Wednesday 21 January from Monaco, when the first of 64 dcompetitors is flagged off the start ramp. The finish is scheduled for 11:30 on Saturday 24 January, after 14 special stages and 362.25 thrilling competitive kilometres. For more information about the event, please visit the rally’s official website: www.acm.mc
The Monte Carlo Rally, being the jewel in the sport’s crown, has attracted a top-quality field of competitors, forming the strongest line-up ever seen on the IRC. As reigning IRC champion, Peugeot Belgium’s Nicolas Vouilloz will be first off the start ramp. Peugeot Belgium sticks with an unchanged line-up this year of Vouilloz and 2008 IRC runner-up Freddy Loix, who however is partnered with a new co-driver this year: Isidoor Smets.
Vouilloz will be followed by one of his key title rivals last year (and former European Champion) Giandomenico Basso, in one of three factory Abarth Grande Punto S2000s.Basso’s team mates are up-and-coming Finn Anton Alen, whose father Markku finished second on the Monte Carlo Rally in 1983, and reigning European Champion Luca Rossetti, who will undertake a selected IRC programme with Abarth this year. One of the major changes that Abarth has put in place for 2009 is a new transmission system, designed to enhance reliability.
A star attraction of the event will be the arrival of Skoda’s factory team, which recently became the sixth IRC registered manufacturer. As part of a full assault on the 2009 series, the Czech team will run two brand new Skoda Fabia S2000s for Production Car World Championship runner-up Juho Hanninen (from Finland) and his Czech team mate Jan Kopecky, a star of the IRC last year. The striking new cars have performed strongly in pre-season testing, and already marked themselves as out as extremely competitive prospects.
Peugeot Sport will field a factory 207 S2000 for French Le Mans star Stephane Sarrazin, who is also an experienced rally driver, and another new face behind the wheel of a Peugeot is Irishman Kris Meeke. The former protégé of the late Colin McRae will contest his first full season with the Peugeot UK team, and the 28-year-old is targeting championship success. BFGoodrich continues its innovative Drivers‘ Team scheme this year, and driving the Kronos-run entry in Monte Carlo will be the reigning Junior World Rally Champion Sebastien Ogier: another strong candidate for victory.
Didier Auriol, the 1994 World Rally Champion and a three-time winner of the Monte Carlo Rally, is also driving a Peugeot, this time run by Italian team Grifone. The 50-year-old is co-driven as always by Denis Giraudet, having undertaken a partial IRC campaign last year.
Another of the many drivers who could win is Finland’s Toni Gardemeister, driving an Abarth Grande Punto S2000 run by respected Italian outfit Astra Racing. Gardemeister, a World Rally Championship regular, has a very strong track record in Monte Carlo, having finished second on the event in 2005 and 2006.
Mitsubishi will be represented on the 2009 IRC by the young Austrian Franz Wittman Jr, who finished runner-up in his national championship last year. Wittman’s main objective in Monte Carlo is to learn, as he will face strong opposition from local stars in similar cars, such as Richard Frau and Patrick Artru.
The IRC 2WD Cup enters its second year in 2009, but reigning champion Marco Cavigioli has been forced to scratch his Monte Carlo entry due to difficulty in getting his Fiat Punto diesel back from the last round of 2008 in China. The Italian will return to the IRC in the near future, but for Monte Carlo the strongest two-wheel drive competitors are likely to be Manuel Villa (Fiat) and Luc Gellusseau (Peugeot). For the complete entry list, please visit the IRC website, www.rally-irc.com, or the Monte Carlo Rally website, www.acm.mc.
„I’m sure it will be a tough event, and tyre choices promise to be decisive. On a loop of three stages, for example, there is a chance that two will be dry, with the last one partially snowy. Personally, I am thrilled at the idea of contesting this legendary rally. I did it in 2004 but didn’t get very far! I feel confident this time though because the 207 has stood out through its reliability in the last two years. The event has attracted a very strong entry, so it should be close.“
Nicolas Vouilloz, Peugeot Belgium driver.
„We’ve made a few changes over the winter and had some good pre-event testing, so I think that we definitely come into 2009 as a stronger package than we were last year, especially with a full year’s experience of the series behind us now. Obviously you always want to do as much testing as possible but a lot in Monte Carlo simply depends on the weather, so we will just have to wait and see what happens. I’ve done the Monte Carlo Rally once before but that was in a little Fiat Seicento many years ago, so I think it will be a very different experience now!“
Giandomenico Basso, factory Abarth driver
„I’m really looking forward to the rally and I am very proud to be a factory driver for Skoda. We’ve done quite a lot of testing and I’m confident about our reliability on the rally, which will be a very important factor. But equally, I am more confident on gravel than on asphalt so we will see what happens. This is my first Monte Carlo Rally, and one of the biggest challenges will be to get used to all the changing conditions.“
Juho Hanninen, factory Skoda driver
„Monte Carlo is an event like no other that will provide the teams with a magnificent challenge. We are fortunate this year to go back to some of the best-known stages from the past, and enjoy once again the magical night of Turini. It’s always hard to predict a winner on any IRC round, but on this event it’s almost impossible. There is a truly spectacular array of drivers and cars, and thanks to Eurosport’s exciting live television coverage, more people than ever will be able to see them!“
Jean-Pierre Nicolas, IRC Motorsports Development Manager, 1978 Monte Carlo Rally winner
Monte Carlo has always formed a key part of motorsport history, but the event’s format has chopped and changed over time. Up until 1991, competitors could select different starting points prior to completing concentration runs in order to reach the official starting location. In recent years the rally mainly used stages in the Alpes Maritime before switching to the Ardeche region in 2007, when night stages including a pass over the famous Col de Turini returned to the itinerary.
This year’s competition represents a major departure from recent seasons with the rally starting in Monte Carlo on Tuesday and returning there for the finish on Saturday. Since 1973, the event marked the opening round of the World Rally Championship when Frenchman Jean-Claude Andruet claimed victory at the wheel of a Alpine-Renault A110. After the global oil crisis forced the event’s cancellation in 1974, Sandro Munari began a run of three successive victories driving Lancia’s famed Stratos.
Following Jean-Pierre Nicolas‘ success in 1978 (who is now the IRC’s motorsport development manager), Bernard Darniche triumphed on the 1979 event by a meagre six-second advantage over Björn Waldegard’s Ford Escort MkII. Waldegard is convinced he would have won but for the time lost when a group of unruly spectators blocked a bridge with a lump of concrete.
Walter Rohrl’s fourth victory in 1984 was the first achieved by a car conforming to the Group B regulations when the German brought home his thunderous Audi Quattro A2 in first place. Finns Ari Vatanen (1985) and Henri Toivonen (1986) also triumphed in the Group B era, Toivonen’s win marking his last triumph before his untimely death in Corsica four months later.
Miki Biaison helped to usher in the new Group A regulations for 1987, when he claimed the first of two victories. The Nineties coincided with Didier Auriol taking four wins and Patrick Bernardini becoming an unlikely victory in 1996 when the event counted towards two-litre championship points only. Piero Liatti scored the first win by a World Rally Car when he triumphed in 1997.
With World Rally Cars not permitted to take part on IRC events, the 77th running of the rally will mark the start of a fresh era for this famous event, with several exciting new cars and drivers.
A key feature of the IRC is high-quality television broadcasts and viewers will be able to enjoy an extra dimension from the Monte Carlo Rally this year thanks to live programmes direct from the stages, including uninterrupted footage from the Turini stages on the final night. Coverage of the Monte Carlo on Eurosport, Europe’s largest television channel, will be at the times listed below (all times are CET). The live shows broadcast direct from the stages will also be streamed in real time over the internet, where viewers can in addition watch the programmes at any time they choose (after the original broadcast time) over the internet. Simply click on www.rally-irc.com for a direct link to the heart of the rally action.
Wednesday 21 January
16:00-17:00 LIVE SS3 Eurosport & Eurosport Asia Pacific
00:00-00:15 Highlights day one Eurosport
Thursday 22 January
10:30-11:15 LIVE SS5 Eurosport 2 & Eurosport Asia Pacific & Internet
15:45-16:30 LIVE SS8 Eurosport & Eurosport Asia Pacific & Internet
00:00-00:15 Highlights day two Eurosport
Friday 23 January
19:30-21:15 LIVE SS11 Eurosport 2 & Eurosport Asia Pacific & Internet
LIVE SS12 Eurosport 2 & Eurosport Asia Pacific & Internet
23:00-01:00 LIVE SS13 Eurosport & Eurosport Asia Pacific & Internet LIVE SS14 Eurosport & Eurosport Asia Pacific & Internet