Two months after the curtain came down on the 2009 Intercontinental Rally Challenge season in Scotland, the series bursts back into life on one of motorsport’s showpiece events: Rallye Automobile Monte-Carlo. And to befit a rally of such magnitude, an exciting driver line-up, including world rally star Mikko Hirvonen, Renault F1’s Robert Kubica, IRC aces Kris Meeke and Jan Kopecky, plus several leading amateurs, will take the start in the French city of Valence on Tuesday January 19.
For the second season in a row, the Monte Carlo Rally will open the 12-event IRC schedule. Just as in 2009, a demanding route has been plotted with the 63 crews expected to tackle the 405 competitive kilometres over 15 special stages prior to the finish in Monaco in the early hours of Saturday January 23.
The event will continue to be based in Valence, the capital of the department of Drome, in the Valentinois region of France. As well as the ceremonial start, the main service park will also be located in the city before the event heads south to Monaco for the final quartet of stages on the night of Friday January 22.
But it’s the narrow mountainous roads in the Ardeche region that will provide the backdrop for the bulk of the competitive action on Wednesday January 20 and Thursday January 21. On Wednesday the itinerary will consist of the Burzet-Lachamp Raphael and St Pierreville-Antraigues stages run twice with remote service in the town of Vals les Bains, where crucial tyre changes will be permitted. On Thursday the route heads to the north of Drome for three repeated stages split by service in Valence.
Friday’s final leg starts in Valence. Following a stage from Montauban sur l’Ouveze to Eygalayes, crews continue south to Monaco where they will service before the first run over the famous Col de Turini, which is included on the Peira-Cava to La Bollene Vesubie stage. After three more stages, including a second run over Col de Turini, the surviving competitors head back to Monaco and the finish just after 01:00hrs on Saturday.
In a change to the format for this year’s rally, a nine-kilometre prologue stage will get the action underway on January 19 following the ceremonial start in the Champ de Mars in Valence. The run between Lente and Col de Gaudissart will determine the starting order of the rally, which gets underway with leg one on January 20. Although the standings won’t influence the final outcome, they could be pivotal in the event of the inclement weather synonymous with the rally.
Given the rally’s mountainous location the weather is notoriously changeable and that means a stage could start in dry conditions but finish on ice-coated roads. Because opportunities to change tyres are restricted, drivers regularly have to compromise when selecting their choice of rubber for a loop of stages. The result is drivers frequently having to adopt a cautious approach on one stage if their tyres are not suited to the conditions, but then being able to push on the next test if their tyres are ideal for the stage surface.
It can lead to drivers losing chunks of time on one stage but then quickly regaining any lost ground on the subsequent run. Even in dry conditions, the varying quality of the road surface means grip levels often change.
Crews will prepare for the event with a three-day reconnaissance of the stages from Saturday January 16 to Monday January 18. They will also be able to use additional stage information gathered by their safety crews, who are authorised to pass through the stages shortly before they are used competitively to give up-to-date information on the road surface and any potential hazards that might lie in store.
Peugeot starts 2010 on the back of winning its third IRC manufacturers‘ title. Briton Kris Meeke, who claimed the drivers‘ crown last season with four wins, tops the list of 207 runners in a Peugeot UK-backed entry. But he will face strong opposition from French drivers Sebastien Ogier, last year’s shock winner, and Peugeot development pilot Stephane Sarrazin. Portuguese Bruno Magalhaes will make his Monte Carlo debut but is a known quantity on asphalt. Austrian Franz Wittmann, who spent 2009 driving a Mitsubishi Lancer, switches to a 207 for the new campaign and will be a solid performer.
Skoda is set to provide Peugeot with its sternest test. Jan Kopecky, last year’s IRC runner-up, heads the three-strong factory effort that also includes Juho Hanninen and Nicolas Vouilloz. Hanninen led in Monte Carlo last year before rolling, while Kopecky claimed fourth overall. Vouilloz won the IRC drivers‘ title in 2008 but endured a frustrating season last year, which began when he crashed on the Monte. He switches from Peugeot Team Belux to drive a Skoda Fabia S2000 in competition for the first time. Of the other Skoda drivers, the inclusion of Guy Wilks on the entry provides added intrigue. The Briton won the RAC MSA Rally of Scotland, last year’s IRC season finale, in a Skoda UK-supported Fabia.
Abarth will count on several privateer drivers to fly the flag for the Italian make. Finn Toni Gardemeister provides the firm’s best chance of victory. His Grande Punto will be run by the Italian Astra Racing concern. He was in contention for a podium finish last season until an electrical fault intervened and forced his retirement. French drivers Olivier Marty and Renaud Poutot will also appear in Grande Puntos.
For the first time ever, M-Sport will be represented in the IRC. The British preparation firm overseas Ford’s World Rally Championship programme and is responsible for the design and development of the Fiesta S2000. Two examples of the machine will appear in Monte Carlo: WRC event winner Mikko Hirvonen will drive the lead car with French youngster Julien Maurin appearing in a second entry. Hirvonen, from Finland, finished second on the event when it last counted for the WRC in 2008. Maurin took part in 2009 in an Abarth Grande Punto but retired with mechanical woes.
Subaru also joins the IRC this season and boasts French ace Bryan Bouffier as its expected star performer. The Polish rally champion will drive for Tommi Makinen Racing and should challenge for a top ten placing. Swiss Olivier Burri and Frenchman Jerome Aymard should also show well.
Italian Gabriele Noberasco heads Ralliart’s challenge in a Mitsubishi Lancer Evo IX. Frederic Romeyer, from France, will also drive an Evo IX. Irish veteran Eamonn Boland, who has extensive Monte Carlo experience, will have a new Evo X model at his disposal. His countryman, Daniel Barry, is highly rated after winning the one-make Mitsubishi Ralliart Evolution Challenge in the UK last season.
Proton is also registered for the IRC but won’t make its first appearance of the season until Rally d’Italia Sardegna in June when Alister McRae, younger brother of rally legend Colin McRae, will drive one of the two factory cars.
The Monte Carlo Rally hosts the opening round of the Clio R3 European Trophy, which will also appear on the IRC-counting Geko Ypres Rally in Belgium and Barum Czech Rally Zlin later in the season. Drivers registered for the European Trophy will be able to score points in the IRC 2WD Cup on those three rallies. While Belgian Kris Princen can count on plenty of experience, rising Corsican star Pierre Campana and Grand Prix driver Robert Kubica can be expected to challenge for the category win. Kubica, from Poland, is a self-confessed rally fan and is tackling selected events alongside his programme with the Renault F1 team.
"It’s the oldest and the most prestigious rally in the world and it really makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up just thinking about it because it’s also the most daunting and challenging event of the year. From a driving point of view your heart is in your mouth all the time because the conditions are constantly changing and you’re never always on the right tyre. You can win the rally not by going quickest on any of the stages but by reading the conditions correctly and trusting your instincts."
Kris Meeke, Peugeot UK driver and defending IRC champion
"Every driver wants to win the Monte Carlo Rally because it is so tough and never easy with the changing weather conditions. It’s not my favourite rally in the world but it’s an event I do like and, in the past, I have had some good results. To be successful you need to concentrate on your pacenotes all the time and trust the information provided by your ice note crew because the stages can be very tricky in places. You also need to be brave and have a car that is very reliable."
Toni Gardemeister, Abarth Grande Punto privateer
"I’ve always had a difficult relationship with this rally. I love the rally when I am not competing on it but when you get there and the conditions are hard then it can be tough. But it’s a great challenge and has a long history so it’s very important to win this rally. The Fiesta Super 2000 is a new car but I’ve had a good feeling with it when we have tested on Tarmac so I hope we can develop it more and try to win. But I know my rivals have a lot of experience in their cars and did Monte Carlo last year so that will help them."
Mikko Hirvonen, M-Sport Fiesta driver
Eurosport, Europe’s largest television channel, will show live coverage of 14 of the 15 stages (see below), ensuring viewers will be able to follow all the action as it happens. Highlights of each day will also available at www.rally-irc.com
Wednesday January 20
11:45-14:00: SS1 and SS2 LIVE Eurosport2
14:45-16:00: SS3 LIVE Eurosport2
16:00-17:00: SS4 LIVE Eurosport
Thursday January 21
10:00-11.45: SS5 and SS6 LIVE Eurosport2
12:15-13:15: SS7 LIVE Eurosport2
15:15-16:00: SS8 LIVE Eurosport2
16:00-17:00: End of SS8 and SS9 LIVE Eurosport
19:30-20:00: SS10 delayed Eurosport2*
23:45-00:15: SS10 repeated Eurosport
Friday January 22
19:00-20:45: SS12 and SS134 LIVE Eurosport
23:00-00:45: SS15 LIVE Eurosport
Tuesday January 26
23:00-23:30: Review Eurosport
*SS10 LIVE on Eurosport France from 18:00-19:00
All times are CET
Event: 78th Rallye Automobile Monte-Carlo
Starts: 17:00hrs, Valence, January 19
Finishes: Monaco, January 23
Entries received: 63
IRC appearances: one (2009)
2009 winners: Sebastien Ogier (FRA)/Julien Ingrassia (FRA) Peugeot 207 S2000
Number of stages: 15
Special stage distance: 405.01 kilometres
Liaison distance: 1264.55 kilometres
Total distance: 1669.56 kilometres
Itinerary (all times shown are local): Prologue stage (Tuesday January 19): Lente-Col de Gaudissart (8.83 kilometres), first car due: 18:38hrs. Leg one (Wednesday January 20): Start: 09:23hrs; Tyre Service: Vals les Bains, 11:03hrs; SS1: Burzet-Lachamp Raphael 1 (27.27 kilometres), 11:51hrs; SS2: St Pierreville-Antraigues 1 (45.17 kilometres), 12:59hrs; Tyre Service: Vals les Bains, 14:14hrs; SS3: Burzet-Lachamp Raphael 2, 15:02hrs; SS4: St Pierreville-Antraigues 2, 16:10hrs; Tyre Service: Vals les Bains, 17:15hrs; Service A: Valence, 19:10hrs. Leg two (Thursday January 21): Service B: Valence, 08:30hrs; SS5: Labatie D’Andaure-St Pierre Sur Doux 1 (25.30 kilometres), 10:13hrs; SS6: St Bonnet-St Julien Molhesabate-St Bonnet 1 (25.67 kilometres), 10:55hrs; SS7: Lamastre-Gilhoc-Alboussiere 1 (21.92 kilometres), 12:20hrs; Service C: Valence, 13:45hrs; SS8: Labatie D’Andaure-St Pierre Sur Doux 2, 15:28hrs; SS9: St Bonnet-St Julien Molhesabate-St Bonnet 2, 16:10hrs; SS10: Lamastre-Gilhoc-Alboussiere 2, 18:05hrs; Service D: Valence, 19:15hrs. Leg three (Friday January 22-Saturday January 23): Service E: Valence, 06:30hrs; SS11: Montauban sur l’Ouveze- Eygalayes (30.42 kilometres), 09:23hrs; Service F: Monaco, 17:27hrs; SS12: Peira Cava-La Bollene Vesubie 1 (18.42 kilometres), 19:15hrs; SS13: Lantosque-Luceram 1 (19.13 kilometres), 19:48hrs; Service G: Monaco, 21:35hrs; SS14: Peira Cava-La Bollene Vesubie 2, 23:20hrs; SS15: Lantosque-Luceram 2, 23:53hrs; Service H: Monaco, 01:05hrs. Prize giving (Saturday January 23): Place du Palais Princier, 11:00hrs.
Top ten entries:
1 Kris Meeke (GBR)/Paul Nagle (IRL) Peugeot 207 S2000
2 Mikko Hirvonen (FIN)/Jarmo Lehtinen (FIN) Ford Fiesta S2000
3 Jan Kopecky (CZE)/Petr Stary (CZE) Skoda Fabia S2000
4 Sebastien Ogier (FRA)/Julien Ingrassia (FRA) Peugeot 207 S2000
5 Juho Hanninen (FIN)/Mikko Markkula (FIN) Skoda Fabia S2000
6 Stephane Sarrazin (FRA)/Jacques Julien Renucci (FRA) Peugeot 207 S2000
7 Nicolas Vouilloz (FRA)/Benjamin Veillas (FRA) Skoda Fabia S2000
8 Toni Gardemeister (FIN)/Tomi Tuominen (FIN) Abarth Grande Punto S2000
9 Bruno Magalhaes (POR)/Carlos Magalhaes (POR) Peugeot 207 S2000
10 Guy Wilks (GBR)/Phil Pugh (GBR) Skoda Fabia S2000
IRC 2WD Cup (selected):
35 Pierre Campana (FRA)/Sabrina de Castelli (FRA) Renault Clio R3
36 Kris Pincen (BEL)/Eddy Smeets (BEL) Renault Clio R3
37 Robert Kubica (POL)/Jakub Gerber (POL) Renault Clio R3
38 Mathieu Arzeno (FRA)/Romain Roche (FRA) Renault Clio R3
51 Harry Hunt (GBR)/George Gwynn (GBR) Ford Fiesta R2
Remaining IRC rounds:
02: Rally Internacional de Curitiba (Brazil): March 04-06 (Gravel)
03: Rally Argentina (Argentina): March 19-21 (Gravel)
04: Rally d’Italia Sardegna (Italy): June 04-06 (Gravel)
05: Geko Ypres Rally (Belgium): June 24-26 (Asphalt)
06: Sata Rally Açores (Portugal): July 15-17 (Gravel)
07: Rali Vinho Madeira (Portugal): August 05-07 (Asphalt)
08: Barum Czech Rally Zlín (Czech Republic): August 27-29 (Asphalt)
09: Rally Principe de Asturias (Spain): September 9-11 (Asphalt)
10: Rallye Sanremo (Italy): September 23-25 (Asphalt/gravel)
11: RAC MSA Rally of Scotland (United Kingdom): October 15-17 (Gravel)
12: FxPro Cyprus Rally (Cyprus): November 04-06 (Asphalt/gravel)