MONTE CARLO - Just 65 days after ending the 2011 FIA World Rally Championship with victory in Britain, a new-look Ford World Rally Team begins its 2012 campaign next week on the most famous rally of all. After a three-year absence, the classic Rallye Monte-Carlo (17 - 22 January) returns to the series to provide the Ford squad with what could be the most unpredictable fixture of the 13-round campaign.
Much is new in the Blue Oval squad. The team has a new identity and its Fiesta RS World Rally Car, which locked out the podium places on that final round in Britain last November, carries a striking new livery. Lead drivers Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila are joined by former world champion Petter Solberg and co-driver Chris Patterson, who bring a wealth of experience to the Ford line-up.
Rallye Monte-Carlo breaks the mould for modern WRC events with a format that turns the clock back more than 15 years. It offers five days of competition covering more than 433km, and is the longest WRC event since Kenya’s Safari Rally in 2002.
It is initially based in Valence, France, before heading south to its spiritual home among the glitz and glamour of Monaco. It is essentially an asphalt event on technically straight-forward roads, but unpredictable weather can make it devilishly difficult.
Drivers can face dry roads, streaming wet asphalt, ice and snow. They can often encounter all on the same speed test as the route climbs and descends inhospitable mountain cols, switching from sheltered southern-facing roads to exposed northern routes.
As a result the rally can be won or lost on tyre choice. Each test within a group of special stages must be tackled on the same rubber, often chosen several hours earlier. There is no perfect choice in such rapidly changing weather, and frequently the secret for success is selecting compromise tyres, which lose the least time in the ‘wrong’ conditions.
Making the correct choice places a huge emphasis on support personnel. They are located at strategic points to relay weather updates, while both Latvala and Solberg have a route note crew which drives the stages before they go live to provide the latest information. This is used by the co-drivers to update their pace notes and offers crucial knowledge when considering tyre selection.
Twenty-six-year-old Latvala, who has four Rally Monte-Carlo starts to his name, is hoping to build on new-found confidence on asphalt towards the end of last season.
“I feel I’m more competitive on asphalt than ever,” he said. “All the pieces are there for a successful year – a strong team, a competitive car and two good drivers. We need to put them together for the entire season, and if we do that then we can fight for the manufacturers’ and drivers’ world titles. I’ve driven a Ford for several years, but this season I believe we have the best chance of winning.
“The team started 2010 and 2011 with a victory. It will be hard to win against the asphalt experts but a top three finish would be a good start to the season ahead of rallies that suit me more. The roads are fast and follow the side of the mountains or the rivers in the valleys. The asphalt is old in places, so it’s bumpy and the grip level changes.
“This is a classic rally. It’s challenging and stressful in equal measure. You have to think about the weather and tyre choice. When we’re in the service park at sea level in Monte-Carlo, we must predict what the weather will be like in the mountains at 1200 metres and make a selection accordingly. A wrong choice can cost several seconds per kilometre, so it can win or lose the rally,” added the Finn.
Solberg understands the event’s intricacies as well as any current driver, with eight WRC starts there. After joining the team before Christmas, he has completed only two days of testing in a Fiesta RS WRC, but the 37-year-old Norwegian doesn’t see that as a disadvantage.
“My first test was in difficult conditions and I quickly developed a good feeling,” he said. “I competed there last year, when it wasn’t a WRC round, so I know all the stages except the two new ones.
“I enjoy the rally, although the conditions can be tough. There are no real difficulties if it’s dry, but if it’s wet we can expect black ice and snow. Managing tyre choice in such circumstances requires a good team set-up, with a strong strategy and access to the most up-to-date weather information.
“Coming back to Ford is exciting and the chance to drive for a manufacturer again is why I ran my own team for the last three seasons. I’m not here just to make up the numbers. Jari-Matti and I want to fight for titles and I believe we can,” added Solberg, with whom co-driver Patterson will make his 100th WRC start.
* Tyre partner Michelin will provide Ford with five types of tyre, all from a new-for-2012 range. The new Michelin Pilot Sport asphalt tyre will be available in hard, soft and super soft compounds for use on clear roads. If the weather is more wintery, the Michelin Pilot Alpin WRC will be available in non-studded format for snow, and with studs if the roads are icy.
* The Ford World Rally Team squad will completed a three-day test in the Ardèche region of southern France on Friday. Latvala covered 630km on Wednesday and Thursday, with Solberg taking the wheel for the final day.
* Seven privately-entered Fiesta RS WRCs supplement the official cars. Ott Tänak / Kuldar Sikk and Evgeny Novikov / Denis Giraudet are nominated by M-Sport Ford World Rally Team, which has also entered 1994 Monte Carlo winner François Delecour / Dominique Savignoni. Martin Prokop / Jan Tomanek are entered by the Czech Ford National Team while individual entries have been placed by Matthew Wilson / Scott Martin, Henning Solberg / Ilka Minor and Julien Maurin / Olivier Ural.
After Tuesday’s start ceremony in Valence, the opening three days are based around the city. The first two legs on Wednesday and Thursday include more than 130km of competition each in the Ardèche region, to the west. Friday’s third leg covers stages east of Valence in the Vercors mountains and Haute Loire region, before the long journey south to Monaco. A Saturday afternoon restart precedes two loops of two tests in the Alpes Maritimes, including a double pass over the legendary Col de Turini. The single 5.16km Power Stage concludes the action on Sunday morning, with bonus points available to the fastest three drivers. The finish ceremony takes place at Monaco’s Palace on Sunday afternoon. Drivers tackle 18 stages covering 433.36km in a route of 1780.47km.