Monday | 13 Jan 2014

Countdown to Monte: The challenge

Unpredictable weather is without doubt the biggest challenge that crews face on the Rallye Monte-Carlo, the opening round of this year's FIA World Rally Championship.

Although all the stages are run on asphalt, conditions from one kilometre to the next on each stage can change in the blink of an eye and catch out even the biggest of names.

As if that’s not tricky enough, teams and drivers have to second guess their tyre choice in the hope they have gambled correctly for the conditions that lay ahead.

The Monte is the only rally on the WRC calendar which allows teams to choose from four different tyres of tyre: winter tyres with or without spikes as well as soft or super-soft slicks. Ultimately there comes a point when they simply have to go with what the latest weather forecast is telling them allied to information relayed back by their ice note crews who have headed out onto each stage to monitor matters several hours before the start.

This can lead to some unusual results as some drivers, perhaps with less to lose, really take the plunge.

For example, the first stage to a leg can be dry with the next covered in slush and ice. One would think a risk-free strategy would be the answer – take the studded tyre: it might not be ideal for the first stage but will get you through and then surely come into its own on the next one. The alternative, of course, would be to opt for a racing tyre and set the pace on the dry stage in the hope that temperatures in the meantime might rise the fraction required to thaw out the next one.

Or the other option would be to run a mixture of slick and studded tyres – a seemingly unusual solution but, as we’ve seen in the past, one that can really pay off should conditions throughout the stage turn out to be ‘half and half’. Even then drivers still need the gods to smile kindly on them for much can happen in next few hours, particularly at high altitude which can also bring another hazard – fog.

The Monte’s usual biting cold conditions can also play havoc with the machinery. Back in 2000 all three factory Peugeots failed to start in the morning after freezing up overnight in parc ferme. 

Then there is the challenge of pure, raw nerve. Driving to win in such topsy-turvy conditions, often with massive drops off the side of a narrow Alpine road, is the ultimate test of bravery. A sixth sense, luck, an ability to know when to push or hold back… call it what you want but this also has a dramatic effect on the final result. 

So does maintaining concentration right to the end  - for it is not uncommon to see the leaderboard suffer some big name casualties on the final stages. Notably, this year’s last two just happen to be on the legendary Col de Turini section in the dark. Finishes don’t come much more daunting that that.