Monte countdown: Rally route
Alpine roads pose tough challenge in season-opener
The wrc.com recce team were out too, checking camera positions and getting a sense of this year's challenge from inside a fully loaded Peugeot people carrier. Here's what we learned:
1: Weather report: a gentle thaw
This rally is famous for its unpredictable and fast-changing winter weather, and the stages in the Hautes-Alpes and Alpes-Maritimes regions have seen a right mixture this year. Thursday's stages are a good example: when we drove SS1 it was bone dry, while SS2 was 85 per cent snow and ice covered. In general, sub-zero temperatures have given way to warmer weather this week, and although we saw more snow and ice on this recce than last year's, the feeling is that much of it will have melted, especially on the lower stages, by the time the rally starts on Thursday. The inset picture shows a largely ice-free section of SS4/SS7 (Apres les Corps - Chauffayer). In contrast, the picture below is 22km into SS13 (Sisteron - Thoard).
2: Tyre calls: fiendish
The Monte is notorious for complex tyre choices and this year looks like being no exception. WRC drivers have a maximum 20 soft and 24 super-soft asphalt tyres at their disposal, as well as 12 winter tyres without studs and 24 with. They can use a maximum 39 of these 80 tyres during the rally. Most of the stages were a mixture of dry and wet Tarmac with patches of snow, slush and black ice somewhere in the mix. Drivers rely on their ice-note crews to tell them the percentages of each and where on the stage they are. This variety means there's rarely one tyre that will suit the lot. Instead the name of the game is compromise - picking a tyre that will offer the right balance of security on the slippery stuff and performance in the dry. Sounds straightforward, but what would you choose for the section of Sisteron we saw below?
3: Return of a giant killer
Saturday's stage from Les Costes to Chaillol is one that had French fans groaning last year. After a strong start to Citroën's home event, this is where early leader Sébastien Loeb's fairytale comeback hit the rails - along with the left-rear wheel on his DS 3. Shortly after, things got worse when his team-mate Kris Meeke suffered a similar fate. Here's what the stage looks like this year. Plenty of caution required on the recce.
4: French Scandinavia?
Drive Saturday's new St Leger les Melezes - La Batie Neuve stage and you'd be forgiven for thinking Rally Sweden had come early. First, we saw more snow here than on any other Monte stage, especially on the summit of the Col de Moissière (below) but what is really striking is the Swedish feel of the descent that follows through the snow covered Sapet forest (bottom). It's completely out of character with the rest of the event and resembles one of next month's Värmland stages.
5: A new turn at Turini
Sunday's stage from La Bollène-Vésubie to Peira Cava (SS16) takes crews up and over the 1607m summit of the Col de Turini - one of the WRC's most iconic locations. This year's Turini section is changed slightly, with a new 3km section along the summit followed by a different descent route to the finish. Spectators preparing for the traditional snowball fights on the top of the Col might have to bring their own supplies - there wasn't a lot of snow during the recce.