Ahh January. A time to clear the mind and body, look forward to the year ahead, plan summer holidays and survive on pennies after blowing all the wages at Christmas. A tranquil time with not much going on. But then there’s the Monte!! The traditional curtain raiser for the World Rally Championship, Rallye Monte Carlo is a legendary prospect. All the off season talk and gossip is done with, anti-lag is primed and tonight the 2017 season roars into life.
This particular off season has been unlike any other in recent times. The main point early on was the new technical regulations designed to make rally even more appealing. Last year, Dungannon’s Kris Meeke, with Killarney Co-Driver Paul Nagle, set the record fastest average speed when winning in Finland, eclipsing the much loved Group B monsters.
For 2017, Meeke will have an extra 25% more power at his disposal with the all new Citroen C3, as well as a raft of aerodynamic add-on’s and a return of electronic differentials. The opposition have upped their game as well, with Hyundai debuting the gorgeous I20 Coupe, Ford (M-Sport) have brought along a wild looking Fiesta, and for the first time since ’99 Toyota are back with the Yaris WRC. Thought your track Honda had a big wing??
While car development dominated the early part of the off-season, the shock departure of VW really blew everything out of the water. Here you had the most dominant team of the past 3 years, racking up consecutive Driver and Manufacture titles, with an all-new 2017-spec Polo ready to go, simply pulling the plug. Brand image was at the heart of the decision, thanks to Dieselgate. Suddenly, what was an already crowded driver market had 3 of the best drivers dropped into the mix including current champion Sebastian Ogier. All previous thoughts of deals across the board were off. M-Sport got Ogier, so the new Fiesta carries both Number 1 (1st time a Ford has done so since 1998) and a vibrant Red Bull Livery. Jari-Matti Latvala takes the reigns of the Yaris in what is a very Finnish dominated squad, while last year’s WRC runner up Andreas Mikkelson lost out, and so he takes on the Monte in a WRC2 Skoda Fabia.
Irish fans should be taking a massive interest in how 2017 develops, as not only have we Kris and Paul as current favourites, Waterford’s Craig Breen is a teammate at Citroen. Breen will drive a 2016-spec DS3 in Monte Carlo, as the team rush to get further cars built, but expect a full assault once that comes online in a few months. Breen showed serious pace last year in his debut WRC works drive, so big things are expected for him and co-driver Scott Martin. There’s other Irish interest as well among the 116 car field, with former Irish Tarmac champion Eamonn Boland taking on the Monte yet again in his Ford Fiesta R5, with MJ Morrissey alongside him.
As the rally fires into life Thursday evening, I’ll be glued to live timing and rally radio. I’m flying out Friday afternoon, so the sat-nav is primed, I have the sleeping bag packed and raring for road. The plan, hopefully not ambitious but rubbish, is to camp out on the stages Friday and Saturday nights. The Saturday is handy as the locations I’ve picked out aren’t far from the service area in Gap, but Sunday is the exciting one where the plan is to get to the world famous Col De Turini. Now, all I have to worry about is getting the camera bag through as hand luggage, and dealing with the small matter of driving on the wrong side. So January eh. Oh for the quiet life!