Just 53 days after ending its FIA World Rally Championship winning season with victory in Britain, back-to-back manufacturers' champion Ford launches its title defence on the legendary Rallye Monte Carlo (24 - 27 January).  Much is new for 2008 in the Blue Oval squad with a new team identity, a striking new colour scheme for its all-conquering Focus RS World Rally Car and an exciting new driver line-up which blends youth and experience.

The newly-named BP Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team heads into the opening round of the 15-event series with the same-specification Focus RS that lifted the 2007 title.  Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen, who finished third in the drivers' championship last season after winning three events, will be joined by fellow Finns Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila, who have been promoted to the official works team after two years in the privately-entered Stobart VK M-Sport line-up.  At just 27 and 22-years-old respectively, both have youth in their favour but also have plenty of experience with 70 and 52 WRC starts to their names.

Once again based in Valence, Rallye Monte Carlo 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 and treacherous ice, with the threat of snow on higher ground.  They can often encounter all on the same stage as the route climbs and descends inhospitable mountain cols, switching from southern facing roads sheltered from extreme weather to exposed northern ones.

The rally can be won or lost on a good or bad tyre choice.  Each group of speed tests can contain stages which offer vastly different conditions and must be tackled on rubber chosen more than three hours before the action begins.  There is no perfect choice for such weather, especially with new regulations restricting the options available.  Frequently the secret for success is selecting compromise tyres which lose least time in the 'wrong' conditions.

This is Hirvonen's fifth Rallye Monte Carlo and with forecasts suggesting wintry weather is likely in the mountains, he knows how tough the event could be.  "Monte Carlo is all about the weather.  If it is dry and mild then it is like any other asphalt event.  If there is snow and ice then conditions can change quickly and nobody can predict what might happen.  In such conditions the only safe thing to predict is that the stages will be unpredictable.  It's the biggest challenge in the championship.

"I can't wait to get started again.  I will begin every rally thinking about winning, but if I can't do that then second place is where I need to be.  It will be difficult for me to take on Marcus Grönholm's role in the team but I feel ready for it.  I learned much from him during the last two seasons and now it is time for me to move on and show that I too can fight for the drivers' title," he concluded.

Latvala comes into the team on the back of a superb end to the 2007 season, when he claimed his first podium in Ireland and won a string of special stages in Britain, and he is ready for whatever the rally offers.  "I think it will be snowy and icy but rallying is about challenges and in such difficult conditions, if I drive well, then I can gain big time advantages over the others.  Driving in the dark is also hard but that's another challenge and that's what makes this sport so exciting.

"The new tyre regulations mean I have to get used to Pirelli's rubber, driving without the puncture-resistant mousse and not having the same options as we have had in the past.  I've used the new tyres during testing and I could feel they were harder.  The ban on mousse means drivers can't cut corners as much as before for fear of puncturing so I will need to be careful going into bends.  I learned how to drive like that in the Production WRC so I hope that experience will be useful," added Latvala.

Abu Dhabi's Khalid Al Qassimi will drive a third official car on his Rallye Monte Carlo debut.  The 35-year-old will renew his partnership with co-driver Michael Orr, the pair having won the 2004 FIA Middle East Rally Championship together.  "My concern is how I will adapt my driving to the snow and ice.  I've never competed in those conditions before so I will need to take it easy.  At high altitude, where it can be icy, even just cruising is fast!  I need to adapt to that but until I experience it and have a few moments to understand the pace, I will not have a proper idea of how to approach it.
"Michael and I have been talking regularly by telephone.  We have many ideas, including changes to my pace note system to ensure more accurate distances and braking points.  We know each other well and now Michael has been in WRC for three or four years, he has developed his experience and pace further.  This means he will be able to help me develop my notes and pace," added Al Qassimi.

Team News

* The team will complete its pre-event testing in France tomorrow.  Hirvonen and Latvala tested for two days in the north-west of the Ardèche region before Christmas.  They returned this week for additional work in the south-west of the region.  Hirvonen drove yesterday and today (Friday) with Latvala due to finish preparations tomorrow.

* The team's new tyre partner, Pirelli, will have two tyres available for the rally.  For dry asphalt the soft compound PZero will be available, designed for damp and wet conditions or dry but cool temperatures.  In more wintry conditions the Sottozero 'Snow' will be used and drivers can opt whether to fit studs or not.  This has been specifically designed to deal with variable road conditions.  Under new regulations, each tyre will be available in only one pattern, construction and compound.  Each car can carry two spares and drivers can mix studded and unstudded rubber in their choice of six tyres for each group of stages.

Rally Route

The rally retains many of last year's innovations while adding several more for 2008.  The opening three days are based in Valence, but then the event heads south to Monaco for a fourth day of action high above the Principality in the mountains of the Alpes Maritimes.  This is the only WRC round to run four full days' competition.  Thursday evening's opening action is in darkness throughout and heads into the Vercors mountains, east of Valence.  On Friday the route moves south-west of the city into the Ardèche before Saturday's longest day of the rally north-west of Valence.  A free transit section takes competitors to Monaco before Sunday's final loop, which brings the return of the legendary Col de Turini after a year's absence.  After the success of last year's test, the rally ends with a short super special stage around the harbour area of Monaco's Grand Prix circuit.  Drivers tackle 19 stages in total, covering 365.09km in a route of 1481.25km.
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