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The 2009 Intercontinental Rally Challenge season gets underway with the unique Monte Carlo Rally on January 21 : the oldest, best-known and most prestigious event in the history of the sport. Running for the 77th time this year, Monte Carlo is a legendary event to be ranked alongside the Le Mans 24 Hours, Monaco Grand Prix and Indianapolis 500 in the pantheon of world motorsport. 
 
The event contains a number of epic challenges and some of the world’s most classic stages. Chief of these is the legendary Col de Turini, which forms the climax of the event on Friday night. Only the top 60 classified crews will go through to the final four stages held in Turini, before returning to Monte Carlo in the early hours of Saturday morning.

This year’s Monte Carlo Rally goes back to the future, recapturing the traditional values of the sport’s golden age within a thoroughly modern format. Thanks to Eurosport’s innovative television package, viewers all over the world will be able to see the action live from the stages.

On Wednesday and Thursday, the bulk of the action takes place in the Ardeche region, with the service park in the city of Valence. The crews then make their way through the Maritime Alps, as they gradually head back to Monaco. The rally route consists mainly of narrow and bumpy mountain tracks, often with some steep drops on either side.

However, the biggest challenge in Monte Carlo is traditionally the weather. With regional temperatures in mid-January dipping well below freezing, there is always a high possibility of ice, snow and black ice. To make matters even more complicated, each individual stage can contain a wide range of conditions within a reasonably short distance, starting off with bright sunshine for example, and ending in heavy snow.

Tyre choice becomes a crucial factor, and to find some grip in the snow and ice, the teams use studded tyres to bite through the layer of slush into the surface below. Often, the best compromise choice for a stage or loop of stages is the most effective – although drivers willing to gamble can gain huge chunks of time if luck is on their side.

So far the conditions are expected to be largely dry, although there will be some snow and ice in high areas. With a couple of days still left to go before the start, anything is possible.

Even without snow, the roads offer a wide variety of different grip levels, due to the varying nature of the surfaces. Some of the stages are run on very rough and bumpy roads while others have been treated to newer and smoother asphalt. Even within the same stage, the amount of traction can differ greatly. Monte Carlo is a rally where experience definitely helps, as drivers learn to look out for things such as patches of ice at the exits of tunnels – where melting snow often re-freezes.

The Monte Carlo Rally gets underway at 07:30 on Wednesday 21 January from Monaco, when the first of 64 competitors is flagged off the start ramp. The finish is scheduled for 11:30 on Saturday 24 January, after 14 special stages and 362.25 thrilling competitive kilometres.

Eleven different manufacturers are represented in this year's starting list including Fiat, Abarth, Mitsubishi, Peugeot, Skoda, VW, Subaru, Renault, Citroen, Suzuki and Alfa Romeo,
 
Leading the 65 crews off the start ramp will be the reigning IRC champion Nicolas Vouilloz driving a Peugeot 207 S2000 run by Peugeot Belgium.
 
Just behind him, running as car number two, will be Giandomenico Basso’s factory Abarth Grande Punto. Basso is the first of three factory Abarths entered, with the other cars being entrusted to Luca Rossetti and Anton Alen. Behind Basso will be the first of the two new Skoda Fabia S2000s, driven by Juho Hanninen and Jan Kopecky.

Following Hanninen off the start ramp is the second Peugeot Belgium car, driven by last year’s IRC runner-up Freddy Loix. Other leading entries to look out for are Stephane Sarrazin, driving a car entered by the main Peugeot factory team on the Monte Carlo Rally for the first time since the days of the Peugeot 307 WRC in 2005.  British star, Kris Meeke, will be behind the wheel of 207, entered by Peugeot UK.

1994 World Rally Champion, Didier Auriol, will contest Monte, as will reigning Junior World Rally Champion Sebastien Ogier. Rounding out the top 10 off the ramp is well-known World Rally Championship driver, Toni Gardemeister, who has finished second on the Monte Carlo Rally in the past.

The top Mitsubishi driver is local man Richard Frau, while Volkswagen is represented by British driver Nick West.  Marco Cavigioli will start as car number 40, to defend the IRC 2WD Cup title in his familiar Fiat Punto diesel.

For more information about the event,  visit the rally’s official website: www.acm.mc

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