The Intercontinental Rally Challenge is back with a bang. A little more than two months after the 2010 season drew to a dramatic close in Cyprus, the IRC is getting ready to celebrate its fifth anniversary on possibly the most iconic rally in the world.

Rallye Monte-Carlo has defined not only the history of rallying, but also the history of motorsport as a whole. The very word ‘rally’ derives from what used to happen in Monte-Carlo: competitors would set off from all four corners of Europe and ‘rally’, in other words, meet, in Monaco to celebrate the end of a unique event.

This year is particularly significant, as the very first Rallye Monte-Carlo was held in 1911, making 2011 the centenary of the event. For the third consecutive year this epic challenge marks the opening round of the IRC: the jewel in the crown of the series calendar.

Event organiser, the Automobile Club de Monaco, has introduced a number of initiatives to celebrate this year’s important anniversary, including free entries for the capacity 120 crews. But the most enduring feature is the use of traditional stages that have formed the backbone of the event, including the famous Col de Turini tests that make up the climax of the competition on Friday night (January 21).

The cutting-edge 300-horsepower Super 2000 cars that will fight for victory would be unrecognisable to Henri Rougier, winner of the 1911 event at the wheel of his 25 horsepower Turcat-Mery. A well-known aviator and adventurer, he would later go on to win the Legion d’honneur: France’s highest honour to a civilian.

But there are many aspects to the route that would still be familiar to Rougier: the need to tip-toe the car across ice and snow-coated surfaces too slippery to stand on, and the enthusiastic crowds lining the route from Valence, the capital of France’s Drome department, to the finish in Monaco’s harbour front in the early hours of Saturday morning (January 22).

The event gained popularity over the years as the ultimate test of any car’s performance and versatility. Victory on Rallye Monte-Carlo would guarantee headlines and therefore awareness and sales, so manufacturers became more and more professional in their attempts to win what was simply known as ‘the Monte’.

By the 1960s, the event was being contested by factory teams and well-known foreign drivers such as Erik Carlsson, who took the first of his two Monte victories in a diminutive Saab 96, against much more powerful opposition from Mercedes-Benz and others.

This was a huge part of the appeal of the event: the emphasis was firmly on driving skill and technical ingenuity rather than horsepower or budgets. The same is true now. A well-driven car could slay giants, and there is no better example than the years of domination by Mini in the mid to late 60s. “It may not have been the quickest thing up the mountain,” remembers Paddy Hopkirk, a well-known former winner in the Mini Cooper. “But there was nothing that could keep up with it downhill!”

Throughout the early 1970s, the Monte belonged to ‘Il Drago’: Sandro Munari, in the fire-breathing Ferrari-engined Lancia Stratos. Other star names on the winner’s trophy include Jean-Pierre Nicolas, now the IRC’s Motorsport Development Manager, who triumphed in 1978, as well as multiple winners Walter Rohrl (1980-1982-1983-1984), Carlos Sainz (1991-1995-1998) and more recently Sebastien Loeb (2003-2004-2005-2007-2008).

One of the major changes in the recent history of Rallye Monte-Carlo took place in 2009, when it became part of the IRC. This allowed the ACM to run the event to its traditionally unique format and it also opened up the rally to a whole new audience thanks to the arrival of breath taking live television from Eurosport on virtually all of the stages.

Sebastien Ogier was the winner that year in a Peugeot 207 run by the BFGoodrich Drivers’ Team, underlining the IRC’s commitment to bringing on young talent. Freddy Loix finished second ahead of Stephane Sarrazin, making it an all-Peugeot podium. At the same time, the new Skoda Fabia S2000 made its international debut, setting a stunning pace straight out of the box.

There was another exciting debut in 2010, when M-Sport’s Ford Fiesta S2000 took part in its first rally. Mikko Hirvonen claimed a mesmerising victory in the new car, ahead of the Skodas of Juho Hanninen and Nicolas Vouilloz. A cumulative reach of twelve million different viewers was able to watch him do it on Eurosport, live as it happened.

“Winning Rallye Monte-Carlo is something very special in any driver’s career,” said Hirvonen on the podium. “It’s not until you actually have the trophy in your hand that you realise what it really means. I’ll never forget this.”  
     
2011 Rallye Monte-Carlo centenary edition
Following three days of reconnaissance from Saturday 15 until Monday 17 January, this year’s Rallye Monte-Carlo gets underway on Wednesday 19 January with the first of 13 special stages. Day one features four taxing stages in the Ardeche and Haute Loire regions, including the longest two tests of the rally, the 36.87-kilometre Le Moulinon-Antraigues stage and the 41.06-kilometre Burzet-St Martial run, which are separated by a tyre change halt in Vals les Bains. Both stages are part of Rallye Monte-Carlo legend and return to the itinerary after several years’ absence.

Thursday’s action features two loops of mountainous stages run twice north-east of Valence and separated by a service stop in the city. Following a final service halt in Valence on Friday morning, crews begin the 390-kilometre journey to Monaco via the last Drome stage, Montauban sur l’Ouveze-Eygalayes. Upon arrival in Monaco, cars enter parc ferme while the drivers and co-drivers are able to rest before the four night stages in the Alpes Maritimes.

However, only the leading 60 competitors at the completion of the Montauban sur l’Ouveze stage will be permitted to tackle the nighttime tests, in keeping with one of the event’s long-standing traditions.

The winner is likely to be known at approximately 00:30hrs on Saturday 22 January with the prize- giving taking place in the Place du Palais at 11:00hrs.

THE COMPETITORS
    
Rallye Monte-Carlo organisers have attracted a plentiful and star-studded entry that befits the event’s centenary celebrations. Indeed, such was the demand for spaces, that the original ceiling of 100 cars had to be increased by 20. After receiving more than 300 requests, the ACM made a selection to ensure both professional and amateur drivers could take part.

Juho Hanninen, the defending IRC champion, heads the starters in his Skoda Motorsport Fabia Super 2000. The Finn finished second on Rallye Monte-Carlo last year after leading in 2009 and is now as equally adept on asphalt as he is on gravel. Hanninen is joined in the Czech Republic team by Jan Kopecky, runner-up in the IRC for the last two seasons, 2008 IRC champion Nicolas Vouilloz from France, and Belgian Freddy Loix, whose tally of six IRC wins is more than any other driver has achieved in the series.

Several Skoda importers will be represented on the IRC season-opener. Norwegian Andreas Mikkelsen will turn out for Skoda UK, while Skoda Auto Deutschland will make its IRC debut with a Fabia for 23-year-old German Mark Wallenwein.

Peugeot has also recruited a quality line-up to pilot its trio of works-assisted 207 Super 2000s. Norway’s Petter Solberg, the 2003 world rally champion, has extensive Monte-Carlo experience and will be backed up by reigning French champion Bryan Bouffier and Le Mans 24 Hours racer Stephane Sarrazin, who finished third on Rallye Monte-Carlo in 2009. Legendary French driver Francois Delecour will also be at the wheel of a 207 S2000.

Guy Wilks joins Peugeot UK for 2011 after switching from the rival Skoda UK squad. Bruno Magalahes will continue to represent Peugeot Sport Portugal and will be looking to build on the maiden victory he achieved last season. Rising star Thierry Neuville will line up for Team Peugeot Belgium-Luxembourg.

Finn Toni Gardemeister has twice finished on the Monte-Carlo podium and will drive a 207 on a rare international outing, as will four-time IRC event winner Giandomenico Basso from Italy. Petter Solberg’s older brother Henning will be in action in an M-Sport Ford Fiesta S2000, which is also the car of choice for French driver Julien Maurin.

PROTON Motorsports is entering a brace of Satria Neo S2000s for Australian Chris Atkinson and Swede P-G Andersson. The Malaysian manufacturer’s rally partner MEM has conducted an extensive overhaul of the Satria Neo as it seeks to unlock the car’s potential.

Ex-Formula One driver Alex Caffi makes his Rallye Monte-Carlo debut in a Skoda Fabia, while former Ferrari F1 driver Patrick Tambay’s son Adrien will drive an R3T-specification 207 alongside experienced navigator Denis Giraudet.

Maurizio Verini, a one-time Italian and European rally champion, will compete in a Ralliart Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution IX. The 67-year-old was once co-driven by Marcello Lotti, the General Manager of the IRC. Austrian promise Andreas Aigner and Irish privateers Daniel Barry and Eamonn Boland will also represent the Japanese make.

Multiple Swiss champion Florian Gonon is the lead Subaru Impreza driver in the field, while Czech Vojtech Stajf will also compete in an Impreza and his previous Monte-Carlo experience.

IRC 2WD Cup
Interest in the IRC 2WD Cup has rocketed over the winter following a change to the regulations to increase the scope of drivers and cars allowed to take part. Previously, competing crews had to use cars from the registered IRC manufacturers to score IRC 2WD Cup drivers’ points, although competitors using Clio R3s were allowed to accumulate points on the three Clio R3 European Trophy events that ran in tandem with IRC rounds during 2010.

However, from this season the rules will be relaxed to enable drivers in any two-wheel-drive rally car built to Group A, Group N and Group R regulations to be eligible for the IRC 2WD Cup drivers' title, although only those car makes registered as an IRC manufacturer will be permitted to score manufacturers' points.

Young Briton Harry Hunt returns to defend his title in a Citroen DS3 R3 following his switch from an M-Sport Ford Fiesta. He will face strong opposition from Clio R3 drivers Pierre Campana, Andrea Crugnola and Eric Mauffrey, fellow DS3 exponents Marc Amourette and Mathieu Arzeno, Honda Civic runners Lionel Comole and Marcel Piepers, French promise Jeremi Ancian in a 207 and a host of drivers in Abarth’s 500 R3T, including former IRC 2WD Cup frontrunner Manuel Villa.

THE EXPECTATIONS
    
Chris Atkinson (Australia), PROTON Satria Neo S2000: “Starting the season with the Monte is awesome. I've always gone well on the event, but it is really tough. You never know what's coming around the next corner: it could be dry asphalt, wet asphalt, snow or ice.”

Bryan Bouffier (France), Peugeot 207 S2000: “This will be my second experience of Rallye Monte-Carlo. Like always I am confident in myself but this event is never easy with the weather changing all the time and the tyre choices always difficult to make.”

Juho Hanninen (Finland), Skoda Fabia S2000: “Of course I want to win but it depends so much on the conditions and how fast the French drivers will be. If we have dry Tarmac then I think it will be very difficult for me to win. If there is snow and ice then I will be much more confident.”

EVENT ESSENTIALS
    
Event: Rallye Monte-Carlo
Base: Valence
Starts: Valence, Tuesday 18 January
Finishes: Monte-Carlo, Saturday 22 January
Entries received: 120
IRC appearances: Two (2009 and 2010)
2009 winners: Mikko Hirvonen/Jarmo Lehtinen (M-Sport Ford Fiesta S2000)
Surface: Asphalt
Number of stages: 13
Special stage distance: 337.06 kilometres
Liaison distance: 1004.69 kilometres
Total distance: 1341.75 kilometres
Itinerary (all times shown are local):

Day one (Wednesday 19 January):
Special stages: Four
Special stage distance: 128.37kms
Liaison distance: 248.10kms
Total distance: 376.47kms
Start: Valence, 09:00hrs
SS1: Le Moulinon – Antraigues* (36.87kms), 10:05hrs
Tyre Service: Vals (0:10hrs), 10:55hrs
SS2: Burzet – St Martial* (41.06kms), 11:40hrs
SS3: St Bonnet Le Froid – St Bonnet Le Froid* (25.22kms), 14:11hrs
Tyre Service: Lalouvesc (0:15hrs), 14:56hrs
SS4: St Bonnet Le Froid – St Bonnet Le Froid* (25.22kms), 16:20hrs
Service A: Valence (0:45hrs), 18:15hrs

Day two (Thursday 20 January):
Special stages: Four
Special stage distance: 94.36kms
Liaison distance: 214.46kms
Total distance: 308.82kms
Service B: Valence (0:20hrs), 11:00hrs
SS5: St Jean en Royans – Font D’Urle* (23.05kms), 12:23hrs
SS6: Cimetiere de Vassieux – Col de Gaudissart* (24.13kms), 13:04hrs
Service C: Valence (0:20hrs), 14:44hrs (regroup at 14:29hrs)
SS7: St Jean en Royans – Font D’Urle* (23.05kms), 16:07hrs
SS8: Cimetiere de Vassieux – Col de Gaudissart* (24.13kms), 16:48hrs
Service D: Valence (0:45hrs), 18:13hrs

Day three (Friday 21-Saturday 22 January):
Special stages: Five
Special stage distance: 114.33kms
Liaison distance: 542.13kms
Total distance: 656.46kms
Service E: Valence (0:20hrs), 06:30hrs
SS9: Montauban sur l’Ouveze – Eygalayes (29.89kms), 09:08hrs
Monaco Parc Ferme: 4:45hrs), 13:53hrs
Service F: Monaco (0:23hrs), 17:44hrs
SS10: Moulinet – La Bollene Vesubie* (23.41kms), 19:15hrs
SS11: Lantosque – Luceram* (18.81kms), 19:58hrs
Service G: Monaco (0:20hrs), 21:57hrs (regroup at 21:10hrs)
SS12: Moulinet – La Bollene Vesubie* (23.41kms), 23:25hrs
SS13: Lantosque – Luceram* (18.81kms), 00:08hrs
Service H: Monaco (0:10hrs), 01:20hrs
Prize giving: Place du Palais Princier, 11:00hrs
* = Live on Eurosport.

LEADING ENTRIES

1 Juho Hanninen (FIN)/Mikko Markkula (FIN) Skoda Fabia S2000
2 Petter Solberg (NOR)/Chris Patterson (GBR) Peugeot 207 S2000
3 Jan Kopecky (CZE)/Petr Stary (CZE) Skoda Fabia S2000
4 Bryan Bouffier (FRA)/Xavier Panseri (FRA) Peugeot 207 S2000
5 Freddy Loix (BEL)/Frederic Miclotte (BEL) Skoda Fabia S2000
6 Francois Delecour (FRA)/Dominique Savignoni (FRA) Peugeot 207 S2000
7 Nicolas Vouilloz (FRA)/Benjamin Veillas (FRA) Skoda Fabia S2000
8 Stephane Sarrazin (FRA)/Jacques-Julien Renucci (FRA) Peugeot 207 S2000
9 Andreas Mikkelsen (NOR)/Ola Floene (NOR) Skoda Fabia S2000
10 Guy Wilks (GBR)/Phil Pugh (GBR) Peugeot 207 S2000
11 Toni Gardemeister (FIN)/Tomi Tuominen (FIN) Peugeot 207 S2000
12 Henning Solberg (NOR)/Ilka Minor (AUT) M-Sport Ford Fiesta S2000
14 Bruno Magalhaes (POR)/Paulo Grave (POR) Peugeot 207 S2000
15 P-G Andersson (SWE)/Emil Axelsson (SWE) PROTON Satria Neo S2000
16 Giandomenico Basso (ITA)/Mitia Dotta (ITA) Peugeot 207 S2000
17 Thierry Neuville (BEL)/Nicolas Klinger (FRA) Peugeot 207 S2000
18 Mark Wallenwein (GER)/Stefan Kopczyk (GER) Skoda Fabia S2000
19 Chris Atkinson (AUS)/Stephane Prevot (BEL) PROTON Satria Neo S2000
34 Andreas Aigner (AUT)/Daniela Ertl (AUT) Ralliart Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution X
35 Florian Gonon (SUI)/Sandra Arlettaz (SUI) Subaru Impreza WRX

IRC 2WD Cup (selected entries)
61 Harry Hunt (GBR)/Seb Marshall (GBR) Citroen DS3 R3
63 Andrea Crugnola (ITA)/Rudy Pollet (ITA) Renault Clio R3 < br />64 Marcel Piepers (NED)/Erik de Wild (NED) Honda Civic Type R
68 Jeremi Ancien (FRA)/Damien Mezy (FRA) Peugeot 207 R3T
70 Manuel Villa (ITA)/Bernardo Serra (ITA) Abarth 500 R3T

IRC ROLL OF HONOUR
    
Overall drivers
2010: Juho Hanninen (Finland)
2009: Kris Meeke (United Kingdom)
2008: Nicolas Vouilloz (France)
2007: Enrique Garcia Ojeda (Spain)

Overall manufacturers
2010: Skoda
2009: Peugeot
2008: Peugeot
2007: Peugeot

IRC 2WD Cup drivers
2010: Harry Hunt (United Kingdom)
2009: Denis Millet (France)
2008: Marco Cavigioli (Italy)

IRC 2WD Cup manufacturers
2010: Peugeot
2009: Peugeot
2008: Peugeot

KEY STATISTICS
    
Rally wins (drivers)
Freddy Loix (Belgium): 6
Juho Hanninen (Finland): 5
Kris Meeke (United Kingdom): 5
Giandomenico Basso (Italy): 4
Luca Rossetti (Italy): 4
Jan Kopecky (Czech Republic): 4
Nicolas Vouilloz (France): 3
Nasser Al-Attiyah (Qatar): 1
Anton Alen (Finland): 1
Paolo Andreucci (Italy): 1
David Higgins (United Kingdom): 1
Mikko Hirvonen (Finland): 1
Bruno Magalhaes (Portugal): 1
Jarkko Miettinen (Finland): 1
Andrea Navarra (Italy): 1
Sébastien Ogier (France): 1
Carl Tundo (Kenya): 1
Guy Wilks (United Kingdom): 1

Rally wins (manufacturers)
Peugeot: 20
Skoda: 11
Abarth: 6
Ralliart: 3
M-Sport: 2 

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