Season opener sets the stage - or does it?
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Yachts. Blondes. And Formula One. Not necessarily in that order, but they do sum up in a nutshell what makes Monaco world famous. Oh and maybe the odd bit of gambling too. But look up behind the harbour and there is the stage for the season’s opener in the World Rally Championship. The Monte Carlo Rally.
And before you ask what is it? Monaco or Monte Carlo? Monaco is the place. Monte Carlo the hilly district rising up behind the circuit. Hence the rally takes its name from there.
Geopolitics out of the way, let’s return to the event itself.
The Monte is one hell of a way to start the season. Unpredictable weather to say the least can turn the roads into a skid pan. Except most skid pans don’t have drops of several hundred feet waiting to catch out the unwary. Add to that drivers and navigators who are yet to settle into the racing rhythm and you have a recipe for the unexpected…
NGK have a long relationship with the world of rallying and that with the M-Sport team is perhaps the longest. Cumbria based, so somewhat battered over the past month or so with the wild weather and floods, the team found themselves in a slightly better place weather wise as the stages showed a generally more benign side, albeit snow and ice were definitely still very much in evidence.
Over the break, M-Sport have been shuffling their pack of drivers. Elfyn Evans moving to the WCR2 team and Norwegian Mads Østberg and Swede Ola Fløene taking up the reins in WRC, alongside Éric Camilli who was making his WRC debut with his co-driver Nicolas Klinger.
With a start that boded well setting a highly impressive fifth fastest stage time on only his fourth stage at full WRC level, Camilli looked set for a stellar start to the season. However it was not to be as that famously treacherous Monte ice caught him out and he slid off into a low speed collision with a tree that damaged his roll cage. Game over.
But the bad luck wasn’t limited just to Camilli as other Fiesta drivers met with the same fate on the very same patch of ice! First Robert Kubica was caught out, then shortly afterwards Elfyn Evans followed suit sliding into the back of Kubica’s parked car and pushing it into a ditch.
Back at the front, Østberg kept his head down and in the process scored a very creditable fourth place, equaling his best result for the rally>
Team Principal, Malcolm Wilson OBE, said:
“We know how intelligently Mads approaches his rallies and he has shown that he can never be discounted for a strong result. They drove to their own pace whilst perfecting the relationship inside the car and I am sure that they will both be really looking forward to Rally Sweden.
On the podium ahead of Østberg, Sébastien Ogier in the Volkswagen Polo R scored his third consecutive win on the Monte, with team mate Andreas Mikkelsen taking second and Thierry Neuville in third, an excellent result for the debut rally of the new spec Hyundai i20.
A way behind them, Elfyn Evans who had managed to get his car back on stage, led the WCR2 pack home in eighth, earning a gutsy result for the young Welshman.
The next round takes M-Sport’s Østberg onto home ground in Rally Sweden, where obviously his hopes will be high. But the competition up front is as tough, if not tougher than its ever been with Volkswagen, Citroen and Hyundai pushing hard. Can the M-Sport man leapfrog the pack?
In two weeks time we’ll know.