This year’s Rally Monte Carlo has a third of new stages and a new start location, but most of its characteristic features have remained. Let’s take a closer look.
Rally Monte Carlo is unique in a number of ways. It’s the only winter tarmac event that could contain anything from dry tarmac to snow and ice, even on the same stage! As we will learn during this preview, the changing conditions can affect the stage characteristics more than the roads themselves, but some sections of the stages seem to have a tendency for certain conditions.
In addition to this, Monte Carlo is the only rally which starts already on Thursday with proper stages, with the rally having instead no super specials at all. Also, Rally2 is not allowed from Saturday to Sunday. Last year it was also the only rally to host night stages.
Although the rally is run under the flag of Monaco, all the special stages are driven on French terrain. The center and service park of the rally is situated in the city of Gap.
In the previous years the rally has started from Monaco with two stages leading to Gap on Thursday night. This time the rally starts from its center at Gap instead of Monaco, resulting in less liaisons and thus allowing the shakedown to be arranged on Thursday morning like on other rallies, instead of Wednesday night.
The shakedown stage itself is unchanged from the previous years, being a quite narrow road run in the forests and valleys near Gap, a different character from the hairpins and changing weather conditions of the mountain roads. This year the last runs won’t occur in the dark like previously.
However, the opening stages will need a proper set of additional lights. In fact, last year the Monte Carlo Thursday stages were the only night stages of the whole season (except for a couple of super specials).
These stages South-East of Gap are new to the rally, although La Breole – Selonnet contains a section of Selonnet – Breziers driven in 2014, shown on this onboard until 3:55, where the route will turn right.
Another interesting detail about the stage is that it contains a chicane about 10 km after the start, to cut an otherwise very fast section of 2 km.
As a new feature for 2019, I will include automatically updating 48 hour weather forecasts for each stage or area. You can return to this blog entry once the rally gets closer to find out about the latest conditions.
Another 20 km challenge in the dark follows in the form of Avançon – Notre Dame Du Laus, previously undriven in the rally. Just by looking at the maps it seems to be more open at the beginning and more twisty at the end, with most of the hairpins driven downhill. The stage also contains numerous junction turns.
Valdrôme – Sigottier is a completely new stage for this year. Looking at an amateur recce video (in the wrong direction), it seems to be quite narrow and rough-surfaced, going through forests and valleys but also including a climb to a mountain with some hairpins. Also the part near the start of the video where the road goes in a tight ravine looks spectacular.
Roussieux – Laborel is a an updated version of last year’s stage ending in Eygalayes, starting 4.3 km earlier than last year and ending at roughly 20 km mark of last year’s stage. Looking at last year’s onboards, the stage seems to be medium wide, quite fast and flowing. Like its predecessor, it goes mostly through forests and countryside instead of tight mountain roads and has actually only a few hairpins, although it seems the newly added section at the start adds some hairpins onto the route.
Last year this stage caused a harsh crash for Teemu Suninen on his last WRC2 outing, whereas Craig Breen was slowed down by brake problems, with Esapekka Lappi having to overtake him in the stage.
Curbans – Piegut is another new stage South of Gap. However, a stage from Piegut to Urtis has been driven in the past, sharing the route with this one but to the other direction. The last time Piegut – Urtis was run in 2004 it was the slowest stage of the rally with the average speeds below 70 km/h on the first run.
Again an amateur recce video reveals details about the stage. It begins with a very narrow mountainside road with some deceptive junctions and hairpins. You can already see that some corners in the shadows are snowy and icy whereas for the most part the road is dry. Some of them are very deceptive downhill hairpins where the road becomes icy very suddenly.
The stage becomes eventually normal wide again, but passes a couple of villages with houses right next to the road edge. Finally a sequence of descending hairpins at the end alternates with faster sections. I would declare this as the trickiest stage of Friday, maybe even of the whole rally!
The Saturday stages North of Gap have remained unchanged for this year. However, now there is only four stages as opposed to five of last year, probably thanks to new regulations not allowing the event total length to be over 350 km.
Agnières-en-Dévoluy – Corps was surprisingly snowy on the first run, making it a plowing task for the front-starting cars. Craig Breen lost almost four minutes to the fastest time being the first car on the road. This snow inferno caused a retirement-resulting off for Dani Sordo and spins for Elfyn Evans and Kris Meeke. The stage cleaned so much that the four fastest WRC cars were eventually separated by almost 30 seconds from each other. And to top that, Andrea Nucita managed an incredible fourth fastest time in his Abarth 124 RGT, starting as the 26th car on the road.
On the second run the snow wasn’t as much of a problem, but the stage was still tricky. Thierry Neuville slid backwards into a bank in a fast-flowing forest section near the middle of the stage. Another victim was Esapekka Lappi who went wide into a bank and broke a rim, having to change a wheel mid-stage.
A latter section provides some quick rhythm changes in the form of long straights alternating between narrow roads through villages, connected by numerous junctions. It became especially tricky in one junction where many cars, including Neuville and Ott Tänak, went wide into the field, with low visibility because of basically driving through clouds on top of a mountain!
The ending of the stage has some hairpins in the forest, negotiating through a village and crossing of a dam, concluding finally with a fast, wide and open section, providing yet more rhythm changes. In addition to the them, another challenge on this stage are numerous bridges. At 29.82 km it’s the longest stage of the rally.
In 2017 the stage was driven for the first time, then with a different ending section. Back then, Sebastien Ogier and Elfyn Evans managed to find a tricky corner early into the stage with a snow bank to get stuck in.
Saint-Léger-les-Mélèzes – La Bâtie-Neuve commences in a village with a donut roundabout near the start, climbs up a hill to the skiing resort of Ancelle and descends through narrow forest roads which were very slippery last year, making Kris Meeke dive into a snowbank with an Irish flag on it – Paul Nagle must have not been impressed! Once the stage emerges from the forests the road also becomes wider and often drier for a while, seen last year on a live TV stage.
In 2017 this stage was driven with a slightly different beginning, when Juho Hänninen and a lot of other drivers had smaller or bigger offs in one tricky hairpin near the end.
In 2016, when the stage was driven for the first time, the downhill part was particularly snowy. Andreas Mikkelsen made the correct tyre choice for the first run and won the stage with a 43 second margin to Ogier. On the second run it wasn’t so snowy anymore, but now the Hyundais locked out a 1-2-3 with Ogier losing again 46 seconds to the fastest time.
That year Citroens were unlucky on this stage. Kris Meeke hit a big rock and damaged the gearbox of his car, whereas Stephane Lefebvre had a lucky spin.
After a 245 km liaison and a night break at Monaco, there’s one loop of stages left near the principality. The roads on this area have featured on almost every Rally Monte Carlo in various configurations.
La Bolléne-Vésubie – Peïra Cava was shortened last year from its 2016-2017 configuration. Now the infamous section where the road is on the side of the cliff, going occasionally through tunnels, is closer to the start.
Midway to the stage we reach the iconic Col de Turini hotel yard, although in the classic years it was driven into the other direction and approached from a different road. The classic version from Sospel or Moulinet to La Bolléne-Vésubie was last driven 2011-2013, whereas in 2010 the current stage was run in the opposite direction.
Last year the ending of the stage was very icy, snowy and slippery, providing a prime example of changing conditions during a stage. In these tricky conditions we saw the drivers trying to fight wheelspin by using higher gears and lower RPM’s at low speeds, but still Esapekka Lappi and Bryan Bouffier hit the snowbank in the same corner. The very ending of the stage has a couple of very fast parts where the cars get close to their top speeds.
We also remember this stage as the 2017 power stage where it started to snow mid-stage, with only the first cars getting a good result and the rest merely struggling to survive the snowy conditions on slick tyres.
The nearby La Cabanette – Col de Braus is again the power stage, starting with a long descent through hairpins and continuing to a forest section with rougher tarmac. Last year on the latter section the the gravel pulled onto the road presented unexpected changes in the grip. Kris Meeke’s quote says it all
“A hellish stage. This rally never ceases to amaze me. Black ice on loose gravel?”
Just near the end of the rally, Esapekka Lappi ruined his chances of an excellent finish by going wide on one of the gravel-covered corners near the end. It wouldn’t have been so bad, but he struggled to get the car to reverse.
In addition to a shorter version in 2016, this stage hasn’t featured in the rally in the last decade except for 2009 when it was a round of the IRC and combined both of this year’s Sunday stages into one long stage. Meanwhile in 2005 the stage was run in both directions and as long and short versions.
It’s impossible to predict if it’s good to be first or last on the road in Monte. In dry or wet conditions we may face road pollution slowing down cars starting at the back but in fresh snow it might get faster for each car. In hard icy conditions the road could become more slippery for later starters with the ice surface being broken into slush and also loose snow being pulled onto the road from the sides.
As Monte is the first rally of the season, the starting order is derived from last year’s championship standings. It’s also worth remembering that the Thursday stages won’t affect the starting order, but the same start list will be used for Friday. Thus Sebastien Ogier is first on the road, for almost half of the rally, most likely not hoping for snowy conditions. Last year he managed the icy parts of the opening stage while his rivals made costly errors, but this year it could be a different story.
Tyre choice is probably more crucial in Monte Carlo than in any other rally. To start with, there can be several hours from the moment of the decision to the last stage to be driven, but the weather and surface could also vary from stage to another or during a stage. Driving on studded tyres on dry tarmac is not only slower, but also destroys the studs for possible latter snow sections, so it’s almost always a some sort of compromise.
This all is a part of the challenge of the Monte.
Here we have Petter Solberg on Sospel – La Bollene in 2002. At 14:18 he reaches the classic Col de Turini section, joining also this year’s SS13+15 beginning part in the opposite direction.
Cover image by Tapio Lehtonen
Updated 3.1.2019: Added information about SS1 chicane and SS2 description
Updated 4.1.2019: Added starting order information