Australia's Chris Atkinson will head Proton's assault on the famous Monte Carlo Rally, the opening round of the Intercontinental Rally Challenge (IRC) from later today.
For the first time, the French Alps will reverberate to the Satria Neo S2000 with Atkinson and Swedish driver P-G Andersson taking on factory supported entries from Peugeot and Skoda.
The rally will feature a strong line-up including former WRC champion Petter Solberg (Peugeot),
Juho Hänninen (Skoda), Freddy Loix (Skoda), François Delecour (Peugeot), Stéphane Sarazin (Peugeot), Andreas Mikkelsen (Skoda), Guy Wilks (Peugeot), Toni Gardemeister (Peugeot) and Henning Solberg (Ford).
While this is the first time for the car in Monte Carlo, both drivers have a solid track record on what's widely recognised as one of the world's most treacherous rallies. Running through the mountains in the middle of winter provides an ever-changing range of weather conditions and grip levels. As the crews round the mountain from the sunshine on the south-side to the shade of the north, clear asphalt can turn to sheet ice in the turn of a corner. But, waiting for them at the finish, are the azure blue waters of the Mediterranean and the world-famous principality of Monaco.
“Last time I did the Monte Carlo Rally, I finished on the podium, so I have some pretty good memories of the event,” said Atkinson.
“It's a tough rally, there's no doubt about that, with the conditions changing constantly. But we've had a good test, it's great to be back in the car and driving again, this event is the natural start to a rally driver's season, so it's fantastic to be here.
“I haven't competed much on asphalt since Ypres (Belgium) last year, so the test was really important for me to kind of dial myself back in. We tried all sorts of tyre combinations and suspension set-ups, which is crucial for this event.”
Monaco is famous for its casino and this week provides the teams with their biggest gamble of the season. That gamble involves tyre choices, pretty straightforward on other events, it's anything but on the Monte. Typically, a stage starts lowdown the mountain – below the freezing level – but then the competition runs up into the ice and snow before descending to the finish on dry or wet asphalt.
“I'm not going to predict a result, all I want is a trouble-free run,” said P-G Anderson.
“If we can get that, then anything can happen on this rally. We have all seen the way the Monte Carlo Rally can work before, you have the first stage and everything is normal, then after the second stage you can lose lots of cars and everything has gone a little bit crazy. When the grip is always changing, it's that kind of rally.
“It would be nice if the weather stayed dry, to give us some predictable conditions, but if it's a typical Monte with lots of changes of weather and grip, then this can make it interesting. We know from the test that we have a very good chassis with good grip in all of the conditions.”
Important as the Monte Carlo Rally is, this year's event is even more so as the organisers, the Automobile Club de Monaco, celebrate the 100th anniversary of the first ever Monte. That impressive centenary is reflected in the worldwide following for this opening round of the Intercontinental Rally Challenge, with Eurosport screening 12 of 13 stages LIVE on Australian TV.
PROTON Motorsports has worked flat out through the off-season, ensuring the two Satria Neo S2000s arrive at Wednesday's start in Valance in perfect condition. The cars have a new specification of engine and damper and will provide a significant challenge to the IRC's established order. Having contested selected rounds of last year's series, 2011 will be PROTON's first major IRC programme and the British-based squad is looking forward to a solid start.
MEM, the firm which prepares PROTON's Satria Neo S2000s, are no strangers to success on the Monte Carlo Rally having taken a one-two finish in the Production Car category in 2006.
“The number one aim for PROTON Motorsports is to come away from Monte Carlo with some solid points on the board, to set us up well for the year ahead,” said team principal Chris Mellors.
“I'm really looking forward to the event, though. Like I said, everything has gone well pre-event and now we want to carry that positivity into the rally itself. Both Chris and P-G have experience of the Monte, with Chris's last outing netting him a podium – we'd settle for a similar result next week.”