Rivals back Loeb to win ultimate roller-coaster ride

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Petter Solberg joked that he would settle for third place, prompting Marcus Gronholm to say that in that case he would take second. What neither of them said, but everyone understood, was that Sébastien Loeb would be the winner.

The three men expected to contest this year's World Rally Championship went through the ceremonial formalities in an illuminated casino square here last night before they are due to embark on the real thing this morning.

The Monte Carlo Rally is the sport's ultimate rollercoaster ride, and neither Norway's Solberg nor Finland's Gronholm relishes the capricious challenge of the mountain stages. Both fear Loeb will again set the standard yet both maintain, also, that the rest of the season could be a very different story.

All rallying hopes their judgement is sound. Loeb, driving for the factory Citroen team, won 10 of last year's 16 rallies and the series can scarcely afford a re-run. Gronholm and Solberg, in particular, are clinging to the possibility that Loeb, now driving for the private Kronos team, may lose some of his momentum and that they, in turn, can find fresh impetus.

Gronholm has joined Ford from Peugeot, a move that has apparently revitalised him and given the team much-needed leadership. Solberg remains with Subaru and is confident that he will enjoy a change of fortune this time around.

Solberg said: "I'm sure it will be a better championship this year, it has to be. I don't know how many rallies Seb will win but it can't be as many as last year.

"It's impossible for Marcus to know at this stage what he might do but I think he will be strong. I think we will both be strong. I think we have to make it harder for Seb this year.

"I hope a podium will be possible [in Monte Carlo] but it will be a very tough rally with lots of good cars and drivers. A lot will depend on the weather, as always in Monte Carlo. Cold, wet and snow would be the best conditions for us."

Loeb is favourite to win what would be a third consecutive championship yet he is adamant that the course will be nothing like so straightforward.

He said: "I am working with a team of 30 instead of 250 but I have confidence in that team and my car is still a Citroen. I am sure we will be good and I expect us to do well here.

"But you cannot win 10 rallies every year and I don't think it will happen this year. Marcus and Petter have new cars and they will be much closer this year. It will be a big fight, I am sure of that but that will make it a good championship for all of us."

The drivers completed their preparations with final test runs on a "shakedown" stage in the mountains and the icy conditions provided a sample of what lies ahead.

Gronholm, openly hostile to the vagaries of Monte Carlo, said: "I don't really like this rally because you cannot go flat out all the time. It's not a full rally - it's mixed.

"You can have part of a stage where it's dry but then you come across an icy patch and you have to back off - or go off. I can't enjoy that. I know it's not supposed to be easy, but this is not my kind of rally."

Britain's David Higgins, who drives a Lancer in the production car category, echoed those sentiments as he prepared for his season.

He said: "You know you have to go slowly but then you have to go slower again. It's very tricky. I think the thing to do here is to get to the end because if you do you'll be surprised at how high you finish.

"This is a great opportunity for me and I want to take it with both hands. I don't really know what my chances are but all I can do is give it my best shot."