WRC Preview: Seven up for Monte challenge
Aaron Johnston in Toyota Gazoo Racing red-black-white
A 15.2km blast over the Col de Turini – under the cover of darkness – will get Rallye Monte Carlo underway for the seven Motorsport Ireland licence holders entered in the opening round of the World Rally Championship. The opener is followed by the equally daunting run to the Col de Castillon with is multitude of hairpin bends.
Leading the Irish challenge is Tyrone co-driver Aaron Johnston who is back for a second full season alongside Toyota Gazoo Racing driver Takamoto Katsuta. They will leave Parc Ferme on the harbourfront in Monaco at 18:42 local time (17:42 Irish time) on board their Toyota Yaris Rally 1 and head for one of the most famous stages in the world.
“Almost ready to go here in Monaco, for round one of the 2023 season,” said the Tyrone man, “It is an event that presents plenty of challenges but it is one I really enjoy too. We had a few good runs through shakedown this morning, just bedding ourselves in and we are ready for two classics in the dark tonight.
As Monte specialist Sebastien Ogier is driving this for the main Gazoo Racing team this weekend Katsuta and Johnston are entered under the Gazoo Racing WRC Challenge umbrella not allowed to score Manufacturer championship points.
Two crews representing the Motorsport Ireland Rally Academy are set to make their Monte Carlo debut and both are driving PRCS Rallysport-prepared Hyundai i20 Rally2 cars.
Josh McErlean and his new-for -2023 co-driver John Rowan are relishing the opportunity to compete in the most famous rally in the world and to be given the opportunity to race gains some of the best divers in the world including French legend Francois Delacour who is racing in the same WRC 2 Challenger class.
“It’s quite crazy, look at the entry list, guys beside me. These roads, the road up to Col de Turini… it’s just really special and I’m very grateful to be here,” said McErlean.
“This debut in Monte Carlo is quite special this year. Coming down the hill into Monaco for the first time was incredible.
“I’m looking forward to the challenge, the stages are amazing with some that are representative from home."
William Creighton and Liam Regan’s main focus this season is the Junior World Rally Championship which gets underway in Sweden next month. The crew are relishing a second opportunity to drive a Rally 2 car after a promising debut in Spain last October.
“Any seat time at this level has to be very beneficial,” said Creighton, “We are going to enjoy it, stage by stage and not let the hype get to us," said Creighton.
The two Irish crews are calling on vastly experienced background teams to get them through the next fours day. McErlean has employed Jon Armstrong and Brian Hoy as his ice note crew while Stephen Whitford and Derek Branigan are working for Creighton.
“The weather always plays a part and that’s when having a good ice note crew plays a big part,” added McErlean.
Eamonn Boland and Mickey Joe “MJ” Morrisey are the second most experienced crew in the rally after Delacour. Boland is marking his 19th start in the event while his Waterford-based co-driver will start his 13th, Monte. Knowledge brings experience and “MJ” is a little concerned about a new section added in to the start of the Col de Turini for the first time this year. This year’s rally is bereft of snow on many of the high mountain passes and “MJ” said that while this is not taking from the challenge of the rally it does take from some of the Monte magic.
“We are looking forward to the rally, we did a good recce and the car is good,” he said.
“We did a two-day test last week. Tonight’s stages are nice, but they spoiled the Col de Turini, they included a new two-kilometre section at the start, very narrow and dirty. Let’s hope nobody blocks that section, there is a real risk of losing the stage. A fantastic rally really, it’s the Daddy of them all.”
“Personally I’m disappointed at the lack of snow, it’s not the Monte without it.”
The crew will run a newly acquired Citroen C2 Rally2 car for the first time this weekend. There were familiar faces on the rally recce too. Craig Breen and James Fulton completed the pre-event recce for Hyundai and used the days leading up to the rally to get familiar with their new team.