Monte Carlo Rally opens post Loeb title era
The mythical Monte Carlo Rally kicks of the 2013 season on Wednesday which will see a new world champion crowned for the first time since 2003 as Frenchman Sebastien Loeb races a limited season after a record nine straight titles.
Loeb will be present at the 81st and oldest rally on the circuit but he has already announced he will drive in only four races this season as he gradually moves away from the sport and onto other projects.
"The idea (for the four rallies) came one day when we were discussing the future with Citroen," explained Loeb who will also race in Sweden, Argentina and at his home Alsace rally.
"Four is enough. The two that I wanted to do were Monte-Carlo and France, but four is a good compromise.
"I wanted to do Sweden as well, to see if I can try and stay on the road this time," he told WRC.com.
Finland's Citroen driver Mikko Hirvonen and Frenchman Sebastien Ogier of Volkswagen are two of the strongest challengers to Loeb's mantle in what promises to be a wide open season in the absence of the Frenchman.
"I can't wait to get started," admitted VW Motorsport boss Jost Capito.
"Our goal at Monte Carlo is to gain as much experience as possible and get both our cars to the finish," he added.
The Monte Carlo race is steeped in tradition as well as being one of the toughest with narrow mountain roads, unpredictable conditions and a necessity to drive both on asphalt, snow or ice, making tyre choices a decisive factor in winning.
The race begins on Wednesday following a special stage on Tuesday which decides the starting order for the race proper, which will feature 18 specials across 468km.
While Hirvonen is the veteran of the pack and championship runner-up to Loeb on four occasions, racking up 15 WRC victories, Ogier will benefit from the financial muscle provided by Volkswagen in which to launch a challenge and build on his seven wins.
Spaniard Dani Sordo is also one of the most consistent performers on the circuit as he returns to Chevrons Sauvages, after two seasons with Mini, and the 29-year-old is desperate to break his duck having finished 32 times on the podium without ever tasting victory.
The race which culminates with five specials on Saturday features one of the toughest stages in the world as the drivers negotiate the Col de Bleine with dangerous, icy roads set to challenge the nerves of even the most experienced competitors.