Very few racing championships begin their seasons with the most prestigious event on the calendar, but the FIA World Rally Championship will kick off, as it has in thirty-eight years prior, with the 83rd running of the Rallye Monte Carlo.
Monte Carlo's unique challenge is that of a tarmac rally, with its treacherous roads carving through the village roads and perilous mountains of southern France - treacherous enough in clear conditions, but in January, the harsh winter conditions often throw snow, ice, and sleet as added degrees of difficulty to further test the drivers and their strategies - part of the reason why the Rallye Monte Carlo has been established as one of the toughest road rallies to win in the world. The legendary run through the Col de Turini mountain pass is, to many rally fans, what the runs through the landmark corners at Spa-Francorchamps or Monza are to fans of circuit racing. The images of the legendary, nimble Morris Mini Cooper carving through those mountain roads in the late 1960's are those most commonly associated with this event, though many other cars and drivers have cemented a legacy in Monte Carlo.
It was in a frantic torrent of those winterous conditions that last year's rally began with a flurry of surprising front-runners pushing ahead to the front of the leaderboards. Ultimately, reigning World Rally Champion Sebastien Ogier triumphed, but he faced a strong challenge all weekend in the form of an unexpected challenger. That challenger was Bryan Bouffier, a former Monte Carlo winner back in 2011 - when Monte Carlo was the crown jewel in the Intercontinental Rally Challenge. Bouffier led after the first day before losing the lead to Ogier as the weekend progressed, but the 36-year-old Monte Carlo specialist already made an indelible mark upon the WRC landscape, even in a close defeat. This weekend, again competing in a privateer-run M-Sport Ford Fiesta, Bouffier will bid to shock the rallying world once again.
Meanwhile, the triumphant Ogier, a winner in Monte Carlo for the second time in his career - his first came in an IRC-sanctioned Rallye Monte Carlo back in 2009 - kicked off his second consecutive championship campaign - eight victories, ten podiums from thirteen rallies were more than enough to secure a second title for the French ace. Not as emphatic as his first title that came in 2013, but the Frenchman was still in a class all of his own for most of 2014. Ogier's dominance is solidifying a legacy as the new standard bearer in rallying. A legacy worthy of his succeeding his former Citroen teammate, the nine-time WRC champion, the most successful rally driver of all-time, Sebastien Loeb.
Speak of the devil. "Le Patron" himself has returned, at least for one outing. It has been fifteen months since the last time Loeb has driven in a World Rally Championship event. His exploits in the last two years have included a move to the World Touring Car Championship in 2014. He's raced in the Porsche Supercup and the former FIA GT Championship, he's a team owner in the European Le Mans Series - and he smashed the lap record in the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb two years ago. But rallying is Loeb's legacy, it is his home, and Monte Carlo is the site of seven of his record seventy-eight victories. It could have been eight if not for a controversial time penalty that awarded the 2002 running to Tommi Makinen, but even still, Loeb has never finished worse than second in the Monte Carlo Rally in his last nine outings. It may have been over a year, but Loeb is a special breed of driver - the easily-adaptable master of all trades who can compete in anything - that breed of driver which seemed to be resigned to permanent extinction many decades ago. Loeb is still a legitimate threat to take victory in Monte Carlo this weekend.
From the minute Volkswagen Motorsport began their assault on the World Rally Championship with the Polo R WRC, they have supplanted Citroen as the dominant constructor in the series, claiming a stunning twenty-two victories in the last twenty-six World Rallies. They've at least pulled out to a seemingly unassailable lead in the "Best Livery" Championship when they pulled the cover off their new-look Polo for 2015:
With Ogier leading the charge for the Red Bull-coloured juggernaut, 2015 will be a defining year for the young men who share the Volkswagen garage with the French champion.
For many drivers, a four-win season would be considered a great success. But Jari-Matti Latvala was ultimately left well in the distance by Ogier as the season went on, hampered by untimely setbacks at Portugal, Germany, and the Wales Rally GB. He won't turn 30 years old until April, but Latvala is already set to enter his ninth full season in the WRC. Latvala has gradually tempered his aggression as his experience builds with each rally. But this year, he'll need to raise his game to mount a serious challenge for the champion Ogier. And now with the former four-time WRC vice-champion and Rallye Monte Carlo winner Mikko Hirvonen retiring after two underwhelming seasons to close his rally career, Latvala is now the number one flag carrier for Finland in the World Rally Championship. Can Latvala begin his 2015 campaign with a triumph at Monte Carlo - an event in which Latvala has just one-top five finish and three retirements in five previous outings?
Andreas Mikkelsen is only 25, and the young lion of Volkswagen's star fleet. A two-time champion of the Intercontinental Rally Challenge, Mikkelsen scored five podium finishes and finished third in the championship behind only his veteran teammates Ogier and Latvala. But this year, the Norwegian driver is heavily tipped to finally break through with his maiden WRC victory. Could he do one better still and challenge his elder statesmen teammates for the crown in 2015? He'll need to improve from his 7th place Monte Carlo finish last year to get a good start on it.
When Loeb departed from the WRC last year, it left a major void at the team that he built into a dynasty in the last decade, Citroen Sport. The creation of that void allowed for British driver Kris Meeke to seize the best opportunity to date in what had been a whirlwind rally career. A protege of the late Colin McRae, Meeke's prior appearances in the WRC in recent years were sparse, and littered with disappointing retirements. But in Monte Carlo, his first race as a full-time WRC driver, he shined bright, finishing in an impressive third place - the first of four podiums for Meeke. It seems astonishing that he is already 35 years old, yet the hope is that the native of Dungannon, Northern Ireland is only just about to hit his prime.
Together with veteran teammate Mads Ostberg, the 27-year-old Norwegian ace of the Citroen team who is still searching for an encore of his sole victory in the 2012 Rally de Portugal, Citroen is seeking a return to the former glory they once enjoyed under Loeb's leadership. Like Meeke, Ostberg enjoyed a steady season in 2014 - four podiums, but no victories for either driver. He was arguably the "best of the rest" behind the mighty Volkswagen juggernaut.
But the only non-Volkswagen victors in 2014 were the newcomers to WRC, Hyundai Motorsport. In a previous life, Hyundai were a full-fledged factory flop, who failed to contend with the likes of Subaru, Ford, Peugeot, Citroen, and Mitsubishi in four luckless campaigns from 2000 to 2003. By midseason last year, the new incarnation of Hyundai were already far more successful than the old one. And leading the charge was Belgian Thierry Neuville. The handsome former Citroen prospect, who abandoned a chance to inherit a possible lead role with the French manufacturer, and then left M-Sport after finishing 2013 as WRC vice-champion, to take on a new challenge with Hyundai - who in four previous seasons never finished on the podium of a WRC event. After initial hardships, the first podium came in Mexico for Neuville (with a little assist from a bottle of Corona), and at the Rallye Deutschland in August, the stunning first victory.
And a Hyundai 1-2 finish at that, in a rally that saw both the lead Volkswagen drivers retire from the running. Finishing in tandem with Neuville was Spaniard Dani Sordo, who last year served as a tarmac rally specialist for Hyundai in a rotation of second drivers. This year, Sordo returns to a full-time role for the first time since 2013. He has a stellar record at Monte Carlo, with three podiums. But it's a different story for Neuville, who in four prior trips to Monte Carlo, has never finished the event. The last two years, he has not even finished the first day. Will this finally be the year the Belgian phenom breaks through in the south of France?
The M-Sport World Rally Team continues to wave the banner for Ford in spite of a loss of total factory backing. 2015 will be the start of a new youth movement led by two drivers, both under the age of 30, both eager to seize their opportunity. With the retirement of Mikko Hirvonen this off-season, 26-year-old Elfyn Evans of Wales is M-Sport's new lead driver. In contrast to the brash and aggressive style of fellow Brit Meeke, Evans is quieter, more reserved, and a steady, consistent driver that betrays his lack of experience. The second-generation driver, highly-rated by team boss Malcolm Wilson, finished in the points nine times last year. In 2015, he seeks his first podium.
Ott Tanak has already stood on the podium of a WRC rally before, in Italy back in 2012. Last year, he drove three races in a WRC-spec Ford Fiesta, and proved competitive in all three tries. This year, he steps into Hirvonen's vacated seat alongside Evans, hoping to make good on the promise instilled upon him by his mentor, Markko Martin, who once raced for Ford in a promising career cut short by the tragic death of his co-driver Michael Park in 2005.
And then there are the wild cards, such as last year's upset-minded hopeful Bouffier, who could shake the order this year at any given opportunity. Wild cards like WRC-2 graduate Lorenzo Bertelli, now competing in the WRC on a full-time basis. The young Italian, son of Prada CEO Patrizio Bertelli, is also fairly known as the holder of the "Least-utterable-on-television" Twitter handle in motorsport. But he is a serious talent; a transgressive, yet promising successor to the Italian rallying legacy of drivers such as two-time champion Miki Biasion and the late Attilio Bettega. He finished second here in the WRC-2 class last time out.
Then, there is the wildest of all the cards in the deck this year - Robert Kubica. Rallying may be as responsible for robbing Kubica of one dream - the dream of becoming a Formula One World Champion - as it is for installing a new dream within him, of becoming a transcendent star in the WRC. His flat-out aggression that he carries from the F1 circuit is captivating. But too many times in 2014, he pushed too hard, and over the edge in a blaze. Only fourteen points were earned for his efforts, and the Pole was mired well down the championship table. He returns for 2015, now fighting for his WRC livelihood despite seeming to possess all the tools to succeed at this level, especially at a tarmac rally like Monte Carlo - based near the principality where he drove to two podiums in the Formula One Monaco Grand Prix.
Can any of these would-be challengers overthrow Ogier and Volkswagen on the grandest stage in Rallying? They will need to drive over 1,400 kilometers to prove themselves worthy of that honor. The 83rd Rallye Monte Carlo begins on January 22nd and runs through January 25th.