THE start of the 2015 FIA World Rally Championship brings many changes to the 13-nation adventure, widely regarded as the most diverse and challenging motorsport series anywhere.
Updated cars, new drivers and new rules promise an absorbing season as competitors tackle snow, ice, extreme temperatures, gravel, tarmac and high altitude on four continents in highly-modified versions of popular hatchback cars.
Mild springtime temperatures and fast, exciting stages through sub-tropical scenery will greet competitors in Round 10, Rally Australia, on the New South Wales Mid North Coast on 10-13 September.
For Monte-Carlo, the French Citroën team has brought back its Little Master Sebastien Loeb to bolster regulars Kris Meeke and Mads Ostberg, but Volkswagen has not changed its line-up of Sebastien Ogier, Jari-Matti Latvala and Andreas Mikkelsen, who clean-swept the 2014 season.
Retired three-time Rally Australia winner Mikko Hirvonen has been replaced at M-Sport by Ott Tänak, who joins Elfyn Evans in a Ford Fiesta youth squad.
Rally Germany winners Hyundai field only two cars for the start of its second WRC season, for Thierry Neuville and Dani Sordo, but New Zealander Hayden Paddon will also be on the driving roster from Round 2.
The key technical update to WRC cars is the return to a faster, fingertip paddle control in place of a lever for the sequential gearchange. Volkswagen’s second-generation Polo R WRC has more engine power and better aerodynamics.
Volkswagen and M-Sport have adopted completely new livery designs, while Citroen and Hyundai have modified theirs.
New sporting regulations intended to even out the competition will be under scrutiny. Starting order on the first two days will be based on seeded drivers’ championship standings (or final 2014 points in the case of Round 1 this week) and for day three on reverse classification order after day two.
Teams will no longer be able to communicate split, or progressive, times to crews while they are driving a stage. In the past, splits have allowed crews to control their speed according to the competition; now they will have to drive flat-out.