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(16/1/2014)  THE oldest and most revered event in world rallying, Monte-Carlo, will open an exciting 42nd season of the FIA World Rally Championship when new driver line-ups and new cars start a wintry race through the French alps today.

Teams face 384 kilometres of competition over 15 stages until Saturday night, followed on Sunday by the official finish in front of the royal palace and the presentation of trophies by the monarch, Prince Albert.

With only one change to the calendar – Poland replacing Greece – the 2014 WRC will again visit 13 countries, including Rally Australia on the New South Wales Coffs Coast on 11-14 September.

Australian fans’ enthusiasm for the world’s most challenging international motorsport championship will be heightened by the entry of Gold Coast driver Chris Atkinson in selected rounds, including his home event, for the new Shell Hyundai Motorsport team. Although not driving in Rallye Monte-Carlo, Atkinson is attending the event to be part of the team’s high-profile debut.

When Monte-Carlo hosted Volkswagen’s WRC debut last year, Sebastien Ogier finished an impressive second, but yesterday he signalled he intended to go one better in 2014 by comfortably topping the shakedown test.

With the 2013 driver, co-driver and manufacturer world titles to its credit, an unchanged driver line-up of now-champion Ogier, Jari-Matti Latvala and Andreas Mikkelsen and enhancements to the Polo R WRC car, Volkswagen appears in a strong position to continue its dominance – but it will face a re-invigorated challenge from rival teams.

Citroen will be officially represented by just two Citroen Total Abu Dhabi DS3 WRCs in the hands of new signings Mads Ostberg and Kris Meeke.

The British-based M-Sport Ford squad combines experience, youth and star quality. Winner of 15 world rally rounds Mikko Hirvonen returns from Citroen and promising 25-year-old Welshman Elfyn Evans ventures into full-time WRC competition for the first time.

Huge interest centres on another graduate to the WRC elite, Polish ex-Formula 1 driver Robert Kubica. The 2008 Canadian Grand Prix winner, whose F1 career was sidelined by a rally crash in February 2011, won the WRC2 drivers championship last year in his first full season and shows plenty of promise in his independently-backed Ford Fiesta RS.

From a base near Frankfurt, Germany, Korean industrial and automotive giant Hyundai is investing a reported 320 million euros (more than $A493 million) in a four-year WRC program, which will help promote a new range of high-performance road cars.

The two-car team is led by 25-year-old Belgian Thierry Neuville, who became the hottest property in the off-season driver market after finishing runner-up in the 2013 WRC.

The former Ford driver will be joined on Rallye Monte-Carlo by Spaniard Dani Sordo, one of only two drivers to deny Volkswagen a round win last year.

Ogier wasn’t reading too much into the results of Wednesday’s shakedown stage, which, fittingly for the man who has taken over the mantle of world’s best rally driver from retired nine-time champion Sebastien Loeb, was run just outside his hometown of Gap in the Hautes-Alpes region.

After a 3.52 kilometre test, the results put Meeke and Ostberg in equal-second, followed by Latvala, Kubica and Neuville.

“Some of the other guys were maybe a little slow this morning but we will have to wait for the rally to see how quick people really are,” Ogier said.

“A lot of rain is expected tomorrow and the conditions will be very complicated. Starting first on the road at 7.30 in the morning in the dark will not be an easy job for us.”

This year’s move from the former base at Valence to Gap and the Hautes-Alpes mountains promises colder and harsher conditions – drivers must expect snow, ice and dry tarmac, often all in the same stage.

After an opening leg near Gap, the second day includes many Monte classics, heading south to Monaco via the challenging Sisteron test.

Saturday closing leg in the mountains above Monaco features the traditional finale for the event first run on 1911. This includes the Col de Turini, one of the sport’s iconic locations, where enormous crowds will watch competitors cross the mountain summit in the La Bollene Vesubie-Moulinet stage in daylight and again at night.

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Chris Nixon

Chris Nixon is Media Manager for Kennards Hire Rally Australia.