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THE two greatest FIA World Rally Championship drivers of the past 20 years, Frenchmen both named Sébastien, promise a high-stakes opening to the 2019 season at Rallye Monte-Carlo, which starts tomorrow.

PHOTO: Sébastien Ogier will drive the new-look Citroen C3 in competition for the first time at Rallye Monte-Carlo this week (Citroën pic)

Sébastien Ogier, 35, has won the past five WRC Monte-Carlos and six drivers’ championships and starts this year’s event in the French mountain city of Gap as a new member of the Citroën team.

Sébastien Loeb, 44, ended his association with Citroën upon Ogier’s signing late last year, after delivering it a record seven Monte-Carlos and nine world championships. He was snapped up quickly by the Korean-owned Hyundai team, which hopes he will help end its run of ducks in the manufacturers’ competition.

The WRC’s oldest and most famous event – and the most coveted by drivers – starts with two night stages in Gap on Thursday and ends after 324 kilometres of competiton with a presentation on the Monte-Carlo quay on Sunday afternoon.

It’s renowned as one of the most difficult in the championship, which this year has expanded from 13 to 14 rounds and finishes again with Kennards Hire Rally Australia on the NSW Coffs Coast on 14-17 November.

While classed as an asphalt event, its winter date almost guarantees unpredictable conditions. A tricky mix of dry and wet roads, snow and ice in the French mountains can be expected.

Gambling on tyre choices that provide the best compromise for all these conditions – potentially all in the same stage – tests drivers’ abilities to constantly read the road and manage pace and tyre wear.

“Monte is a rally that you are more likely to win by driving intelligently, rather than on the limit, given how many places there are where you can get caught out,” says Ogier, a driver famed for his ability to drive to conditions.

Loeb added: “Conditions can affect the road a lot at Monte, whether it’s full tarmac, snow or ice. The most complicated thing is to find the right rhythm and not to fall into any traps; there is every possibility of finding ice plates as the temperature drops overnight. You always have to adapt to the changing and unpredictable conditions. I have always been quite good in these circumstances.”

But Rallye Monte-Carlo’s two most successful competitors will have plenty of challengers among the four manufacturer teams’ heavily-revised driver line-ups.

Loeb will be alongside Thierry Neuville and Andreas Mikkelsen in Hyundai i20 Coupes, while Ogier will have ex-Toyota ace Esapekka Lappi as his young wingman.

Toyota, the defending manufacturers’ champion after its 2018 victory at Rally Australia, has a particularly fast squad in Ott Tänak, Jari-Matti Latvala and new recruit Kris Meeke, the crash-prone latter happy to be back in the WRC elite after being dumped by Citroën during last season for being a danger to himself.

“I am really excited to get going with what is a new start for me, with a new team, a new car and even a new co-driver,” Meeke said.

“My immediate priority is simply to enjoy driving again and the Monte is certainly an event I have enjoyed in the past. Now, for the first time ever in my career I feel I’m in the right place at the right time.”

Ford Performance-backed M-Sport has scaled back to two young permanent drivers, Elfyn Evans and Teemu Suninen, after losing Ogier at the end of a two-championship streak.

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Chris Nixon

Chris Nixon is Media Manager for Kennards Hire Rally Australia.

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