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FIVE-time champion Sébastien Ogier will face fierce rivalry as he bids to extend his record as one of motorsport’s most successful drivers when the 2018 FIA World Rally Championship kicks off at the historic Rallye Monte-Carlo today.

PHOTO (click to download): Sébastien Ogier is back at the wheel of M-Sport’s Ford Fiesta to chase a sixth World Rally Championship (Jeremy Rogers pic).

Having won the winter classic every year since 2014 and in 2009, the Frenchman should be favourite when he takes the start in Monaco’s Casino Square, but will be challenged by a field of the world’s fastest rally drivers determined to finally break his incredible run.

Ogier rated the 2017 title his greatest achievement after a season that saw seven drivers and all four manufacturer teams win rallies in the faster, new-era cars. While his M-Sport Ford and the Hyundais, Toyotas and Citroëns are little changed for 2018, new driver and team combinations have revitalised the competition and especially a clutch of drivers who believe they are ready for the crown.

Rallye Monte-Carlo is the first of 13 events in the 2018 WRC, which closes with Kennards Hire Rally Australia on the New South Wales Coffs Coast on 15-18 November.

After the official start, it takes in two night stages before spending two days in the French Hautes-Alpes around the town of Gap – Ogier’s birthplace. It returns to Monaco on Saturday night and the final stages are run in the mountains behind the principality before a podium ceremony in front of the royal palace on Sunday afternoon.

The  Monte, first run in 1911, is one of rallying’s greatest challenges. Although run on sealed roads, the weather almost guarantees a treacherous mix of ice, snow, dry and wet surfaces. Ability to read the road, correct tyre choices and information from advance reconnaissance crews are essential for drivers.

Manufacturer champion M-Sport starts the event with a powerful line-up comprising Ogier, Rally Great Britain winner Elfyn Evans – newly-promoted as the champion’s teammate – and former Monte-Carlo winner Bryan Bouffier. In a new deal, Ford has contributed extra, high-level technical support to boost the performance of the Ford Fiesta WRC car.

“We will need to work hard as the competition will be very tough. Every team has a winning car and a winning driver so everyone is a threat and we need to be ready right from the start,” Ogier said.

“It’s such a challenging start to the season – the ultimate test with extreme conditions that can see us go from dry tarmac to pure ice and snow in the space of a single stage.”

Experts say Hyundai’s i20 Coupe is the fastest car, but pressure will be on Belgian driver Thierry Neuville to avoid repeating a mistake that cost almost certain victory last year and contributed to him eventually falling just short of Ogier in the title contest. The 2017 Rally Australia winner will be joined by 2016 Rally Australia winner Andreas Mikkelsen of Norway – starting his first full season with the Korean team – and Spanish tarmac specialist Dani Sordo.

Like Neuville, Toyota’s veteran Jari-Matti Latvala and new signing Ott Tänak are determined to challenge Ogier. Former teammates of Ogier, both have said being at Toyota frees them to fight for the championship. With Esapekka Lappi, Toyota has three drivers who won rallies last season, plus an improved version of the Yaris car that scored a sensational second place in its Monte-Carlo comeback debut.

A win for Citroën would be its eighth and bury memories of 2017, when its C3 car often failed to meet expectations, despite Kris Meeke winning in Mexico and Spain. Meeke will be joined in the two-car entry by fellow Irishman Craig Breen, but the team will have little time to settle under the new management of Pierre Budar, who started his job only on Monday.

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Chris Nixon

Chris Nixon is Media Manager for Kennards Hire Rally Australia.

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