PHOTO: The 2015 FIA World Rally Championship will open in the fairytale setting of Monte-Carlo (WRC Promoter pic)
A HOTLY-contested clash between the two most successful drivers of the past decade will start the 2015 FIA World Rally Championship in spectacular style on Rallye Monte-Carlo from Thursday.
Nine-time World Rally Champion Sebastien Loeb and two-time champion Sebastien Ogier will go head-to-head in the treacherous snow-and-ice conditions of Monaco and the French alps for honours in the world’s most prestigious rally, founded in 1911 and under the patronage of the principality’s royal family.
Competition will start straight after a red-carpet celebrity launch in Monte-Carlo’s Place du Casino on Thursday afternoon, with two timed stages in darkness in the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence before an overnight stop in Gap, Ogier’s home town.
Crews will cover 355 kilometres across 15 stages to the finish at the royal palace, where the winners will receive their trophies from Prince Albert of Monaco on Sunday afternoon.
Between this month and November, the new championship will make its way to 13 countries, including its farthest destination for Rally Australia on the New South Wales Coffs Coast on 10-13 September, pitting drivers and cars against some of the toughest and most varied conditions on the planet.
Rallye Monte-Carlo has attracted 96 crews, including 18 aboard top-flight WRC cars, but for thousands of fans who will flock to famous spectating points such as the Col de Turini, the season-opener is all about the battle between the Frenchmen Loeb and Ogier.
Loeb, winner of more championships than any other driver in four-wheel world motorsport, is making a one-off return to the WRC in his factory-team Citroën DS3 car to help thwart a Volkswagen juggernaut led by his countryman Ogier.
In the two seasons since Loeb, now 40, retired from full-time rally driving and WRC domination, Volkswagen has taken over with two driver’s titles for Ogier, two Manufacturer’s Championships and a total of 22 wins.
But Ogier isn’t underestimating the threat posed by the man who has won the Monte seven times.
“For sure I expect him to be as competitive as ever,” the 2013 and 2014 Rally Australia winner said.
“Even if he had a year off (from rally) he was still in competition. I’m sure he will be back quite strong and it’s interesting for the race, but to be honest I don’t feel any extra pressure.
“It’s no real importance. I feel I have nothing to prove against him. It’s just an interesting challenge that he’s in again.”
There is no love lost between the pair, who had a tense relationship as Citroën teammates in 2011. Since Ogier left for Volkswagen at the end of that season they have squared up in World Rally Cars only four times, scoring two wins apiece.
Armed with new, second-generation Polo R car, Ogier can count on local knowledge of this WRC classic.
“Monte Carlo is definitely important for me, it feels like my home rally. This year there are stages very close to my childhood home, so of course I will be very happy to perform well,” he said.
Loeb is promising to give the rally his best shot, an approach that has won him 78 WRC events.
“I haven’t driven for a year. Okay, it’s not the priority to win here, but on the other side, when I take the start of a race I always try to do my best. So I will try to prepare as well as possible and do my best. We will see.”
A non-competitive shakedown test near Gap on Wednesday afternoon will be the first opportunity to see the 2015 cars and crews in action.
Follow the FIA World Rally Championship at Rallye Monte-Carlo:
www.wrcplus.com (by subscription, live stage vision including on-board, plus live results and tracking)