The 2014 World Rally Championship begins next week with one of the most highly anticipated Monte Carlo rallies of all time.
The grid has had an almost complete overhaul with only the Volkswagen line up of reigning champion Sebastien Ogier, Jari-Matti Latvala and Andrea Mikkelsen remaining unchanged.
Last year’s surprise package, Thierry Neuville, has joined the brand new Hyundai team. The Korean operation has plenty of doubters but journalists who were invited to the team’s factory were highly impressed by the facilities and determination of the new team to challenge Volkswagen for the championship.
The success of the debuting i20 WRC is in safe hands with Neuville, who surprised many by outperforming Mads Ostberg on his way to second place in the 2013 championship. If the Hyundai is good enough Neuville will surely be in the running for his first WRC win.
However, to do so will require Neuville to beat heavy competition. Outside of the formidable Ogier-Volkswagen partnership and his highly talented team mate Latvala, both the old hands Ford and Citroen have all new driver partnerships.
In the winter Ford announced its big marquee signing, Robert Kubica. The ex-Formula One driver has shown extraordinary pace in WRC2 and the ERC, including a brilliant, last stage win in the first round of the 2014 ERC.
His success at stepping up to the highest level of rallying will be measured quite easily thanks to his team mate being the fast and reliable Mikko Hirvonen, who moves back to Ford after two years with Citroen. If Kubica outpaces Hirvonen in Monte Carlo it will be a huge story and if Kubica does the unthinkable and actually wins the rally he would be the first man in history to win in both Formula One and the WRC.
Ford have also replaced the unpredictable Evgeny Novikov with the Welsh youngster, Elfyn Evans. Winner of the WRC Academy championship in 2012, Evans has the opportunity to learn from two amazing talents but conversely also faces the risk of being put in the shade by them. And in a sport where confidence rules, that could be damaging.
Evans does have the talent to shine if he approached the championship in the right way and may even sneak a rally win if things go his way, however it’s highly unlikely to be next week’s Monte Carlo rally.
The final challenges are from Citroen, a team looking to bounce back to success after a poor 2013 season and are another team with a brand new line up. Mads Ostberg is in pretty much the same boat after he was unexpectedly beaten at Ford by Neuville but has stated he is much more confident in the Citroen. If he can return to being at the front of rallies, the sport will be all the better for it as he looked to have the full package back in 2012.
His team mate is the former IRC champion, Kris Meeke. Being a rather unknown quantity and likely Citroen’s second choice as they attempted to sign Kubica, his potential in the WRC is a mystery. However, he is an experienced rally hand and it’s probable he’ll slip into a reliable point scoring role rather than a rally winner.
For a sport so used to domination by the now retired Sebastien Loeb, the 2014 Monte seems like a bright, fresh start with an expanded grid full of both experienced and untried but promising talent.
Whatever happens next week, all that’s known is that the winner of the Monte will be validated as one of the world’s great drivers.