Here’s what we know about this year’s World Rally Championship: Volkswagen’s Sebastien Ogier is probably going to defend his title by a comfortable margin. Here’s what we don’t know: just about everything else.
The WRC, which kicks off in Monte Carlo early on Thursday January 16, has undergone the biggest set of off-season changes for at least a decade. There’s a new manufacturer, and two of the three established teams have all-new driver line-ups featuring a number of fresh new talents. It’s created a lot of questions about the season ahead – except at one team.
Because after a winter of change, one team has been an oasis of calm. That would be Volkswagen, the team that won it all last year. It retains reigning champ Ogier, rapid team-mate Jari-Matti Latvala and rising star Andreas Mikkelsen. It has the best all-round driver in Ogier, arguably the best car in the Polo R WRC, and some of the best funding.
That’s why Ogier is going to be the favourite to win every time he gets to the start of an event this year. He was quick enough last year, and giving him a stable platform to build on while everything else changes around him is only going to help him. But that’s where the certainty ends. Everything else is a question mark. It starts with Latvala: can the fast Finn step up and provide a real challenge to his team-mate?
Over at Citroen, there’s an all-new line-up. Kris Meeke has the speed, but will his lack of WRC experience cost him? Can Mads Ostberg recover from a difficult 2013 season at M-Sport and regain the form that made him look a real rising star?
Ford Fiesta squad M-Sport has gambled on returning driver Mikko Hirvonen and Welsh youngster Elfyn Evans. Can Hirvonen start winning consistently again now he’s back in the Cumbrian team’s family atmosphere? Evans’ only goal this year is to learn, but can he show flashes of pace?
Then there’s the ‘second’ M-Sport team, which will run Robert Kubica. The ex-F1 man won the second-tier WRC2 title last year, but how will he adjust to the extra pace of top-flight World Rally Championship competition?
Finally, there is new entrant Hyundai. The team says it will be happy with podiums this year, but can it do more? The Korean firm has employed the promising Thierry Neuville as its lead driver, but is the young Belgian capable of shouldering the pressure of leading a manufacturer team? Alongside Neuville for Monte Carlo this week is ousted Citroen man Dani Sordo. Can the Spaniard pick up his career with the new squad?
It’s also all change for British fans: last year, the WRC promoter was too late sorting a UK television deal to get the Monte on the air. This year, not only can you actually watch it, there will be coverage on three channels: BT Sport, MotorsTV and ITV4.
The most interesting coverage will be on BT Sport, which will feature two live stages per event and nightly highlights. It’s good news for fans, although the fact BT Sport is a subscription channel (it is free to BT TV users and BT broadband subscribers) won’t appeal to all. Are people prepared to pay for live WRC action? Yes, there’s yet another question ahead of a season that’s full of them…