(Reuters) – Rallying enters a new hybrid era with Sebastien Loeb and Sebastien Ogier, winners of 17 of the past 18 championships, still battling for victory in this weekend’s Monte Carlo opener without either being a title contender.
Nine times world champion Loeb, 47, and reigning champion Ogier, 38, are part-timers now with M-Sport Ford and Toyota respectively as others chase overall glory in the 13-round series.
The French pair will still be hoping to make headlines on home asphalt, with Ogier chasing his ninth Monte Carlo victory and Loeb an eighth in the mountains around the Mediterranean principality.
“I’m at the beginning of a different stage in my career, and as I’m not taking part in the full championship the feeling is a little bit different to usual for me at this time of the year,” said Ogier, who has a new co-driver in Benjamin Veillas.
“But I’m still a competitor and I still want to win.”
Loeb returns home after finishing second in this month’s Dakar Rally in Saudi Arabia and this weekend will be his first appearance in the world championship since September 2020, when he finished third in Turkey with Hyundai.
He also has a new co-driver in Isabelle Galmiche since the retirement of Daniel Elena, with whom the veteran won all his titles.
Ogier was fastest in Thursday’s shakedown, Loeb second.
Welshman Elfyn Evans, championship runner-up for the past two seasons with Toyota, will want to establish his credentials immediately as the championship starts its 50th season.
Britain has not had a world rally champion since the late Richard Burns in 2001, but Evans is a strong contender to end that wait.
Compatriot Gus Greensmith will be looking for podium finishes at M-Sport, who also have new Irish signing Craig Breen and young Frenchman Adrien Fourmaux.
Other title hopefuls are Evans’ Finnish team mate Kalle Rovanpera, the sport’s youngest race winner, while Hyundai have 2019 champion Ott Tanak and experienced Belgian Thierry Neuville along with Oliver Solberg, son of Norway’s 2003 champion Petter.
The powerful new plug-in hybrid cars feature a 100kw electric motor with a 1.6 litre turbocharged petrol engine using a 100% fossil-free fuel and sustainable energy. Peak performance exceeds 500bhp.
The 90th Monte Carlo Rally features 17 mountain stages, two of them on Thursday night after the ceremonial start in Casino Square, on slippery roads likely to see snow and ice before Sunday’s finish.
(Reporting by Alan Baldwin in London, editing by Alex Richardson)