On Thursday morning, just as most of you are getting to work, the 2014 racing season gets underway with the first stage of the 82nd running of the Monte Carlo Rally.
You might already be a little tweaked about this year’s WRC, the first of the post-Loeb era. For one there’s a new works team on the block, Hyundai, the team has snapped up last year’s breakthrough star Thierry Neuville. Then there’s Irishman Kris Meeke back from career obscurity in Loeb’s works Citroen and Mikko Hirvonen back in his M-Sport Fiesta alongside Welshman Elfyn Evans — and both of them looking out for Robert Kubica in M-Sports ‘B team’.
And the news got even better this week with news BT Sport is bring the WRC back to TV, including live stages. BT Sport say they are committed to previews and reviews of all 13 rounds of the 2014 WRC with daily updates during rallies. In addition up to 26 stages will be shown live across the season, starting this Friday lunchtime. If you don’t have BT broadband you’ll need to contact Sky or Virgin or whoever; if you do start here. And you better get moving — the preview show is tonight (Wednesday) at 2130 on BT Sport 1.
BT’s coverage this year will be across BT Sport 1 and 2 and ESPN. WRC.com will continue to post live timing and radio plus daily video updates on its site, on YouTube and on its Facebook page.
Why are we telling you all this? Well, although we are far from certain the WRC ever really lost its shine, it’s certainly not been in the rudest of health recently. Ford’s official works withdrawal, straight off the back of the cancellation of the Mini works programme, was a terrible blow. The arrival of the punchy VW Polo R WRC which carried Sébastien Ogier to the title last year however broke a nine–year domination of Citroen and Loeb. Now this year Volkswagen has Hyundai’s equally fighty-looking little i20 to deal with and Toyota has announced it is considering a return to the WRC next year with the Yaris.
The Monte is the first of 13 rallies this year, ending in a rejuvenated Rally GB in Wales in November. It’s also unique: crews have a choice of four tyres — winter and studded-winter, soft and super-soft — to chose from in the full knowledge any given stage can require all four choices. The Monte is all about guessing the surface ahead; dry, frosty, icy, slushy, snowy, blocked by fans… all are possible on the Monte.
Ogier, who could not stop Loeb taking a last and seventh win here last year, starts as favourite, and topped the times in this afternoon’s shakedown. He was just ahead of Kris Meeke, who has been handed the chance of a lifetime with that surprise call-up from Citroen. Meeke’s only possibly worry this year will be that Citroen might be distracted by its WTCC programme for Loeb. That and the fact his team-mate Mads Østberg (who switches with Hirvonen) is no slouch.
Hirvonen meanwhile will be looking over his shoulder in the Fiesta, not just at his teammate Evans, but at ‘B-teammate’ Robert. Kubica was fifth in the shakedown today, just behind Ogier’s teammate Jari-Matti Latvala and ahead of both Hirvonen and Evans.
Team boss Malcolm Wilson has already made clear he’s been blown away with Kubica’s work-ethic and speed. The Pole — just three years on from the accident that very nearly killed him — won on his debut in the M-Sport Fiesta RRC last week, coming from eleven seconds behind on the last stage to take the win. Tomorrow is Kubica’s first start in the full-fat Fiesta WRC.
Splitting Kubica and Hirvonen was the first of the Hyundais, in the hands of Neuville. Teammate Dani Sordo was eighth. While the i20 might not have quite the pace the Polo had this time last year, when Ogier took it to a win on its first ever stage, it’s not yet had the development miles the Polo had. But the geeky-looking Neuville is rallying’s coming-man and the Hyundai team wants for nothing. Don’t be surprised to see the Belgium a lot closer to Ogier come Sunday.
Finally able to move on from Loeb — who’s reign was over twice as long as Sebastian Vettel’s has been in F1 to date remember — rallying is set for its best season in a long time. And for the first time in ages you don’t have to dig around on-line to find it: it’s right there on your TV.