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PREVIEW: 2021 FIA World Rally Championship – Rallye Monte Carlo: Ogier Looks For Title Number Eight

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Ogier starts his quest for an eighth title this weekend. Photo Credit: Toyota GAZOO Racing WRT

It was just over a month ago that the 2020 FIA World Rally Championship concluded on Rally Monza, but this weekend sees this season’s action get underway with Rallye Monte Carlo.

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has affected how the event is set to take place, with a strict curfew having to be followed by everyone involved in Monte Carlo.

This means the itinerary has had to be changed, edited and trimmed several times so that the stages take place within the allowed time, but the rally organisers have still managed to create a fine event in these challenging times.

A total of 15 stages are planned across the four-day event that gets underway on Thursday afternoon, with the rally again being based in Gap.

The route has been changed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo Credit: Helena El Mokni Worldwide copyright: Hyundai Motorsport GmbH

Something that is missing in 2021 is the famous Col de Turini stretch of road. This is due to the Alpes-Maritimes area being severely flooded in the build up to the area, meaning the iconic route isn’t part of the action this weekend.

As a result, Sunday morning’s final stages have been changed. Although the Briançonnet – Entrevaux test is something that has been part of the Monte Carlo route in recent seasons, 2021 will be the first time it’s used for the rally ending Power Stage.

Toyota have a new look for this season. Photo Credit: Toyota GAZOO Racing WRT

If you look at the entry list, you may not notice many changes when it comes to drivers. All of last season’s contenders continue where they left off, including now seven-time champion Sebastien Ogier.

The Frenchman heads to Monte as he begins his defence of the title he won in his first season with Toyota last month, but will surely have drivers including his 2020 rival and teammate Elfyn Evans following close behind.

Evans couldn’t have been closer to lifting the crown last season and is seemingly raring to go in his attempts to win the title, and surely will be trying even harder than before as he aims to prove he can win the series.

The duo are again joined by young teammate Kalle Rovanperä, with the Finn hoping to build on his fine debut campaign in 2020.

Last Minute Changes For Neuville…

Neuville has a new co-driver ahead of this season after a last minute switch. Photo Credit: Helena El Mokni. Worldwide copyright: Hyundai Motorsport GmbH

Up until last week if someone had asked me to pick a winner of the Monte, I’d of told you to put your money on Thierry Neuville.

The Belgian won here last year and has finished on the podium a total of three times, meaning surely, he was one of the favourites for the victory this weekend.

That was until the shock news broke that his long-term co-driver Nicolas Gilsoul would not be competing with him this season.

The news reportedly came as a shock to both Neuville as well as the Hyundai team, with Gilsoul having been part of the team until just a couple of days before the announcement.

Why exactly he’s walked away remains unclear, with the man to replace him being named as Martijn Wydaeghe – who in recent seasons has co-driven for WRC2/3 competitor Guillaume de Mevius.

Tänak Looks to Forget About Last Season…

Ott Tanak had a rally to forget here in 2020. Photo Credit: Jaanus Ree/Red Bull Content Pool

This time last season, Ott Tänak was gearing up to make his first WRC start for Hyundai after making the switch from Toyota, before a huge accident saw him destroy his i20 Coupe WRC.

The Estonian walked away from the mammoth accident that saw him crash into the trees after going off the road at high speed, with the retirement subsequently putting him on the back foot of the remainder of the 2020 season.

For 2021 however, Tänak will be looking to get back where he belongs and having a proper fight with Ogier, Neuville and Evans.    

Hyundai also give both Craig Breen and Dani Sordo a chance to show what they can do in the team’s third car, with the Spaniard getting the call for the opening round of the season this weekend.

Sordo is also switching co-drivers, although not until his next scheduled round of the season.

In a much more planned change, regular co-pilot Carlos del Barrio will step down following the end of the Monte Carlo event, with Borja Rozada replacing him.

Slight Adjustments at M-Sport Ford…

Suninen remains with M-Sport for 2021, although will not take part in a full campaign. Photo Credit: M-Sport Ford

Talk had been rife over the last week whether M-Sport Ford would make it to the startling of Monte Carlo due to the travel restrictions in the UK, but they will compete this weekend.

The difficulty in getting to the event has somewhat summed up a testing few months for the British team who have seen Esapekka Lappi depart over the short winter break.

Teemu Suninen has also seen his schedule for 2021 – as it stands during the current situation – trimmed to selected events, although does enter Monte.

This means Gus Greensmith is the team’s only full season competitor this year, with Suninen sharing the second Fiesta WRC with WRC2 regular Adrien Fourmaux.

Frenchman Fourmaux was one of the most impressive drivers in the sport following the enforced break last year, and he’ll get to show his ability in a WRC car for the first time later in the season. He does compete in WRC2 this weekend however.

The RC1 entrants are completed this weekend by Pierre-Louis Loubet in a 2C Competition Hyundai and Takamoto Katsuta in the fourth Toyota Yaris as the Japanese driver gets a full season campaign in the WRC for the first time.

WRC2: Mikkelsen Aims For Glory

Former WRC driver Mikkelsen is no stranger to R5/Rally2 machinery. Photo Credit: Andreas Mikkelsen

WRC2 has seen a strong entry list come together ahead of this season, although one name that is missing is 2020 champion Mads Østberg this weekend.

The Norwegian won the title on the final round last season, but has been quiet so far when it comes to his plans for this season. Whether he enters the class in the Citreon C3 R5 later in the year is so far unknown.

One name to watch for sure this weekend is Andreas Mikkelsen. The former WRC driver is surely, in similar fashion to Østberg last year, in the class to prove he’s worth another shot at the sports highest level and will be looking to start the season off strongly this weekend.

Oliver Solberg also enters WRC2 this year. He’s one of the hottest prospects in the sport and has signed a two-year contract with Hyundai with potential WRC entries in mind for 2022 , although will need to show he can compete at the front of WRC2 this season.

Oliver Solberg steps up to WRC2 this year. Photo Credit: Oliver Solberg Media Office

The Swede will line up alongside teammate Ole Christian Veiby this year and although he does compete in Monte, won’t use the round as one of his eligible rounds to score points.

Both Eric Camilli and Sean Johnston step up to the class for 2021 in a pair of Citreon C3s. The two drivers both have significant four-wheel-drive R5/Rally2 experience and will be looking to start the year off well in Monte Carlo.

WRC2 is completed this weekend by Enrico Brazolli and youngster Marco Bulacia Wilkinson, who fought for the WRC3 title with Jari Huttunen last season.

WRC3: French Trio Looking For Strong Results…

WRC3 remains strong in terms of numbers going into 2021 with three French drivers seemingly the men to beat going to Monte Carlo.

Yoann Bonato, Yohan Rossel and Nicolas Ciamin all have experience in the class over the last few years and all could take the class win this weekend.

They’re joined in the chasing pack by a total of 10 other drivers including reigning Austrian Rally champion Hermann Neubauer, British driver Tom Williams and Italian Gravel series frontrunner Mauro Miele.

The opening round of the 2021 FIA World Rally Championship takes place this weekend.

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