WRC: Loeb tipped for top in Monte Carlo as he begins winding down
A NEW era beckons for this year's World Rally Championship, but it is still likely to be Sebastien Loeb on top of the podium on Sunday.
After winning nine consecutive titles, Frenchman Loeb and Monegasque co-driver Daniel Elena take a backseat this season in what is being billed as a 'testimonial' campaign.
With the duo to compete in just four rallies in their Citroen DS3 WRC - Monte-Carlo, Sweden, Argentina and France - it means there will be a new champion for the first time in a decade later this year.
But after winning six of the past seven Monte-Carlo Rallies, that opens with a shakedown and official starting ceremony tomorrow before getting underway on Wednesday, Loeb is in no mood to ease off.
"The end of last season felt pretty normal since I knew we would be competing in the first two rallies this year," said Loeb.
"We therefore prepared as usual with some test sessions which enabled us to test out the new range of Michelin tyres.
"Given we have won six out of the last seven times we have competed here, it is difficult to imagine achieving any other result than first place."
Beyond Monte-Carlo, and with Loeb out of the running for a 10th world crown, the scrap to take up the reins is certain to be hotly contested.
Also competing in Citroen DS3 WRC's are Mikko Hirvonen from Finland and Spain's Dani Sordo.
Runner-up for four of the last five years, Hirvonen said: "The team want to defend both world titles and they are counting on me for the drivers' title.
"I feel ready to take on this responsibility. In fact, I have never felt so motivated at the start of a season."
Over in the Ford camp, run by M-Sport as the manufacturer no longer has a works team, are a youthful trio in Mads Ostberg from Sweden, Russia's Evgeny Novikov and Frenchman Thierry Neuville, aged just 25, 22 and 24 respectively.
All eyes, however, will be on Volkswagen as they embark on their first season in the WRC, with Jari-Matti Latvala and Sebastien Ogier at the wheel of the two Polo R WRC's.
Championship runner-up in 2010, a realistic Latvala said: "I can hardly wait for the season to get started.
"The result is not the top priority yet, although I would obviously love to pick up some world championship points."