While reigning IRC champion Nicolas Vouilloz and three-time event winner Didier Auriol have garnered a lot of coverage for their involvement on this month's Monte Carlo Rally, other interesting names will join them on the start ramp on 20 January.
Peugeot factory sportscar driver Stephane Sarrazin will take the start of the first IRC round of 2009 in a 207 S2000 run by Peugeot Sport France, and could be a factor in the final results. The Le Mans ace is an accomplished rally driver, having won the 2004 French Rally Championship, and also starred as a factory driver on several World Rally Championship events.
While this year's Monte Carlo Rally will mark his IRC debut, the Frenchman has contested the Monegasque event twice before, finishing fifth overall in 2006. Sarrazin recently contested the French Championship's all-asphalt Rallye d'Antibes with the Peugeot 207 S2000, claiming the runner-up spot just 25 seconds behind Vouilloz.
"I'm very much looking forward to this chance to get back to rallying," he said, "Although I am a racing driver, rallying is my passion and I am always very happy to be behind the wheel of a rally car, particularly when it is as good as the Peugeot 207. Monte Carlo is a classic event that I have always enjoyed, but this year is sure to be very different and a very big challenge."
Sarrazin used the Rallye d'Antibes to prepare for the Monte, in which he will be co-driven once more by experienced Corsican Jean-Jacques Renucci. He also got in some more rally practice during a 'job swap' with Sebastien Loeb that saw the five-time WRC champion experience Peugeot's 908 HDi FAP sportscar at the end of last year.
"I think I will have a job against the regular rally drivers in Monaco but, of course, I will be doing my best," Sarrazin added, "The level of competition in Monte Carlo is sure to be very high, but that is something else that really adds to the challenge!
"It definitely helps to have a bit of experience of Monte Carlo from the past, so I hope that I can use that. With so much of the route having changed though, it's going to be a new rally for almost everyone. At least, with my experience of the Le Mans 24 Hours, I can look forward to the night stages!"
Flying Finn Toni Gardemeister, meanwhile, will take the start at the wheel of an Abarth Grande Punto run by Astra Racing, the 2005 event runner-up having enjoyed a long association with the Italian team over the years.
The 33-year old will be a strong candidate for victory on the opening round of the IRC, having also gained plenty of experience on the Monte. He last drove for Astra Racing on the event in 2006, finishing third in a privately-entered Peugeot.
"We've had the pleasure of working with Toni for a long time, and we've always known that he is an absolute star," Astra's Luca Pregliasco commented, "He's not only an excellent driver, but an excellent person as well. Because we already have a good relationship with him, I'm sure we will be up to speed straight away when it comes to working together. We've got a good car, so we're all really looking forward to the rally now and we can't wait to get started!"