Reigning WRC kingpin Sebastien Loeb admits that he is looking forward to turning out on the weekend's Rallye Monte Carlo after the event returned to what, in his opinion, is its rightful home.
The event returns after a three-year absence, in which it featured as the opener of the IRC, and Loeb, a five-time winner in the Principality, is not alone in being delighted to see it back on the schedule. The rally gets underway in Valence on Wednesday [18 January] and arrives in Monaco on Sunday after taking competitors through the Ardèche, Haute-Loire, Vercors and Alpes-Maritimes regions.
“For me, it's a no-brainer - the Rallye Monte Carlo has to be in the World Championship," Loeb insisted, "It is the world's most famous rally; you just can't have a world championship without it! It's also a rally where I have always done well. The roads are very enjoyable to drive and there is always a great roadside atmosphere for the special stages. And let's not forget this is [co-driver] Daniel [Elena]'s home rally - I'm sure he'd rather be on my right in the DS3 WRC than behind the wheel of a DS3 R3 [in the IRC] like last year!”
With a total of 430km of timed sections, the 18 special stages read like a list of rallying's great monuments, including Le Moulinon, Burzet, Saint-Bonnet-le-Froid, Saint-Jean-en-Royans and the famous Col du Turini., making it a real challenge for drivers - and a headache for engineers. Loeb has proven more than adept at handling the grip changes that are typical of the route, and will no doubt start as favourite this time around, even if the Frenchman is reluctant to assume the role.
“I don't doubt my ability to be on the pace, since we haven't really stopped since the end of last season, but this rally is so specific, you can never be sure of anything,” Loeb noted, "It's three years since I last competed in this rally.
“With five types of tyre – three slicks, one snow tyre and one studded tyre – we'll have a fairly wide range of options available to us. Even if we don't get wintry conditions, just being able to choose between three types of slicks with varying compounds could create huge gaps.”
After a torrid season as team-mate to Sebastien Ogier, Loeb begins 2012 paired with erstwhile title rival Mikko Hirvonen, who transfers over from Ford. While the relationship is still young, the Frenchman has no doubts that it will improve - and improve the team.
“I've only ever known Mikko as a rival, so it's nice to be working on the same side now," he conceded, "We get on well and I think we have a lot of respect for one another. We'll have to change our working habits a little and communicate in English, but I think that is a fairly positive thing.
"For the time being, we have the same feeling about the car, but that was already the case with my previous team-mates. Mikko has lots of experience and he has moved from a team with a very fast car, so I am sure he will bring new ideas on board and that will help us to improve.”