Some of Europe's best drivers will hope prove their worth as Ice Masters when the 2014 FIA European Rally Championship powers into action on the 31 Int. Jännerrallye in Austria next month.
The event, which runs from 3-5 January 2014, features stages in the spectacular Mühlviertel region with crews set to do battle on fast, undulating country roads, with ice and snow adding to the challenge.
As well as counting as the first event of the 12-round ERC schedule, the rally is also the opening event of the Austrian and Czech championship seasons and provides the first opportunity for drivers to chase ERC Ice Master points in the new initiative introduced into the series this season.
Close on 50 cars are entered for the international section of the Jännerrallye with Formula One race winner turned rallying superstar Robert Kubica the top seed in his Ford Fiesta RRC.
The entry list also includes Austria's ERC Production Car Cup champion Andreas Aigner, his ERC 2WD title-winning counterpart Zoltán Bessenyey from Hungary, plus the national champions from Austria (Raimund Baumschlager), Czech Republic (Václav Pech) and Poland (Kajetan Kajetanowicz).
The event features 18 stages over a competitive distance of 245.60 kilometres. A Qualifying Stage, held on the morning of Friday 3 January, will be used to decide the starting order among the priority drivers.
Several ERC regulars will be taking a step up in performance in Austria. Aigner, Robert Consani and Hermann Neubauer are among those sampling more advanced machinery than they used in 2013, with Aigner and Consani both competing in Peugeot 207 Super 2000s and Neubauer armed with a Subaru Impreza R4 STI for the first time. Meanwhile, ERC 2WD runner-up Kornél Lukács will switch to a four-wheel-drive Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution IX having campaigned a Citroën C2R2 in 2013.
Three new-generation Ford Fiesta R5s are entered with Czech drivers Roman Odložilík and Pavel Valoušek, plus top Pole Kajetan Kajetanowicz all competing in the M-Sport-built cars. Valoušek scored the first ERC stage win for an R5-specification car last season, while Kajetanowicz bagged the car's maiden outright victory in the ERC.
Several future stars will be in action including young Latvian promise Vasily Gryazin, emerging Czech talent Jan Černý, rated Hungarian Kornél Lukács, rising Ukrainian Vitaly Pushkar, German hope Raffael Sulzinger and Simone Tempestini, the current Romanian Junior champion. Černý, Lukács, Pushkar and Tempestini will all be in contention for ERC Production Car Cup honours, where rapid Austrian Beppo Harrach is expected to provide their strongest opposition.
Jaromír Tarabus, a frontrunner in the Czech championship for several seasons, will begin his ERC campaign on the Jännerrallye, one of as many as eight rounds that Tarabus is due to tackle in his Kresta Racing-prepared ŠKODA Fabia Super 2000. Compatriot and European championship regular Antonín Tlusťák is also expected to contest several ERC rounds in 2014 in a Fabia.
Martina Danhelová and Ekaterina Stratieva will battle for ERC Ladies' Trophy honours in Austria. Stratieva finished runner-up to 2013 champion Molly Taylor, while Danhelová made a one-off ERC appearance in her native Czech Republic last term.