The 2004 World Rally Championship commences next week with the Monte Carlo Rally [January 23-25] and a host of driver changes, the addition of two extra rounds, as well as unprecedented changes to the regulations.

The main driver change involves 2001 World Rally Champion Richard Burns, who due to a brain tumour has given up his seat at Subaru to former Ford driver Mikko Hirvonen from Finland, who will be partnered at Subaru by the 2003 World Rally champion Norwegian Petter Solberg.

Citroen, the current Manufacturers Champion, will have rising French star Sebastien Loeb who finished the 2003 championship just 1 point behind Solberg. He will be partnered by the evergreen Spaniard Carlos Sainz who beat off a challenge from Colin McRae for the second seat at Citroen.

Peugeot will again have the services of double World Champion Finland's Marcus Gronholm who will have Belgium Freddy Loix as a new team-mate for 2004.

Ford has managed to retain the services of Estonian Markko Martin and Belgium Francois Duval.

Mitsubishi will make a return to the Championship with a new car and driver line-up of Gilles Panizzi as number 1 driver and a selection of thre other drivers who will alternate as the number two driver on various rounds.

Both Skoda and Hyundai have withdrawn from the 2004 Championship.

In addition to the raft of driver changes that have taken place there has also been several calendar changes with events moving to more favourable dates, plus the inclusion of rounds in Mexico and Japan, making a 16 round championship.

The major changes to the championship have come about from changes proposed by the FIA on the sporting regulations.

These include the introduction of the 'Mille Piste' system that will see competitors make a reconnaissance pass of the stages on the morning prior to competing on the stages later that afternoon. This change has deleted the need for Gravel cars whose job it was to check the condition of the stages prior to competition.