Although five-time WRC champion Sebastien Loeb has turned his back on one of the events he has dominated in recent years following its enforced switch to the Intercontinental Rally Challenge, this month's 77th Monte Carlo Rally will not be short of big names.

Running for the first time as the opening round of the IRC when it gets underway on 20 January, the Monte has already attracted former World, European and national champions, including a former event winner and runner-up.

Although the full entry has yet to be announced, reigning IRC champion Nicolas Vouilloz will be aiming to defend his title from the very first round, but the Peugeot Belgium pilot faces several formidable challengers, not least because main rival Abarth will expand to a three-car line-up.

In addition to the regular IRC runners, however, the aura of the Monte has also enticed the likes of three-time event winner and former WRC champion Didier Auriol, Le Mans regular Stephane Sarrazin and WRC stalwart Toni Gardemeister to return to the Mediterranean this month.

Auriol, who won the Monte when it was part of the world championship in 1990, '92 and '93, is slated to drive a Peugeot 207 S2000 run by Italian team Grifone as he embarks on a second year of events in the IRC. The Frenchman contested a selected programme of events - including Portugal, Russia and Sanremo - with a Grifone Abarth Grande Punto last year, and admits that his love of the event played a big part in attracting him back.

"I'm going to be trying my best, but I have to be realistic and know that I am not going to start off by amongst the potential winners," he commented, "I'm not currently competing, I'm 50 years old and your motivation - as well as your perception of risk - is very different at that age.

"I still have my passion for rallying, but I'm here just to enjoy myself. Whilst I practise sport and look after myself, you cannot compare it with the preparation that you get from being in the car all the time. It's not logical that I should be able to compete with the top guys. But it doesn't mean that I won't be trying!"

Auriol will be one of the most experienced drivers in the field, having competed on the event 13 times previously, and hopes to put that to good use over stages that he enjoys.

"I know some of the stages, like St Jean en Royans, but that is going back several years so I hardly remember them now," he admitted, "Probably the roads I know best are the Turini stages, which are always very nice and a legend in our sport. For me, the most important factor will be the weather. I hope that it is either full snow or completely dry because, when you get mixed conditions you can have ice, water and mud - which make driving conditions very difficult. Then, of course, there is the question of tyre choice as well, which becomes even more complicated in mixed conditions."

The Frenchman has not yet tested the new Peugeot he will share with regular co-driver Denis Giraudet, but hopes to get behind the wheel next week during a one-day test in Italy.

"I think the first stage of the rally will be quite decisive for me," Auriol concluded, "I'm going to be pushing quite hard on that one, just to see where we are compared to everyone else. At the moment, I don't know what our real pace is in comparison with the young guys. If I see after that stage that I am not so far behind, then I will continue to push. But, if we're a long way behind, then we'll just calm down and drive our own rally. Whatever happens, I'm going to enjoy it!"

One of the oldest and most prestigious events in all of motorsport, the Monte Carlo Rally has always posed a huge challenge to the competitors, and this year's event will be no different, particularly with the return of its legendary night stages, with four sections scheduled to be held after dark, including two runs over the formidable Col de Turini. However, while 100 competitors will be allowed to take the start, only the top 60 will go through to the final Turini stages, marking another nod to tradition.

"We're fortunate to have an exceptional list of entries for the Monte Carlo Rally, whose name speaks for itself," 1978 event winner and IRC motorsport development manager Jean-Pierre Nicolas noted, "All the ingredients are in place for an absolutely classic encounter. It's going to be an exciting mixture between innovation and tradition, which encapsulates perfectly the values of the IRC."



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