Welcome to Autosport's coverage of the Intercontinental Rally Challenge.
This is the third year of the IRC and, after a steady start, the Eurosport-backed series has got the rally world talking. Fired by the potential for cost-effective, trans-continental sport, the IRC will deliver three manufacturer-backed teams and plenty of privateers to rallies as diverse as the baking Safari Rally in Kenya and the Rally of Scotland, running in slightly chillier conditions to bring the season to an end in November.
Being backed by Eurosport, the IRC offers plenty of television coverage - starting with this week's Monte Carlo Rally. The opening round of the series will have more live coverage than ever before with cameras following the event right through what's sure to be a fascinating final night which includes two runs over the fearsome Col de Turini test.
Two of the events included in this year's IRC are regular rounds of the World Rally Championship. Since the implementation of the WRC's rotational policy for rallies, the IRC has become the sensible option for an event on its year away from WRC.
The absence of WRC regulations and stipulations has allowed the Monte Carlo Rally organiser, the Automobile Club de Monaco, to run a more traditional route for this week's event. Starting and finishing in Monaco, the event takes in the best roads from both the Alpes Maritimes and Ardeche regions.
The other regular WRC event in for some IRC action this year is Japan, towards the end of the season. In between now and then, the IRC drivers, along with autosport.com and Eurosport viewers, will take in some of the closest competition over some of the most diverse and challenging roads around.
Miguel Fuster, Abarth Grande Punto
The cars running in the IRC differ from the WRC in that the biggest class of WRC, the World Rally Cars, are not permitted in IRC. Super 2000 is the mainstay of this series, although Group N machinery from Mitsubishi has been known to insert the odd thorn in the side of the high-revving, sensational sounding Super 2000 motors.
Last year's champion Nicolas Vouilloz starts this year as favourite. He drives for the Peugeot Belgium team. His closest competition is likely to come from his own teammate, Freddy Loix.
Peugeot UK join the party with a factory team. The Union Flag-liveried 207 S2000 is the domain of Kris Meeke - a former protege of 1995 world champion Colin McRae.
Abarth, the competition side of Fiat, is big in IRC too. The Grande Punto is one of the quickest S2000 cars around and with three full-time drivers (Anton Alen, Giandomenico Basso and Luca Rossetti) the marque has all the makings of a spectacular season.
Skoda is the newest manufacturer to join the party. After a year of development, the Fabia S2000 has finally broken cover. Drivers Juho Hanninen and Jan Kopecky have both shown their speed in the WRC, but now have the chance to shine on the IRC's centre stage.
Top 10 drivers to look out for...
1 Anton Alen (Abarth Grande Punto)
The son of... The Alen name means everything in rallying. Watch out for this fast Finn.
2 Kris Meeke (Peugeot 207 S2000)
Ultra-rapid Northern Irishman. Finally got his big break with newly-formed Peugeot UK squad.
3 Nicolas Vouilloz (Peugeot 207 S2000)
Ten-time downhill mountain bike world champ who's just as quick on four wheels. Reigning IRC champion.
4 Giandomenico Basso (Abarth Grande Punto)
Former European Rally Champion. Pushed Vouilloz all the way last season, winning two rallies along the way.
5 Juho Hanninen (Skoda Fabia S2000)
First time as a factory driver. Came within an ace of winning the Production WRC last year. Expect him to be at his best on gravel.
Freddy Loix, Peugeot 207
6 Freddy Loix (Peugeot 207 S2000)
Won three rounds of the IRC last season. 'Fast Freddy' has a wealth of WRC experience to draw on in his second IRC season in the 207.
7 Luca Rossetti (Abarth Grande Punto)
Reigning European and Italian champion, reckons Sebastien Loeb is his inspiration. Switched from Peugeot to Abarth in the closed season.
8 Jan Kopecky (Skoda Fabia S2000)
One of the fastest privateers in the WRC has now stepped up to a full-time factory drive with Skoda. Completed much of the pre-season testing in the Fabia.
9 Franz Wittmann (Mitsubishi Lancer)
Ready to carry the fight to the S2000 cars, Wittmann will be the quickest of the drivers using regular Group N machinery.
10 Didier Auriol (Peugeot 207 S2000)
Former world champion, past his best in terms of outright speed, but he'll still be ready to show the youngsters a thing or two where experience counts.
2009 IRC calendar
1 January 21-24 Monte Carlo Rally (Monaco, asphalt) 2 March 5-7 Rally Internacional de Curitiba (Brazil, gravel) 3 April 3-4 Safari Rally (Kenya, gravel) 4 May 7-9 Sata Rally Acores (Portugal, gravel) 5 June 18-20 Ypres Westhoek Rally (Belgium, asphalt) 6 July 9-11 R Rally Russia (Russia, gravel) 7 July 30-August Rali Vinho Madeira (Portugal, asphalt) 8 August 21-23 Barum Rally Zlin (Czech Republic, asphalt) 9 September 10-12 Rallye Principe de Asturias (Spain, asphalt) 10 September 24-26 Rallye Sanremo (Italy, asphalt) 11 October 22-24 Rally Japan (Japan, gravel) 12 November 19-21 RAC MSA Rally of Scotland (United Kingdom, gravel)