For the first time since its inception in 2005, the World Touring Car Championship will begin with a new driver carrying the #1 plate on his door. Andy Priaulx and BMW's run of four consecutive titles (three world and one European) was finally broken by Yvan Muller and SEAT last year.
Not that he's greedy, but make no mistake, the Channel Islander wants 'his' title back.
Both BMW and SEAT return with no major shake-ups in their driver rosters this season, and with essentially the same cars they raced last year, so there should be no great surprises in the form guide. You can expect Priaulx and Muller to lead their respective camps, with Gabriele Tarquini and Augusto Farfus in the hunt if they can cut out the mistakes that hindered their campaigns in 2008.
Although the cars and drivers remain the same, a re-jig of the technical regulations could alter the balance between all the manufacturers.
SEAT's turbo diesels have been pegged back a touch by a reduction of their boost pressure and, predictably, their drivers believe it is too much and that they will find it tough to match the BMWs.
Jordi Gene testing the SEAT Leon in Valencia © XPB
But the Leon TDi is still a relatively new car, with significant performance gains still possible through development. The car is at the start of its WTCC life and will only get quicker, whereas BMW's super-successful but aging 320si has been through several development cycles and is now limited to minimal refinements and the odd new part.
Over the past two seasons, Chevrolet's much-improved Lacetti has been a match for SEAT and BMW on its day. Alain Menu won more races than anyone else in 2007 and Rob Huff finished third in the championship last season. But now the car has been replaced this year by the all-new Cruze.
A much-anticipated clean slate for Ray Mallock Ltd, the Cruze is by all accounts a more drivable and better handling car than the Lacetti. But its wider frame and extra weight sacrifice performance in other areas, so the team will be working hard to claw back the lost straight-line speed to continue their push for a maiden championship.
Chevy's three-car team will struggle to compete against their rival five-car squads in the manufacturers' championship, but both Alain Menu and Rob Huff will fancy their chances of turning regular race-winning form into a title assault.
As with many series this year, the WTCC also has a raft of regulation changes set to revamp the racing. The highly-criticised success ballast system has been replaced with compensation weight, which penalises each model of car across the board rather than handicapping the most successful drivers. The move will stop the best drivers in each team from being slowed in relation to their teammates who are driving exactly the same car.
This year's calendar takes a greater slant towards street circuits with the addition of a new street race in Morocco and a return to Porto.
The Marrakech street race will take the world championship into Africa for the first time and, though the circuit itself is still far from finished, the race event is only eight weeks away.
It will be one more example of a high-speed, high-thrill street track where the driver who is bravest between the walls without making a costly error will come out on top. Porto offers much the same challenge. This brings the number of street tracks in the championship to four, so the drivers' abilities on city streets will be a key factor to success in 2009.
So Muller and Priaulx start as the favourites in the SEAT and BMW camps, while Menu and Huff will scrap for supremacy at Chevrolet. Tarquini and Farfus certainly have the raw speed to be in contention, while the experience among the likes of Jorg Muller and Rickard Rydell will no doubt ensure another wide open title race for most of the season.
Independents Champion Sergio Hernandez steps up to a works BMW © XPB
Jordi Gene and Tiago Monteiro at SEAT, Alex Zanardi at BMW and Nicola Larini at Chevrolet will have to up their individual games to enter the fray, and the encouraging Sergio Hernandez starts with a blank slate as the only new driver on a works roster - though his performances on route to the Independents' title last year impressed many.
The very structure of the World Touring Car Championship invites a NASCAR-style end of season race for the title.
The close points system and weight penalties for the most successful cars are designed to keep things open, so the likelihood is that eight months of frantic door-to-door action will conclude with a multi-driver showdown for the crown on the streets of Macau in November.
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