One thing is certain at the start of this year's Intercontinental Rally Challenge: Kris Meeke is favourite. He has to be, but probably doesn't want to be. He's a defending champion with an awesome 2010 programme which could include every one of the 12 rallies.
As for the rest of the field, well, we don't actually know too much about who's doing what and when. The factory Skoda Fabias of Juho Hanninen and Jan Kopecky will certainly push Meeke all the way when they're out on the stages, but that's the frustration with this series: we don't know from one rally to the next who's going to be competing. The only thing we do know is that the main players are all going to be tackling at least seven rallies, given that they can count seven from the 12 rounds.
Meeke's Peugeot UK team has made its intentions plain and simple (and for that, we thank them): they will do every round until Cyprus. And if the Northern Irishman hasn't harnessed back-to-back titles by then, it's off to Limassol in November. As for the Skoda factory boys, there's talk of more rallies than last year for Juho Hanninen and Jan Kopecky, but no precise details.
Where the works Fabias start, they will undoubtedly push Meeke as hard as they did last season. Hanninen and Kopecky are both strong and competitive drivers, arguably with a stronger car underneath them, but neither could take on a 2009-specification Meeke who kept his head down, won rallies, scored points and lifted silverware. The transformation in Meeke's attitude and ability to avoid the undergrowth last year (with the exception of Monte Carlo) was one of the talking points. If AUTOSPORT's 2009 Rookie of the Year continues that through this season, he's going to be a hard man to beat.
But what about the car? Much has been made of the developments Skoda has brought to the Fabia S2000 - and there's an evolution model of the car coming in the middle of the season. Whether the Peugeot, a car which is getting slightly long in the tooth now, will have the staying power to keep pace with the Fabia E2 in the second half of the year remains to be seen.
Guy Wilks with his Skoda at Autosport International © LAT
One interesting addition to the IRC year will be Guy Wilks in a Skoda UK Motorsport team. Wilks contested a number of IRC rounds with Proton last season, so he knows the score with the series. He won the final round of last year's IRC, the Rally of Scotland, collecting the winner's trophy from his arch-rival Meeke when the Peugeot's sub-frame was found to be underweight at post-event scrutineering, even though the car itself was heavier than Wilks's Skoda.
No matter what these pair say, victory in this year's championship will be all the sweeter when they beat the other. Their careers have followed one path almost from the start, with both starting out in the British Rally Championship at the same time; in 2004 they both stepped up to the Junior World Rally Championship and now they will both go head-to-head in the IRC.
The British battle is going to add a fascinating dimension to the year ahead. And it's not just going to be between those two either as the IRC will be graced with one of the sport's most legendary names as Alister McRae will start a part-programme from the Rally d'Italia Sardinia with Proton in June.
McRae collected the Proton's best ever result when he finished second on the Rally of Scotland - his IRC debut in the car. The Scot, who has been absent from the rallying world for a couple of seasons, will be anxious to break the Malaysian firm's duck as soon as possible in the exciting Satria Neo S2000.
Missing from this year's entry list is the official Abarth squad. Undoubtedly, there will be a smattering of privately entered Grande Puntos on various rounds, but this will be the first IRC season the Turin firm has missed.
But will they really be missed? Probably not. Giandomenico Basso's incredible Madeira Rally win and Anton Alen's extraordinary efforts to wrestle 207/Fabia-beating pace out of the Punto aside, the Abarth effort last year wasn't really worthy of one of the most emotive and inspiring names in our sport.
Another team to can its IRC programme after a prolonged and successful period is Peugeot Belgium, who won the 2008 title with Nicolas Vouilloz and challenged regularly last season with both the Frenchman and his team-mate Freddy Loix.
Vouilloz has switched to a Fabia for the Monte Carlo and could contest further IRC rounds this season. We are unlikely to see Loix before his home event, the Ypres Rally in June, however. Kronos Racing, the team which runs Peugeots in the IRC, has confirmed a second car to the Meeke 207 for five rallies from Ypres onwards. Loix, along with Thierry Neuville and Melissa Debackere are the other potential candidates for the seat.
Bruno and Carlos Magalhaes in their Peugeot on Rallye Azores © LAT
Portuguese driver Bruno Magalhaes will also start seven or eight rallies in a Peugeot. Magalhaes came within a whisker of winning in Madeira last year and, with his decent programme confirmed, could be a dark horse in the title race. The same can be said for Franz Wittmann. After doing his bit to keep the Group N end up in a Mitsubishi last season, the Austrian has elected to switch to a Super 2000 car for the new year. He starts Monte Carlo and likely another six or seven rallies in a 207 in 2010.
The scrap between Group N and Super 2000 cars has never really featured in the IRC, but that could be about to change this season. Over the winter, the FIA has instigated regulation changes which allow Group N motors to run with 33 rather than 32-milimetre air restrictors on their turbochargers. The upshot of this is that overnight the more standard cars will boast an extra 20bhp.
Time will tell whether that's enough to give them the edge over their raucous, high-revving competitors. The good news for Subaru drivers (other than the extra 20bhp) is that the Japanese firm has registered for the IRC, meaning Impreza drivers are no longer persona non grata as far as the IRC is concerned. Also joining the party for the new year is M-Sport, to make sure Mikko Hirvonen makes a splash on Eurosport when the Finn wheels out the new Fiesta S2000 in Monte Carlo this week.
Besides the cars and the drivers, there are plenty of changes in the calendar, with more World Rally Championship rounds coming into the IRC fold for this season.
Argentina, Sardinia and Cyprus have all made the switch to IRC this season, while the Safari Rally and Rally Russia have both stepped down from the schedule.
Cyprus takes over from Scotland as the season finale, with the Rally of Scotland organisers hoping a move forward from November to October brings a drier two days in Perthshire and Stirlingshire - while the Cyprus organisers will be similarly hopeful that this year's IRC fight goes all the way to the wire.
We'll know more on that front in 10 months and 11 rallies.
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