The 2016 World Rally Championship season gets underway this week with the Monte Carlo Rally, after one of the most momentous off-seasons we’ve seen in years.

By far the biggest announcement was that Citroen has elected to sit out the year as it concentrates on developing its much-modified, 2017-spec DS 3 WRC. The French marque will still be represented, however, by the PH Sport-run Abu Dhabi Total team, with drivers Kris Meeke -who achieved a breakthrough win in 2015 in Argentina – and Stephane Lefebvre.

A further shock came from the M-Sport Ford team who decided to drop both its 2015 drivers, Ott Tanak and Elfyn Evans, in favour of ex-Citroen man Mads Ostberg and World Rally Car rookie Eric Camilli. Tanak has been picked up by the Drive DMACK team, while Evans will make occasional appearances in a third M-Sport car, alongside full campaigns in the WRC2 category and British Rally Championship.

Expectations are high for Hyundai, who introduce a brand-new i20 WRC machine after a strong 2015 where it missed out on second place in the Manufacturers’ Championship by just six points. The German-based squad’s winter has not been without controversy either, as it promoted veteran driver Dani Sordo to number one status, demoting Thierry Neuville whose performances last year were rather erratic. Quick Kiwi Hayden Paddon has been retained for the third car.

Against that back-drop, Volkswagen has been a pool of tranquility preparing its bid for a fourth Manufacturers’ title. The big story to watch will be whether Jari-Matti Latvala can consistently challenge teammate and three-time champion Sebastien Ogier for rally wins, after taking a run of first and second places during the second half of last season. Junior driver Andreas Mikkelsen will be hoping to make further progress, too, after taking the first win of his career in Spain last year. And the team could face its biggest challenge yet as head honcho Jost Capito departs in the spring to lead McLaren’s motorsport programme.

The schedule for the year has been extended, the WRC visiting China for the second time, 17 years after the first. And Rally GB has lost its traditional end-of-season slot, the championship finale instead switching to Australia, a decision that only seems to make sense to the people that made it.

But back to the Monte Carlo Rally, which kicks off on Thursday evening (21 January). The rally starts in Casino Square and heads north towards Gap for Friday’s stages in the Hautes Alpes. Saturday sees the crews making two passes through the 32 miles of Lardier et Valenca – Faye and the classic Sisteron stage on the way back to Monaco. Sunday’s stages in the Alpes Maritimes include the legendary Col de Turini. In total, the crews will tackle 233 miles of competition over 16 stages.

As ever on the Monte, the weather could be the main factor that decides who finishes well and who crashes out. Though the forecast is unseasonably warm and dry, black ice is an ever-present danger in the mountains.

Finally, good news for British fans as Channel 5 has secured the rights to show WRC highlights on free-to-air TV. Freeview sister channel Spike will also show preview programmes before each event. BT Sport will continue to show the full WRC TV package.

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By Only Motors