The 2015 World Rally Championship season gets underway on Thursday, as the crews pitch up in the south of France for the Monte Carlo Rally.

The ceremonial start takes place outside the Monte Carlo casino on Thursday evening and the crews will run two stages in darkness as they head north to Gap. Two loops of three stages make up Friday’s action around Gap, then the field heads back to Monaco for Saturday and Sunday, taking in the fearsome Sisteron and Col de Turini stages along the way.

The conditions are notoriously tricky. Long sections of bone dry tarmac can turn to sheet ice without warning – the drivers will have to pay attention to avoid throwing their car off the road. Fortunately there’s no snow in the weather forecast, but the temperatures will be frigid.

So, who will be in the running for the win? All eyes will be on returning nine-time champion Sebastien Loeb, in a one-off appearance at the wheel of a DS 3 WRC. But having not competed at the top level for over a year, he faces a battle to get on terms with the dominant Volkswagens.

Reigning champion Sebastien Ogier won the Monte last year and will be keen to start his title defence with a victory. But fellow Polo R WRC driver Jari-Matti Latvala will be trying equally hard to come out of his teammate’s shadow.

Latvala ran Ogier close last year, beating him four times and keeping the title fight alive until the final round. He finally got his first win on Tarmac in France as well, so another would be welcome.

Hyundai had a fantastic season as it returned to the WRC in 2014. Its win in Germany broke the VW hegemony, something neither Ford or Citroen managed to do. Admittedly, that win came after Ogier, Latvala and Citroen’s Kris Meeke crashed out of the lead. But the i20 WRC showed good, consistent speed. It actually set some eye-catching times in the first few stages in Monte Carlo last year, before both cars went off the road. Germany winner Dani Sordo and Thierry Neuville remain with the team for this year.

Speaking of Ford and Citroen, take a guess how long it is since they last won a rally. Nope, you’re wrong. Citroen, a team with nine Drivers’ and eight Manufacturers’ titles to its credit, hasn’t won in 16 months. Ford, former back-t0-back Manufacturers’ champions, haven’t been on the top step of the podium in nearly three years. Citroen’s line-up of Kris Meeke and Mads Ostberg is unchanged, while Ott Tanak joins Elfyn Evans at Ford.

Elsewhere, look out for VW’s third driver, Andreas Mikkelesen, 2014’s leading privateer Martin Prokop and the ever-spectacular Robert Kubica. New boys Bryan Bouffier and Sebastien Chardonnet will be out to show what they can do in top-class cars, as well. And keep an eye out for living legend Francois Delecour, who could set some extremely quick times in his RGT-class Porsche 911.

The Monte Carlo Rally runs from Thursday to Sunday (22-25 January). For more information click here.