Monte Carlo, Monaco - Sebastien Ogier says he is “well prepared and relaxed” as he begins his World Rally Championship title defence in Monte Carlo this weekend where Korean constructor Hyundai enter the WRC fray.
The fabled Monte Carlo Rally is the oldest rally in the world.
First captured by French pioneering aviator Henri Rougier in 1911, it may have lost some of its lustre over the decades, but it still holds a special place in the hearts of rally enthusiasts.
From the halcyon days of Paddy Hopkirk's win at the wheel of the iconic Mini Cooper S half a century ago the Rallye Monte Carlo's fortunes dipped to such an extent it disappeared from the WRC calendar altogether in 2009, returning in 2012 when it was won by Sebastien Loeb.
The nine-times champion won it again in 2013 before retiring, as Ogier went on to assert himself with nine rally wins on the way to his debut title.
Ogier knows what it takes to win in Monte Carlo, having won here when it was part of the second-tier IRC circuit on his debut season in 2009, and he is favourite to kick off 2014 on a winning note.
“Testing and preparations have been running at full throttle since November and we are well prepared to start the new season as defending champions,” he said.
“I know I have a winning car.”
Ogier, assessing his mood ahead of his title defence, added: “I'm not incapable of making a mistake, but I'm more relaxed than last year; in 2013 the Polo-R was making its competitive debut.
“I'm approaching the Monte Carlo rally with lots of respect and humility despite all the confidence generated from last season, it's always held in very tough conditions.”
Volkswagen motorsport director Jost Capito was equally bullish.
“It was thanks to our extraordinary team spirit that we achieved such great things in 2013. Bring on 2014!”
Volkswagen, Ford and Citroen have a new rival this season in the shape of Hyundai, with rising star Thierry Neuville and experienced Dani Sordi its drivers.
Neuville, second in last season's championship, spelled out the team's ambitions for Monte Carlo.
“Our aim is to finish the event and get some good experience and mileage to further develop our car.”
“We have a very good mix.”
Hyundai team chief Michel Nando added: “We have two very good drivers who have given the whole team a big boost.
“We all know that Thierry can achieve outstanding performance levels despite his youth, while Dani has a lot of experience in the WRC and at Rallye Monte-Carlo.”
Ogier's birthplace of Gap provides the backdrop for the first two days’ competition, before an overnight stop in Monaco and two runs over the legendary Col de Turini on Saturday's third and final day.
Ogier, having gone from hunter to hunted in terms of the title, is bracing himself for a tough championship defence,
“Our main goal is obviously to defend the title,” he conceded.” It is never easy to win a title, but successfully defending it is even more difficult.”