With the season-opening Monte Carlo Rally about to get under way, there are numerous question marks remaining for the 2007 edition of the gradually transforming World Rally Championship.
A recipe for a year-long demonstration run? Perhaps not. The new Citroen C4 WRC has yet to be seen in public, and Citroen's testing was limited by the late completion of the work on the new car. Will it be fast enough? And, more importantly, reliable enough, a hallmark of the Citroens in the past seasons?
"I haven't got as much experience with this car as I have with the Xsara," Loeb admits. "To my mind, we have done enough testing and there is reason to be optimistic but, as I often say, testing is one thing. The true litmus test will be actually competing. I know I will discover new things about the C4 on the event!"
Twice WRC champion Loeb still hasn't fully recovered from his accident, either, still complaining of some stiffness and pain, but his natural speed should ensure that even hobbled by the lingering effects of the injuries, he will still be blindingly fast. And Daniel Sordo? Without Loeb's leadership in the closing stages of the 2006 season, he seemed a little lost, but with Loeb back at the helm, the young Spaniard will be looking to provide effective support for an attack on the manufacturers' title.
"It'll be easier than last season," said Gronholm, a two-time WRC champion said. "The car showed its speed and reliability last season, and I am now comfortable with the way the team works."
The Ford Focus RS WRC is fast and reliable now, though. Even without a new-spec car to start the season, the Focus should give Gronholm the opportunity to fight Loeb for the overall victories. An evolution version of the Focus should then be available in time for Rally Finland.
Mikko Hirvonen will again team up with Gronholm, and with a win and eight podiums under his belt from the 2006 season, he should be in a strong position to challenge for an occasional win, and certainly to help secure a second manufacturers' title for Ford this year.
The third Manufacturer 1 team in this year's title fight will be Subaru, which is coming off one of the worst seasons in its recent history, with Petter Solberg and Chris Atkinson mired in sixth and tenth places in the championship, respectively. The team has switched from Pirelli to BFGoodrich tires, and will be hoping that this will be a key improvement.
"2006 was a difficult time for all of us, but I feel like we are able to get back on track now," the Norwegian veteran said. "It will be a tough challenge, because we do not exactly know where we are compared to our main rivals, but some things have been improved on the car that we will use in Monte Carlo, and that should make us a lot more competitive."
In the Manufacturer 2 category, OMV and Kronos have joined forces, and will be campaigning a proven -- and fast, at least in the hands of Loeb -- Citroen Kronos WRC, even if it is fundamentally a 2005-spec car. Stohl had a strong finish to the season, with 30 points in the last six events, and with a Xsara under him, he is expected to be mixing it up with at least the Subarus and the second Citroen and Ford drivers (Sordo and Hirvonen, respectively).
"One can't compare this year's car to the one from 2005," Stohl explained. "A lot of development has taken place since then. We will start off with last year's basic set-up for Sebastien Loeb and hope to come close to our perfect set-up."
Daniel Carlsson will join Stohl at OMV Kronos for at least six events as well.
Stobart M-Sport is making the biggest splash of all in the category, with three drivers in the impressinve 2006-spec Ford Focus RS WRC. While not quite the same as the works-specification Focus, the car was fast enough for Jari-Matti Latvala to be fighting Solberg for third place in his top-class WRC debut at the Rally of Great Britain.
Latvala will be joined in the M-Sport lineup by Matthew Wilson and Petter Solberg's older brother Henning, who had some good drives for OMV Peugeot in 2006. Solberg will be the elder statesman on the team at 34 years of age, providing guidance to Latvala (21) and Wilson (19).
"I am very excited and looking forward to this year and it really is a sense of my career moving forward," Henning Solberg said. "I'm looking forward to the rally, but I really want to try and settle in and get used to the car. It's my first rally with the new car and the new team and I think if things go well together, it will be very good for the future."
The new Munchi's Ford World Rally Team will also be running the 2006-spec Focus, but for Luis Perez Companc and Juan Pablo Raies.
2007 will also see the return of Mitsubishi to the fold of world rallying; Toni Gardemeister and Xavier Pons will be running 2005-spec Lancer WRC05s in at least the first three events. The two drivers have entered the cars personally subsequent to the demise of the Arab/Abu Dhabi/Emirates Mitsubishi World Rally Team, but it is unclear whether the mooted full season will materialize for Gardemeister and Mitsubishi.
Finally, Suzuki will be making its WRC debut at Rally Finland in the summer. The car, based on the production Suzuki SX4, will also run at Tour de Corse and Rally Great Britain, each with one car with a driver yet to be named.
But the names that have been announced -- Loeb, Gronholm, Solberg -- will be sure to be on everyone's lips as the cars take the start for the 75th Monte Carlo Rally this weekend.