WRC preview: Can anyone catch Ogier in 2016?

With Rally Monte Carlo fast approaching, David Gruz takes a detailed look at the contenders and pretenders going into the 2016 World Rally Championship season.

Although Sebastien Loeb's departure promised to shake things up in the WRC, the fact is that nothing much has changed over the last three years.

Volkswagen, led by Sebastien Ogier, has picked up where the once-dominant Citroen team left off, winning 34 out of the 39 events over the last three seasons.

While the Frenchman has to go into the season as clear favourite for a fourth successive title, the question mark is whether VW can maintain the level of dominance it has enjoyed with only minor tweaks to the all-conquering Polo R in the final year of this current ruleset.

And with VW boss Jost Capito on his way to join the McLaren Formula 1 team, the upheaval at Hannover could provide an opportunity for the team's rivals to capitalise.

That said, Ogier's stiffest competition is likely to come with his own team, in particular from the fast-but-fragile Jari-Matti Latvala. The Finn's pace isn't in doubt, but a lack of consistency has always been his major weakness - although there were signs of this improving in the latter half of 2015.

VW's third driver Andreas Mikkelsen, on the other hand, only failed to make it to the podium four times last year, bagging a maiden win in Spain when Ogier sensationally crashed out of a comfortable lead in the power stage in Spain.

But the Norwegian was rarely able to fight with the other two VW drivers when things went right for them, and needs to find that extra bit of speed if he is to add to his win tally.

Hyundai threat

While Ogier is sure to have one eye on his teammates, as the year progresses his biggest threat may well come from a different team - for the first time since he secured his first title 2013.

That year, Thierry Neuville took the runner-up spot in the championship, and the Belgian could be well placed to replicate that performance equipped with a brand new Hyundai i20 WRC.

Based on the latest generation of Hyundai i20 road car, the changes the Korean manufacturer have made are not merely skin deep, with the new machine - which racked up some 5,000 miles in testing last year - boasting a brand new chassis and revised suspension as well as overhauled bodywork.

Having established himself as the clear lead Hyundai driver in 2014, Neuville suffered a significant drop in form in the second half of 2015, as he was demoted to the second-string Mobis squad, prompting speculation about his future with the team.

Nonetheless, Hyundai chose to stand by Neuville, and the team's trust in him seems to be as strong as ever, given he was nominated to score manufacturers' points in Monte Carlo and Sweden - with Dani Sordo and Hayden Paddon alternating in the other seat.

Long-time WRC participant Sordo did a respectable job last year, seemingly able to make it into the top six more often than not, and armed with the new i20, the Spaniard should have a shot at finally adding to the solitary win he scored for Citroen back in 2013.

But Hyundai's big revelation of 2015 was undoubtedly Paddon. The 28-year-old Kiwi took a fine fifth while replacing the injured Sordo at Rally Sweden, and was soon celebrating his first podium in Italy, beating Neuville more often than not for the rest of the season.

The great performance earned him a three-year contract, and, should Neuville continue to struggle, Paddon has the chance to become Hyundai's de facto team leader - even if expectations should be modest for the season-opener, as he never contested Monte Carlo before.

Citroen and Ford outsiders

VW and Hyundai are the season's only two true manufacturers, with Citroen limiting its 2016 programme to testing in order to focus on developing its new-generation WRC contender for 2017.

Still, the Citroen DS3 will not be completely absent, with long-time customer team PH Sport confirming its presence on selected rounds under the 'Abu Dhabi Total WRT' banner.

The team has confirmed Kris Meeke for the first two rounds of the season, the Ulsterman having recently signed a new three-year deal to remain at Citroen, but with the DS3 getting zero development in its final year of service, the odds of him adding to his breakthrough Argentina win last year are slim.

Meeke will be joined by last year's WRC2 Monte Carlo winner Stephane Lefebvre at the season opener, while 2015 ERC runner-up Craig Breen and Khalid Al-Qassimi will both make their first outings of the year in Sweden - although PH Sport has still yet to confirm its full programme.

M-Sport once again has a pair of Ford Fiesta RS machines entered for the full season, but an all-new driver line-up after replacing its talented but underperforming 2015 duo Ott Tanak and Elfyn Evans.

Mads Ostberg has rejoined the team after finding himself out of seat after Citroen's change of plan, and while the Norwegian tended to be solid if somewhat unspectacular during his tenure with the French marque, he can be at least be relied upon to maximise any points-scoring chances that come his way.

Alongside Ostberg for a full-season assault is WRC rookie Eric Camilli. The Frenchman showed plenty of promise in WRC2 last year, especially in Monaco, and showed adaptability as one if his main strengths, even if 2016 is likely to be little more than a learning season for the 28-year-old.

The opener will also feature a third M-Sport entry for Monaco specialist Bryan Bouffier, who is always a force to be reckoned with in the Principality.

The privateers

Dropped from M-Sport's primary line-up, Tanak will continue driving a Ford Fiesta RS WRC with the newly-formed DMACK World Rally Team, which starts the season as a one-car entry despite rumours linking Jari Ketomaa to a drive with the team.

DMACK will be eligible for manufacturers' points, as will fellow one-car Ford squad Yazeed Racing, led by its driver Yazeed Al-Rajhi. The Saudi will miss the season opener having just finished the Dakar Rally, but will be present in Sweden.

The 2015 season yielded little improvement from ex-F1 star Robert Kubica, who combined glimpses of potential with more than his fair share of crashes and technical issues. Although there were doubts over his return, the Pole will once again campaign a Fiesta with new team BRC, but his exact programme beyond the opening round remains unclear.

Despite rumours surrounding Lorenzo Bertelli joining M-Sport, the Italian will continue running a Fiesta under his own FWRT banner, while Henning Solberg - elder brother of 2003 WRC champion Petter - will be back to contest Rally Sweden with Adapta Motorsport in a Fiesta.

A late addition to the field is Eurolamp WRT's 42-year-old team owner Valeriy Gorban. The Ukrainian will compete in a Mini Cooper JCW, a car last used at WRC's top level in 2013, and is unlikely to have much say in the top positions.

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About this article
Series WRC
Event Rally Monte Carlo
Drivers Kris Meeke , Jari-Matti Latvala , Dani Sordo , Andreas Mikkelsen , Sébastien Ogier , Hayden Paddon , Mads Ostberg , Thierry Neuville
Teams Volkswagen Motorsport , Citroën World Rally Team , Hyundai Motorsport , M-Sport
Article type Preview