Monaco - Sebastien Loeb will be aiming for an unprecedented ninth World Rally Championship (WRC) title when the 2012 season kicks off on Wednesday with the return of the Monte Carlo Rally.
After three years on the Intercontinental Rally Challenge circuit, the Monte Carlo Rally is back in the WRC and set to provide a spectacle with seven world champions and five former winners of the race in the field.
Loeb heads the lineup in his Citroen DS3 and is the overwhelming favourite for the season's curtain-raiser, having recorded five victories in seven attempts in the principality, and the Frenchman was delighted to see the event return to the WRC.
"For me, it's a no-brainer - the Rallye Monte Carlo has to be in the World Championship," Loeb insisted.
"It is the world's most famous rally; you just can't have a world championship without it!
"It's also a rally where I have always done well," he added.
The Frenchman is not the only driver to have triumphed in Monte Carlo, however, with Francois Delecour, Sebastien Ogier, Mikko Hirvonen and Bryan Bouffier also having celebrated victories in the event.
New Citroen recruit Hirvonen, winner of the 2010 edition when it was part of the IRC circuit, admitted the unpredictable winter conditions that are a staple of the opening rally makes it one of the toughest on the calendar.
"Monte Carlo has such a long tradition and the championship has to start from Monte Carlo but I have a kind of love and hate relationship with the rally," Hirvonen said.
"I mean I love it when I’m not there but when you’re up in the mountains with the wrong tyres doing icy downhill with the slick tyre then I hate it. But it’s a real challenge and I’m very happy to start the season over there and really excited to be in the Citroen," the Finn, a new team-mate of Loeb, added.
The course includes 430kms of timed sections over 18 stages, with drivers departing from Valence on Wednesday and passing through the Ardeche, Haute-Loire, Vercors and Alpes-Maritimes regions before arriving in Monaco on Sunday.
The future of the sport was thrown into disarray when the International Automobile Federation (FIA) cancelled its contract with promoters North One Sport earlier in the month, but the Automobile Club de Monaco confirmed that Eurosport had agreed to step in and provide coverage for the season-opening event.
The 13-race season culminates on November 11 with the Rally of Spain.