Returning Loeb challenges Ogier at Monte Carlo Rally
MONACO - Sebastien Ogier faces a formidable challenge as he opens his bid for a third world title at the Monte Carlo Rally on Thursday with former star Sebastien Loeb coming out of retirement to compete in the season-opener.
Record nine-time world champion Loeb won in Monaco seven times before retiring in 2013, but Ogier, winner in the Principality last year, insisted his fellow Frenchman's presence does not worry him.
"Honestly if Seb Loeb is there or not ... he's just going to be another serious rival," said 31-year-old Ogier, who won both of his world titles after Loeb's retirement.
"He'll certainly be to the forefront, he's capable (of winning) but I just want to focus on myself.
"I don't necessarily see this race as a duel against him, you mustn't forget the others, on a rally like Monte Carlo where there are often surprises."
Hundreds of spectators braved the rain and freezing temperatures to cheer on the returning Loeb, who retired in 2013, as he led Wednesday's shakedown stage in Gap.
"It's not a return because I'm just doing one rally, it's a passage," explained the 40-year-old Citroen driver.
"I've come to enjoy myself, and to please the public, it's a little rally with Daniel (Elena, his copilot) to relive some good memories.
"If we manage to join in the battle it would be even better but there are a lot of factors which will be difficult to manage."
The outcome will depend on the weather which is very unpredictable in the southern Alps, as seen in every race since 1911.
Loeb finished ahead of British Citroen team-mate Kris Meeke in the shakedown, with Ogier third in a Volkswagen.
The shakedown results however do not count to Thursday's evening start with two stages from Monte Carlo's Place de Casino to Gap.
World governing body FIA's new rules require the championship leader to start first on the first two days of each rally, with the task falling to Ogier as the world champion.
This could prove tricky for the Frenchman as he will act as the sweeper if there is snowfall, while Loeb will start in 14th.
"The road conditions can change everything," said Loeb. "We'll have to take things as they come, frankly it's impossible to predict."
"I'm more relaxed at the start of this year because if things don't go as well (in Monaco and Sweden), I'll be better placed on the road in the following rallies and I'll have a less difficult task," he said.
"So I'm more relaxed for Monte Carlo because if I start the season well I'll suffer later. In truth I've the impression that I'm heading for a strange season. The motivation is still there, but it's different."