For the first time since 2004, the World Rally Championship, which celebrates its 50th anniversary by introducing hybrid cars, will have neither of the great French Sebastiens fighting for the title.
The season that opens in Monte Carlo this week will be different.
For 17 of the last 18 seasons, the WRC champion has been won by either Sebastien Loeb, with nine titles straight from 2004 to 2012, or his protege Sebastien Ogier with eight titles in nine years.
The only non-French, non-Sebastien to triumph in that time was the Estonian Ott Tanak in 2019 when Ogier had a disappointing return to Toyota and could only finish third.
Both Sebastiens will race in 2022, including the opener in Monte Carlo, but not for the full season, leaving the title open.
“I’m at the beginning of a different stage in my career, and as I’m not taking part in the full championship the feeling is a little bit different to usual for me at this time of the year,” said 38-year-old Ogier.
Even though Ogier is only racing part time he promises he will not make it easy for those who want his crown.
“I’m still a competitor and I still want to win, so I will be giving my best to perform,” he said.
The Frenchman will have a new co-driver this season in Benjamin Veillas, who replaces Julien Ingrassia, retired after sitting by Ogier’s side since 2005
The season of 13 rounds on four continents marks a step into the unknown for the teams as they switch to hybrid cars.
The cars, WRC said, will be “plug-in hybrid-powered” and use “100 per cent fossil-free fuel and sustainable energy supplies”.
International automobile federation President Mohammed Ben Sulayem, a former WRC competitor himself, called it “a very proud and significant moment”.
The chassis specifications have also been changed so cars must be built round an “upgraded safety cell”.
The destination of the title may depend less on the drivers this year and more on how quickly the teams can bed in their cars.
“Rallying is entering a very new era and it’s a very exciting moment,” said Toyota’s team principal Jari-Matti Latvala
“There are a lot of question marks and Rally Monte-Carlo will be giving us some of the answers.
“As a team we have been working very hard to be ready, but nobody can know how the different cars compare against each other until we get to the first rally.”
Once again the elite competition has teams from three manufacturers: reigning champions Toyota Gazoo Racing, Hyundai Motorsport and M-Sport Ford.
The three leading contenders for the driver’s title would appear to be Tanak, his Hyundai teammate – and serial runner-up – Belgian Thierry Neuville, and Toyota’s Welsh hope Elfyn Evans, who took Ogier to the last race in the last two seasons. Irishman Craig Breen will lead M-Sport with Loeb making cameos.
The absence of Ogier will not make the contest any easier said Neuville, second in the title race in 2013, 2016, 2017, 2018 and 2019.
“Ogier going doesn’t change anything,” Neuville told the Dirtfish rallying web site.
“If it’s not Ogier, it will be Elfyn or whoever or Tanak. The challenge remains the same.
“It was pretty close between Elfyn and Ogier [last season] and it was very close the year before as well. We will not lose any animation of the championship with or without Ogier.”
Jan 20-23 – Monte Carlo
Feb 24-27 – Sweden
April 21-24 – Croatia
May 19-22 – Portugal
June 2-5 – Sardinia
June 23-26 – Safari Rally, Kenya
July 14-17 – Estonia
August 4-7 – Finland
August 18-21 – TBC
September 8-11 – Acropolis Rally, Greece
September 29-October 2 – New Zealand
October 20-23 – Catalunya
November 10-13 – Japan