Talking points ahead of the start of the WRC season

Kalle Rovanpera launches his world title defence in the iconic season-opening Monte Carlo Rally on Thursday night.

AFP Sport looks at five issues to watch out for as the season unfolds:

- The boy king -

When Rovanpera clinched last season's title in New Zealand the day after his 22nd birthday, he became the youngest champion by five years, breaking the record set by Briton Colin McRae, who was 27 when he won in 1995.

The question is whether anyone in the tiny elite class can challenge the Finn and his Toyota team.

Rovanpera is only the fourth champion since 2004. Nine-time winner Sebastien Loeb is not entered this year -- at least not yet. Eight-time champion Sebastien Ogier will race part-time. That leaves Ott Tanak and Rovanpera, with one each, as the only contenders who have won the title.

Last season, the young Finn finished fourth in Monte Carlo, won five of the next six races to build a huge lead and faded in the second half of the season.

A fast start would help. While Formula One and MotoGP are adding races, rallying, which once had 16 events remains stuck on 13 - the three additions this year only replace lost events.

Monte Carlo, Rovanpera told the Toyota website "usually makes for a bit of a tricky and nervous start to the season.

"I know that we should have everything in the right direction."

- Winter sport -

Rallying is a sport raced on shifting sands, spraying gravel or even tarmac, as it challenges drivers with a variety of surfaces.

Traditionally that includes ice and snow in the hills behind Monte Carlo and then in the frozen forests of Sweden, where the WRC makes its second stop in February.

But, like other winter sports, rallying is facing a snow shortfall.

Last year, only the highest of Monte Carlo's mountain roads were dusted in white.

Rally Sweden shifted north after the 2020 race was curtailed because of a lack of snow in its traditional base of Varmland.

The forecast for Monte Carlo for the weekend is depressingly mild and sunny.

- Musical seats -

There are only three teams in the elite Rally 1 hybrid category.

For each race, a team can nominate three drivers to potentially score manufacturers' points -- and then count the best two finishers.

Toyota has still entered four cars in Monte Carlo to give Ogier a drive.

Hyundai has entered three, led by perennial runner-up Thierry Neuville with ambitious Finn Esapekka Lappi, who spent last year with Toyota where he only raced when Ogier did not want to, as number two. Lappi's arrival means Craig Breen, who signed from Ford, has become a part-timer and won't start in Monte Carlo.

Tanak has moved to Ford, where he is learning about a new car. Ford has sold its third car to 58-year-old Greek 'privateer' Jourdan Serderidis.

- Part-timers -

At 39, Ogier is picking his spots. Last season he raced in six of the 13 rallies, winning in Spain.

Loeb, who at 48 has just won seven stages and finished second in the Dakar Rally is not entered in Monte Carlo, one of his four races last year and his only victory.

"We would still like to have him on some events," Malcolm Wilson of M-Sport Ford told Motorsport.com.

"I did talk to Seb in Dakar but I didn't talk about WRC to be honest, he had other things on his mind."

- Crowded undercard -

At Monte Carlo, there are 10 cars in the elite Rally 1 category but 41 in Rally 2, which has not yet switched to hybrid.

That means more seats for drivers who were part-timers last season or have lost their drives in the top class.

After Gus Greensmith signed for Skoda, he told the Dirtfish website he was surprised by the number of social-media comments "saying that people are far more interested in WRC2 next year because of the amount of competition and the level of it than they are in WRC, which I suppose maybe I've been a bit blindsided too because being in WRC you'd think that's the pinnacle."

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