The Monte Carlo Rally has always marked something of a natural start to the motorsport calendar year. And even in these days of high-profile 'winter series' like A1GP and GP2 Asia, which do not conform to the traditional racing timeframe, for me, the famous blast through the Alps will always be the starting point for the season.
Peugeot's Kris Meeke
This time I kicked off my year by actually being there, thanks to Peugeot UK, who were seeking to educate some of the sport's media on the Intercontinental Rally Challenge, (which the Monte is the first round of), having entered a Kronos-prepared 207 for former Junior World Rally Championship rally-winner and Colin McRae protege Kris Meeke.
At dinner, the night before the cars rolled off the start ramp on the road parallel to world's most famous starting grid, Meeke gave us an insight into the competitive mind of a modern rally driver, and told us about what he perceived to be his big chance. As you can read in this week's Autosport magazine, Meeke's deal with Peugeot UK represents the culmination of months of hard work behind the scenes to ensure he was the one they turned to in order to reinvigorate their brand – and secure his career path.
By any description, this is a dream shot for a young man looking to solidify a burgeoning reputation built on his performances at JWRC level.
And despite the understandable weight of expectation, and the knowledge that he must take this opportunity and make it his own, Meeke comes across as a confident and intelligent individual. There is a sense that he stands back a little, views life from a slightly broader perspective and keeps the challenges he faces within the scope of that vision.
The IRC, which autosport.com will follow throughout 2009, has built its reputation on close competition. The regulations equalise the power outputs of the cars to 270bhp, and call for normally-aspirated two-litre engines through drive across four-wheels (Super 2000). This level playing field has attracted several manufacturers, and it's close, very close.
Skoda, Fiat (Abarth), Peugeot, Honda, Volkswagen and Mitsubishi (Group N) will all have works presence at some point during the season – that's four more manufacturers than the World Rally Championship currently counts – and it means that at any event you can expect at least 10 victory contenders.
Kris Meeke was fastest on SS3
Meeke though, undoubtably one of Britain's biggest emerging talents, is unfazed by the level of the competition ahead of him, which in Monaco included WRC stars Sebastien Ogier, Freddy Loix, Stephane Sarrazin, Toni Gardemeister, former world champion Didier Auriol, as well as reigning IRC champion Nicolas Vouilloz and Fiat ace Giandomenico Basso. He was equally placid about the critical decisions he faced over the 12 hours prior to the start.
"I see people worrying about tyre choice," he said, highlighting perhaps the biggest performance differentiator during the course of the Monte. "But what's the point in that? When we get up in the morning, we'll know what the weather is going to do, and we'll know what tyres to use. Why worry about snow tonight, when it might be dry in the morning? I'll sleep fine."
Confident certainly, but also sure of his place in the world. A rally is an uncertain environment, full of obvious as well as surprising dangers, so it struck me, talking to Meeke, that the more level and considered your thought processes, the better placed you are to succeed in such a sport.
"I can't control the result, and I can't control the rally," said Meeke. "All I can do is put myself in the best place to adapt to the conditions I'm facing. The only thing I can control is the first corner of the first special stage."
As it turns out Meeke proved adept at gambling, and having started cautiously, his choice to run studded tyres on SS3 was the right one as he dominated the times in the snowy run from St-Jean en Royans to Col de Gaudissart.
He continued to establish his presence well on leg two as he got used to a new car and and a new level of competition. But on Friday one of those obvious dangers took him by surprise and Meeke crashed out of the rally. Running over slushy ice at a fast point on the first stage of leg three, he skidded off and rolled. He'd been running fourth overall, and had already witnessed Auriol, Vouilloz and the leader Juho Hanninen fall off the road over the past two days.
It's another lesson learned though, and another example of the intensity of the exciting IRC, which seems to increasingly remind you of rallying's glory days as recognisable names frequently shuffle up and down the order and the headlines constantly surprise. To me, that's how the sport should be.
Follow the Daytona 24 Hours on autosport.com © LAT
Of course, this weekend also sees that other great season opener, the Daytona 24 Hours, contested between the closely-matched Grand-Am machines. Again, autosport.com will keep you updated on all the action as it unfolds from the track by the beach in Florida, as Juan Pablo Montoya and Ganassi Racing aim for a hat-trick of wins in the event.
Elsewhere GP2 Asia and A1GP host their first races of the calendar year in Bahrain and Taupo respectively and once again, autosport.com is your first stop to find out what happened to who – indeed Kamui Kobayashi has already won the first race at BIC, despite Nico Hulkenberg being on pole position.
So, in many, many ways we are off and running. And now that we have seen most of the Formula One teams' solutions to the massive changes in the regulations being pushed through for 2009, we can look forward to watching the formbook develop over the coming weeks. There is something quite exciting about the uncertainty of a new season, a new era and the hope that it inevitably prospers.
Above all places, America can vouch for that sentiment this week, and as I travelled home from Lyon airport on Wednesday night, I took the opportunity to read the newspaper and catch up on Barack Obama-watch. One of the headlines read: "Where were you when America inaugurated its first black president?" For me, that will always be an easy one – Casino Square, Monte Carlo.