Auriol and Sainz set for battle royal : RALLYING

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Didier Auriol, of France, opens the defence of his world title today in a Monte Carlo Classic given extra spice this year by snow covering the twisting mountain roads and controversial new regulations.

The opening event of the season begins with the drivers starting from five European cities to reach the principality for the first timed stage on Monday.

The line-up is similar to last year's race with Auriol, seeking his fourth win, teaming up with the three-times world champion, Juha Kankkunen of Finland, to launch a brand new Toyota Celica GT-Four.

Auriol's main rival should again be the former champion, Carlos Sainz of Spain, who won in Monte Carlo in 1991. A strong challenge can also be expected from Sainz's Subaru team-mate, Colin McRae of Scotland, who ended Britain's 18-year wait for a home winner by winning the RAC Rally at the end of last season.

Other contenders include the Frenchman, Francois Delecour, who won in Monte Carlo last year in his Ford Escort before suffering ankle and face injuries in a road accident.

One driver to watch in a season which will see the start of a new world championship for two-wheel drive cars will be Armin Schwarz. Sacked by Toyota two years ago following countless crashes, the fearless German returns to the team which helped him to his only world championship win so far, in 1991 in Spain.

New regulations will force the teams to field cars with less powerful engines and will reduce mechanical assistance and tyre changes.

The weather is likely to be a problem if the snow, which fell heavily in south-eastern France earlier this month, sticks to the roads, making them icy and treacherous.