By Alan Baldwin
(Reuters) - Robert Kubica faces the biggest challenge of his rally career in Monte Carlo this weekend when the former Formula One driver makes an icy start to his first full season in the world championship.
The Pole, who won the European Championship opener in Austria this month after clinching the second tier WRC2 title in 2013, will be closely watched as a man whose fame extends well beyond the world of rallying.
"This year will be a big challenge, participating in the WRC with the top drivers and the new rallies coming," said the former Renault F1 driver, who was a grand prix winner with BMW-Sauber in 2008.
He twice stood on the Monaco Formula One podium, racing around the principality's tight and twisty streets to finish second with BMW-Sauber in 2008 and third with Renault in 2010.
But the rally, on winding Alpine roads with sheer drops to the side and sheets of black ice to beware, is a very different affair. Cars use slick and studded tires with some stages run in the dark.
"I have never been in Monte Carlo (the rally) apart from the recce in 2010 but I didn't start the rally. I haven't driven on snow," he said.
On Ferrari's radar, Kubica's Formula One career came to an abrupt halt when he crashed and suffered near-fatal hand and wrist injuries in a minor rally in Italy in 2011 and underwent extensive surgery.
Since then he has rebuilt his career with a new focus on rallying, always his passion, and will be driving an M-Sport prepared Ford with a reconfigured gearshift and handbrake mechanism because of the limited strength in his right hand.
The British-based team have been highly impressed by the 29-year-old's commitment.
"Some of the times he was doing in WRC2, nobody has got that close to World Rally Car pace in a regional car before," team boss Malcolm Wilson said at the Autosport International show last week.
"In the second half of the season with the Tarmac events he's already done, he's going to be really strong."
Kubica, who won the governing FIA's inaugural Personality of the Year award in December in a vote of media covering all the world championships, will not be alone in the limelight.
There are plenty of changes in a 13-race championship that is eager to move on from the days when Sebastien Loeb racked up a record nine titles in succession before taking his driving skills to the World Touring Car Championship.
Another French Sebastien is defending the title, Sebastien Ogier with Volkswagen, but the new Hyundai team are making their competitive debut with rising Belgian star Thierry Neuville and experienced Spaniard Dani Sordo.
Citroen have shaken up their line-up, with Norwegian Mads Ostberg partnering Britain's Kris Meeke.
Finland's Mikko Hirvonen, a 15 times rally winner, has returned to M-Sport Ford from Citroen after a disappointing 2013 season.
"I think VW will be the team to beat," he said. "Ogier and Jari-Matti (Latvala) will be strong as always."
(Editing by John O'Brien)