World champion Sebastien Loeb won the 2007 Rally Ireland
Five-time world rally champion Sebastien Loeb begins the defence of his title at Rally Ireland which starts in county Fermanagh on Thursday night.
The ceremonial opening in Enniskillen on Thursday will be followed by the start of competitive action in Glenboy, county Leitrim early on Friday morning.
Loeb, aiming for a sixth successive title, will again be the man to beat.
His main rivals will be his Citroen team-mate Daniel Sordo and Ford duo Mikko Hirvonen and Jari-Matti Latvala.
Ford are the sole remaining major rival to the Citroen team after the withdrawals of Japanese manufacturers Subaru and Suzuki because of the current world financial crisis.
Other changes to this year's championship include the staging of the opener in Ireland, as opposed to Monte Carlo, which has been the traditional curtain-raiser since 1973.
In addition, this year's WRC has 12 races as opposed to last season's 15 and the first four events of 2009, Ireland, Norway, Cyprus and Portugal, did not even feature on the 2008 schedule.
Despite the slimmed-down campaign and entry list, Loeb expects 2009 to be "very competitive".
"It's not like we're going into the unknown. We know these courses because we raced on them in 2007," said Loeb.
"The calendar changes but the goal remains the same: a sixth title."
Loeb showed he could handle the tricky Irish conditions when he triumphed at the inaugural Rally Ireland WRC event in November 2007.
Marcus Gronholm crashed out on the opening morning of the 2007 which enabled Loeb to take firm control of the event.
However, this year's test is likely to prove even more challenging as bad weather is forecast, which will make the various tarmac surfaces even more difficult to gauge.
One other potentially significant change is that, after the wet and slippery asphalt of Ireland, Catalonia will be the only other rally raced entirely on the same, hard surface.
Tarmac surfaces are Loeb's favoured medium, so the more varied terrain throughout the campaign could give hope to Ford's Finnish pair Hirvonen and Latvala.
"I'm confident because I learned a lot in 2008 and that will definitely help me," said Hirvonen, 28, who finished runner-up in 2008 after three victories and 15 points finishes.
"There are only 12 rallies so it'll be important to pick up points at each stage. You'll certainly have to avoid picking up zero (points), with so few rallies to recover."
The starting line-up in Ireland will also be notable for a number of high-profile absentees, among them 2003 champion Petter Solberg, a driver with Subaru last year.
Away from the manufacturer teams, Henning Solberg, Umo Aava and Matthew Wilson will run under the Stobart banner.
Khalid Al Qassimi will have another WRC campaign in BP Ford Focus while Chris Atkinson and Sebastian Ogier will compete in the Citreon C4 WRC.
The McHale brothers, Austin, Gareth and Aaron are expected to be the main Irish challengers in their Ford Focuses.
Outside the WRC class 43 additional competitors have also entered Rally Ireland 2009.
These include 2007 junior WRC rookie of the year Donegalman Shaun Gallagher in a Mitsubishi Evo 9.
The event will see WRC action in seven Irish counties.
In addition to county Fermanagh, action will take place in Cavan, Leitrim, Tyrone, Sligo, Donegal and Roscommon.
The Service Park will be based in Sligo IT, while Rally HQ will be in the Clarion Hotel in Sligo town.